Jim Hall’s work on coastal flood risk wins Lloyd’s Science of Risk Prize

A paper co-authored by the Director of the Environmental Change Institute, Professor Jim Hall, has been awarded the Lloyd’s Science of Risk Prize in the Climate Change category at a ceremony held at Lloyds of London on 29 November 2012.

The research, led by Professor Richard Dawson at Newcastle University, revealed that in some cases, allowing natural cliff erosion, rather than maintaining physical defenses could reduce the impact of flooding in neighbouring low-lying land.

Populations in coastal areas face considerable threats from sea level rise and increases in the frequency and intensity of storms associated with climate change. Urbanisation and expanding economic activity in these areas only add to the scale of risk.

This award-winning study, entitled ‘Integrated analysis of risks of coastal flooding and cliff erosion under scenarios of long term change’ and published in the journal Climatic Change, used an integrated assessment methodology to explore the trade-offs between flooding and coastal erosion risks on the Norfolk coast.

Professor Hall and colleagues analysed the complex interactions between climatic and socio-economic change and coastal management policy, and for the first time quantified in economic terms, their impact on both flood risk and coastal erosion.

“By understanding some of the interconnected processes we start to appreciate that flood protection is not just about building the biggest dyke possible,” said Professor Richard Dawson, speaking to the Lloyd’s Science of Risk team. “There are other ways of working more subtly with nature and natural processes rather than trying to tackle nature head on and fighting it with a wall.”

Read more about the winners.


Dawson, R.J., Dickson, M.E., Nicholls, R.J., Hall, J.W., Walkden, M.J.A., Stansby, P., Mokrech, M., Richards, J., Zhou, J., Milligan, J., Jordan, A., Pearson, S., Rees, J., Bates, P., Koukoulas, S. and Watkinson, A. (2009) Integrated analysis of risks of coastal flooding and cliff erosion under scenarios of long term changeClimatic Change, 95(1-2): 249-288.

UNESCO Chair says extraction, more than climate change, is causing rivers to run dry

As global temperature rises, it is predicted that river flow regimes will change, affecting the lives of billions of people. Some countries have already seen a sharp decline in water availability in recent decades. Though it may be tempting to blame climate change, high levels of water extraction may more accurately explain why rivers are running dry, according to Professor Quentin Grafton.

In a guest lecture at Oxford University on 29 October, Professor Quentin Grafton explored reasons behind reduced river flows in four river systems. The research has recently been published in the journal Nature Climate Change. Grafton is the UNESCO Chair in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance and Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment & Policy at the Australian National University.

Grafton’s research focuses on river basins at latitudes where climate change is predicted to exacerbate drying trends. He presented insights from four river systems – Australia’s Murray-Darling, North-America’s Colorado, Southern Africa’s Orange-Senqu and China’s Yellow River – and compared the impacts of water extractions and projected climate change on river flows in these basins.

Historic records show a dramatic decrease in flows in the four rivers. Over the past five years, the median outflow of each river, as a proportion of its modelled natural flow is: 0% for the Colorado, 41% for the Yellow, 12% for the Murray-Darling and 33% for the Orange-Senqu. The Murray-Darling river now stops flowing 40% of the time, compared to just one per cent in the past.

But the science shows that there has not been any long-term decline in rainfall in these areas. Instead, streamflows are declining due to excessive water extractions to meet escalating demand, and therefore poor water governance is to blame.

Bad planning rather than climate change then may underlie the current crisis in the Murray-Darling basin, suggested Grafton. Irrigation is practiced on only two per cent of its area, but accounts for a massive 90% of water extracted from the system. The critical challenge is how to balance water use for irrigation with maintaining flows to keep the river ecosystem healthy.

But these findings are encouraging, Grafton said. By setting up policies and frameworks for better water governance, rehabilitation of these rivers is possible. For example, the Murray-Darling basin is home to the world’s largest water market and this has facilitated the reallocation of water for environmental flows. Crises can catalyse water reform, as long as good evidence is available to support decision making.

By Emma Weisbord, MSc Water Science, Policy and Management

Download Quentin Grafton’s presentation slides

Oxford water alumna features in Financial Times magazine

Kelsey Leonard, who last month received an MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management, featured in the Financial Times Magazine on 24 November 2012.

