Using futures thinking to navigate food, water and energy challenges of the 21st century

A report from Oxford University’s Smith School for Enterprise and the Environment explores the complexities of the interrelated challenges of food, water and energy, aiming to deepen the leadership debate on resource security in the 21st century.

“Faced with dwindling supplies, rising prices and unabated consumption, and with the regional crises and conflicts triggered by these stress points, we urgently need to find new patterns of production, new resource-efficient systems, and new partnerships to achieve lasting and meaningful change” writes Professor Sir David King, former director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment.

The report, ‘Re|Source 2050 Flourishing from Prosperity: Faster and Further’, develops and applies two alternative frames for the future – Growth and Health – as a means to further understand and navigate action on the resources challenges we are facing.

When applied to water, the Growth frame highlights the significant opportunities that exist for increasing efficiency of water use, enabling the redress of global imbalances in supply while delivering economic returns. Solutions focus on technological innovations and the right pricing of water.

In contrast, the Health frame depicts water management as a complex process involving interconnected systems that transcend the physical, technological, economic, political and social domains. Tradeoffs are seen as inevitable and approaches focus on social drivers for change, multi-scale solutions and adaptive regulation to curb local demand.

The report is a follow-up to the Smith School’s Third World Forum in 2012 which centred on increasing concerns about the link between growing prosperity and unsustainable resource use in the face of population growth and climate change.

Read the full report

Effects of drought in the Amazon persist years later

An area of the Amazon rainforest three times the size of the United kingdom was strongly affected by a drought that began in 2005, says a NASA-led team that includes researchers from Oxford.

The results, together with observed increases in rainfall variability and associated forest damage in southern and western Amazonia during the past decade, suggest these rainforests may be witnessing the first signs of potential large-scale degradation due to climate change.

The researchers analysed more than a decade of satellite microwave radar data collected between 2000 and 2009 over Amazonia. The observations included measurements of rainfall from NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission as well as the moisture content and volume, or biomass, of the forests.

The scientists found that, beginning in 2005, more than 270,000 square miles (70 million hectares or three times the area of the UK) of pristine, old-growth forest in southwestern Amazonia experienced an extensive and severe drought. This drought caused widespread changes to the forest canopy that were detectable by satellite. These changes to the canopy suggest dieback of branches and tree falls, especially among the older, larger, more vulnerable ‘canopy’ trees that blanket the forest, say the researchers in a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

‘The biggest surprise for us was that the effects appeared to persist for years after the drought,’ said co-author Professor Yadvinder Malhi from the University of Oxford. ‘We had expected the forest canopy to bounce back after a year with a new flush of leaf growth, but the damage appeared to persist right up to the subsequent drought in 2010.’

While total rainfall levels gradually recovered in subsequent years, the forest canopy damage persisted all the way to the next major drought, which began in 2010. In fact, about half of the forest affected by the 2005 drought – an area one and a half times the size of the UK – did not recover by the start of the next drought.

Recent Amazonian droughts have drawn attention to the vulnerability of tropical forests to climate change. Satellite and ground data have shown an increase in wildfires during drought years and tree die-offs following severe droughts, but there has been no assessment of the long-term effects of these droughts across Amazonia. Large-scale droughts can lead to sustained releases of carbon dioxide from decaying wood, affecting ecosystems and Earth’s carbon cycle.

The team found that the impact of the 2005 drought was on a much larger scale than scientists had previously predicted. About 30 percent (1.7 million square kilometres) of the Amazon basin’s total current forest area was affected in some way, with more than five percent of the forest experiencing severe drought conditions. The 2010 drought affected nearly half of the entire Amazon forest, with nearly a fifth of it experiencing severe drought conditions.

More than 231,660 square miles (600,000 square kilometres) of the areas affected by the 2005 drought were also damaged by the 2010 drought. This ‘double whammy’ punch by successive droughts suggests they may have a potentially widespread effect on forests in southern and western Amazonia, say the researchers.

The paper points out that the drought rate in Amazonia during the past decade is unprecedented over the past century. In addition to the three major droughts in 1997/8, 2005 and 2010, the area has also experienced several localised mini-droughts in recent years. Observations from ground stations show that rainfall over southern Amazonia declined by almost 3.2 per cent per year in the period from 1970 to 1998. Climate analyses for the period from 1995 to 2005 show a steady decline in plant water availability over the region. Together, these data suggest a decade of moderate water stress that led up to the 2005 drought, helping trigger the large-scale forest damage seen after the 2005 drought event.

Water supply one of World Economic Forum’s top global risks

Experts rate water supply crisis as one of the world’s greatest risks according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2013, an annual report that identifies and quantifies risks to global security.

Water supply crises are rated as the highest societal risk. In terms of impact, they are rated as the second highest risk, maintaining this position from 2012, and previously absent from the top five during the years 2007-2011. Water supply is identified as the fourth highest global risk in terms of likelihood, an increase from its position at fifth in 2012, and again absent from the top five in the previous five reports.

Water supply crises are defined as the decline in the quality and quantity of fresh water combined with increased competition among resource-intensive systems, such as food and energy production.

Related risks identified by the report include food shortage crises (rated fourth for impact) and rising greenhouse gas emissions (rated third in terms of likelihood). Rising food insecurity and aggravated water scarcity are highlighted as possible impacts of global warming. The report urges for ‘climate smart’ decision-making to form an integral part of food and water management and policies. Such a mindset would see climate change analysis incorporated into strategic and operational decision-making.