In September Kelsey became the first Native American woman to be awarded a degree from Oxford Unviersity. She is an enrolled member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation of Southampton, New York.

A photo of Kelsey simling in her graduating gown proudly clutching her mortar board was published in the Financial Times magazine. It appeared alongside an interview with Uganda’s first female university graduate, Sarah Ntiro, who also studied at Oxford University in the 1950s.

In an interview with the Oxford Student Online, Kelsey called her time at Oxford “a unique experience” where she enjoyed “meeting graduate students from around the world and being taught by a faculty at the cutting edge of research in environmental science”.

The MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management attracts a diverse range of UK and international students each year. The current 2012/2013 group includes 27 students from 17 countries.

Award-winning programme uses carbon credits to deliver safe water in Kenya

In 2011, nearly 900,000 water filters were distributed to households in Western Kenya, promising access to safe drinking water for 4.5 million people. Oxford University is leading research to evaluate the programme’s impact on diarrhoea, dysentery and dehydration among children under five and people living with HIV.

LifeStraw® Carbon for Water is an innovative public health programme which distributes LifeStraw Family water filters to households in Western Kenya, enabling citizens to safely treat water in their own home.

The ten-year programme is implemented by the private company Vestergaard Frandsen in partnership with the Kenyan Government. It is one of the largest water treatment programmes realised without public-sector funding, and the first ever to be supported by carbon financing.

By using LifeStraw filters, families no longer need to purify their water through boiling, which means less firewood is burned as fuel. Vestergaard Frandsen claims carbon credits for the greenhouse gas emissions saved, which can then be sold and the revenue used to cover programme costs.

Crucially, carbon credits can only be obtained once it is shown that the filters are being regularly used. The certification methodology was designed by the Oxford-based organisation ClimateCare, and ensures that the programme delivers real and long-lasting sustainable development benefits. This results-driven system incentivises important investments in health education and robust monitoring systems.

The programme was chosen by the United Nations Climate Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as one of their landmark ‘lighthouse activities’ which help developing countries to curb their greenhouse gas emissions or adapt to climate change. It will be showcased at the COP18 Climate Change Conference in Doha, Qatar, at the end of November.

It is expected that the use of LifeStraw, alongside the provision of health and hygiene education, will significantly reduce the risk of contamination and illness. Dr John Haskew, an Academic Clinic Fellow at Oxford University’s Department for Public Health, is leading the health impact evaluation, which makes use of cutting-edge mobile phone technology and electronic medical records.

The health impact studies focus on populations most vulnerable to water-borne diseases. The Oxford-led team is evaluating the impact of the programme on diarrhoea and dehydration among children under five years old. They will also establish whether the use of LifeStraw can reduce rates of diarrhoea and infection among people with HIV, and even delay the development of the HIV disease itself.

Watch a video about the LifeStraw Carbon for Water programme

A new owner of a LifeStraw Family water filter in Western Province, Kenya. Photo: Vestergaard Frandsen

Mobile money and water services in East Africa

The unprecedented growth in Africa’s mobile communications sector offers new opportunities to address the continent’s persistent water service challenges, claims a new article published in Water International, a collaboration between past and current students at the School of Geography and the Environment.

The article is co-authored by two current DPhil students, Tim Foster and Aaron Krolikowski, a current student of the MSc Water Science, Policy and Management, Cliff Nyaga, and a former MSc student, Ilana Cohen. The research stems from Oxford University’s thriving mobile/water for development (mw4d) initiative.

The concept of mobile money is simple – money can be transferred between electronic accounts and the payment system can be easily accessed using a standard mobile phone.

A number of water service providers in Africa have started offering their customers mobile money as a payment option. This alluring marriage between water services and mobile technology offers many potential benefits.

For customers, mobile money provides an easy, fast and convenient payment method, particularly for the millions of people without a bank account or a branch nearby. For water utilities, the direct electronic transfer of money should reduce transaction costs and improve their revenue collection; savings which could then be channelled into extending coverage and improving the quality of services.

This could go some way towards addressing the considerable challenges faced by Africa’s water service sector. Service providers are commonly caught in a downward spiral of deteriorating finances, infrastructure, and operational performance. In urban areas, the expansion of service coverage is failing to keep apace with population growth, meaning that the number of urban Africans without access to a safe water supply is actually increasing.

However, there is very little evidence to determine whether the alleged benefits of mobile water payments are being seen. The new research by Oxford University investigates the impacts of mobile water payments in East Africa and explores customer behaviour and barriers to uptake.

The study shows that uptake of mobile water payments is surprisingly low.  In Dar es Salaam, a free mobile payment option has failed to attract more than 1% of customers. There are a number of reasons for its limited success, including low customer awareness, lack of utility receipts for proof of payment, and high transaction tariffs charged by mobile network operators then passed on to customers.

However, one success story shines. In the community of Kiamumbi in Kenya, a remarkable 80% of customers opt to pay their water bills with mobile money. The research confirms that these customers make considerable savings of time and money, and are also more likely to pay their bills on time.

Fortunately, the common barriers to wider uptake of mobile water payments can be tackled by the water service providers themselves. Once behavioural and operational constraints are overcome, the real test will be whether the savings made through the use of this payment tool are translated into improved access to and sustainability of water services.


Foster, T., Hope, R., Thomas, M., Cohen, I., Krolikowski, A. and Nyaga, C. (2012) Impacts and implications of mobile water payments in East Africa. Water International. DOI:10.1080/02508060.2012.738409

DFID’s challenges and opportunities for delivering water security in a post-MDG world

As the Millennium Development Goals come to a close in 2015, the international development community finds itself at a transition point. As they evaluate the progress made and redefine the targets ahead, decision-makers have the exciting and daunting task of shaping global policy for the coming generations.

This blog is based on Jean-Paul Penrose’s talk in Oxford on 30 October, part of the Water Security, Growth and Development seminar series. As the Senior Water Resources Adviser at DFID, he underscored the role the UK Government will play at this turning point. With an aid budget of £7.7 billion and £112 million bilateral water spending last year, DFID is a potent stakeholder in these discussions. As all eyes turn to the post-2015 framework, Penrose highlighted the challenges posed and opportunities available for delivering global water security.

Penrose emphasised the crucial need to build on the weaknesses of the MDGs to define the future of water resources management. For example, a greater focus on energy and transport could allow for the integration of these issues and emphasise water as a driver of growth and human development.

In particular, he pointed out the importance of the water security paradigm to frame water projects around poverty alleviation and sustainability, two agendas attractive to the international community. The challenge lies in ensuring that poverty goals resonate with developed countries, and sustainability remains a focus in developing nations.

From the perspective of DFID, the water security paradigm provides traction in negotiating support from government officials. Increasingly, this sort of political buy-in is essential to the implementation of large infrastructure projects. Such projects, said Penrose, need to account for the future of water resources and climate change. Though not many water supply and sanitation programmes have this dimension, DFID has prioritised both long-term maintenance and water resources sustainability.

However, Penrose pointed out that water resources management projects still lack clear evidence to lend them full credibility in the eye of the public. To justify investments and political support, we need to mobilise experts to generate metrics, unit costs, and results.

New stakeholders are playing an increasingly important role in this process: emerging powers diversify input, the private sector fuels investments, and foundations prepare rulebooks for new developments.

The key, according to Penrose, is to not let this uncertainty stifle the potential for progress. The public needs clear strong stories, and decision-makers need to take more identifiable risks. If the British government is to follow through on their declaration of water as a human right, popular paradigms like water security must be harnessed to implement change.

By Clémentine Stip, MSc Water Science, Policy and Management

Un Photo by Martine Perret

Dr Rene Bañares-Alcántara develops new optimisation model for analysis and evaluation of water policies

Rene Bañares-Alcántara and Aidid Chee Tahi from Oxford University’s Department of Engineering Science have developed a new modelling system which can help policymakers evaluate water policies. The modelling system was presented at the 2012 American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) Annual Meeting.

Rene Bañares-Alcántara presented the paper ‘A semantic representation of policy goals in the modeling of electricity generation and water treatment systems’ at the AIChE Annual Meeting on Monday 29 October in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The event is an educational forum for chemical engineers interested in innovation and professional growth, and aims to promote ‘cleaner energy, stronger economy, and better living’.

The paper introduces a modelling system which can be used for the analysis and evaluation of water policies, including those aimed at ensuring water supply security and sustainability.

Optimisation models are useful tools for policymakers because they allow different scenarios to be evaluated during the formulation of energy and water policies. Existing models are based solely on mathematical equations that process numerical data, and policy goals set by the policymaker must first be translated into mathematical information that can be input into the model. However, a complete consideration of energy and water policies also requires evaluating non-numerical data, such as social and political issues.

The model proposed in Rene’s paper breaks new ground by considering both numerical and non-numerical information. It supports policymakers by converting their policy goals into information usable by the optimisation model. A prototype water modelling system was developed and applied to a case study of the state of Penang in Malaysia. A water model was created automatically from a set of water policy goals, and then optimised to generate a water treatment and supply system.

The full extended abstract is available from the event website

Dr Rene Bañares-Alcántara is a Reader in Engineering Science and leads the Systems Engineering Group at the Department of Engineering Science.

Photo credit: AIChE

Professor David Grey speaks on transboundary water management at IIASA Conference

David Grey was among the many distinguished speakers participating in the IIASA Conference which was held in Vienna and Laxenburg, Austria on 24-26 October 2012. He spoke about the challenges of transboundary water management, the North-South divide, and the role of science and information in supporting water management.

The IIASA conference, ‘Worlds within reach: from science to policy’ examined the many sustainability and development challenges faced in a world undergoing major transformations such as globalisation, shifts in economic and political power, escalating environmental challenges, and deep social conflict. Leading scientists and experts gathered to discuss options for addressing these global challenges, making the important link from science to policy.

David Grey took part in a session on ‘Respecting nature’s boundaries for a fair and secure world – water and food’. He highlighted a major North-South divide in terms of both physical characteristics of water resources, and in capacity to manage these resources.

There is a significant inverse correlation between hydro-complexity and economic growth, said Grey. This means that while African rainfall is on average similar to that of Europe, Africa faces far greater water problems due to the variability and unpredictability of rainfall and runoff.

There is also a massive information shortfall in many developing countries. Africa has only 10 per cent of the monitoring stations found in Europe. “You cannot manage what you do not measure, but the cost of measurement, the complexity of measurement, and the skills required are very considerable”, he said.

Grey questioned whether water is really a local problem as commonly argued, when there are 260 international river basins accounting for nearly half the world’s land surface. The principle of national sovereignty brings particular challenges to transboundary water management and leads to secrecy of data. However, he argued that cooperation on international rivers is a positive-sum game and benefits can be reaped by all parties. Science has an important role to play in demonstrating these benefits.

“We are heading in a direction of an essential paradigm shift in water management where are policy boundaries must progress from the local level to the planetary level”, said Grey. The good news is that the rapid growth of water knowledge as a global public good, including communication systems, computing innovations, citizen engagement, and social networks, offer unprecedented opportunities for managing water across the planet.

All videos of speakers are available on the conference website.

Professor David Grey is Visiting Professor of Water Policy at the School of Geography and the Environment, and Policy Lead for Oxford University’s Water Security Network.


Vacancy: Research Fellow – Use of Models and Predictions in Resource Stewardship

School of Anthropology, Institute of Science, Innovation and Society, Oxford

Grade 7: £29,249 – £35,938 p.a.

The Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) wishes to appoint a social scientist to a Research Fellowship in Use of models and predictions in resource stewardship for a fixed term of three years. The position is based at InSIS, School of Anthropology, Banbury Road, Oxford.

The Oxford Martin Programme on Resource Stewardship is an initiative of the Oxford Martin School focused on freshwater, land, atmosphere and biodiversity as vital resources subject to both cumulative and systemic pressures arising from human activities. The programme involves researchers from several University of Oxford departments.

The post holder will work in close collaboration with a social anthropologist and an earth systems scientist to identify factors that shape use and non-use of climate and weather information among flood disaster managers. Full details can be found in the job description below.

You will need to have a Postgraduate qualifications in a relevant social science discipline, most likely anthropology STS, sociology, human geography, social psychology or political science. Experience designing, organising and executing qualitative/ethnographic fieldwork is essential along with the ability and willingness to work as part of an interdisciplinary team, an outstanding research record appropriate to the present stage of your career, with evidence of potential for producing distinguished research, and excellent organisational and time-management skills.

The closing date for applications is 12.00 noon 16 November 2012.

Read more