The Global Risks report is based on an annual survey of over 1,000 experts from government, research, industry and civil society. Download the full report


Leading by example – Oxford University curbs its water consumption

Oxford University’s Annual Review 2011/12 reveals that total University mains water consumption fell 8.2% during the year, saving nearly 29 million litres.

This reduction was achieved by implementing the first year of the University’s Water Management Strategy. Actions included upgrading equipment in departments and ongoing washroom refurbishment. Indirect carbon emissions due to the energy used for abstraction, processing and transportation of mains water also fell by 8.2%.

Environmental sustainability is an important concern for the University. A wide range of activities are implemented to reduce the environmental impact of its departments and colleges. The Water Management Strategy sits alongside other strategies, including carbon management, zero waste, sustainable travel and biodiversity.

The next steps for the UK’s water sector – the draft Water Bill and beyond

Reflections on the Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum seminar, 4 December 2012[/intro]

By Gareth Walker, Oxford University

After a summer of unusually high rainfall [1], it is hard to believe that last March the Environment Agency (E.A.) classified most of England as under drought conditions [2]. There were restrictions on both domestic and agricultural use. A government minister was compelled to hold a ‘Water Summit’ to address intensifying competition between agriculture and utilities over water resources in East Anglia [3]. Even the possibility of water transfers from Wales [4] and Scotland [5] to England was discussed at a political level. It was said the drought could continue past Christmas [6].

Then the rain arrived, and didn’t stop, prompting extensive economic damage and disruption across the country. Thames Water, the supplier for much of London, placed advertisements on the London Underground imploring customers to continue to curb consumption despite the floods, unsure if the rainfall would abate before aquifers and reservoirs sufficiently recharged [7]. These are the events which come to mind when assessing the draft Water Bill.

England is home to the world’s most comprehensively privatised water sector. Our water security relies heavily upon private investment. Since 1989 the sector has attracted £90 billion in investment, allowing it to meet ever-increasing European environmental and drinking water quality directives. Yet now there is doubt over its ability to continue to simultaneously deliver environmental integrity, social equity, and healthy dividends. The E.A. is demanding a more integrated approach flood risk management and reform in water abstraction licences, particularly in catchments in the south of England which are now classified as some of the most water stressed in Europe [8].

The economic regulator, Ofwat, is clear that allowable increases in domestic bills above inflation will no longer be the certainty they once were. The introduction of the Competition Act of 2000 led to a House of Lords report singling Ofwat out as having failed in its duty to promote competition, noting that while other utilities had been liberalised, water remained a regional monopoly [9]. The Scottish response was to introduce competition for commercial water customers in 2008, ‘proving’ it was possible. The irony of the Scottish state-owned water sector achieving competition before the fully privatised English undertaking was not lost to policy makers. As Jacob Tompkins put it at the Forum, there was a sense of “Scotland have done it first, so oh my goodness, we need to have a bill”.

So it’s not surprising that the subject of liberalisation and markets has loomed large in recent years. Borne out of both a political mandate for increased competition and an economic philosophy of managing water as a scarce private good, the 2011 White Paper on Water promised to resurrect a vision of market-environmentalism which consecutive governments had quietly retreated from since privatisation. Scarcity would be signalled through increased trade in abstraction rights and bulk water supplies, customers incentivised to reduced waste through price signalling, and companies exposed to direct competition within markets.

However, the institutional reform necessary to introduce markets to a heavily regulated monopoly which presides over a complex and integrated resource system such as water is no simple task. In such instances, markets do not materialise through laissez-fairism and invisible hand prophesies, but through a concerted and state-sponsored effort to govern institutional reform. Institutions are about security in knowing just what the ‘rules of the game’ are. Changing the rules comes at a cost in a sector which places a premium on stability.

Scotland’s success depended upon political will and an ability to ensure a clear and simple institutional framework. Competition was largely a political act, designed by its left-leaning government to protect Scotland’s corporatised public water infrastructure from private ownership while adhering to demands for increased competition in retail. Government-mandated conditions on responsibility for suppliers of last resort, procedures for establishing new contracts, and the bulk sale of water through a single state-owned raw water supplier, all contributed to a transparent and predictable operating environment.

England and Wales arguably contain a greater diversity of interests, both within and beyond government. The Treasury’s mantra of “recovery through stability” does not bode well for White Paper reform aspirations, especially given that investors and lenders are visibly spooked by the prospect of increased competition and have threatened an increase in the cost of capital [10]. There are tensions between utilities and agriculture concerning the impact of markets on the long-term security of abstraction rights. Within the water sector, there are twenty-five water companies and eight commercial suppliers, all with varying ownership structures, overlapping resource systems, and differing local operating conditions. Each with a position on reform.

Where agreement on reform between agents is left to the lowest common denominator, the result is ultimately little or no change. While the aspirations of White Paper were clear, the path to them is not. The draft Water Bill makes only cautious progress towards White Paper ambitions. Universal metering has once again been abandoned, the vertical separation of companies is off the table, and abstraction reform will only be completed by the mid-2020s at the earliest. Environmental groups and opposition government representatives have declared the bill “disappointing” [11]. The lesson learned?  Governance is ubiquitous, even when it comes to market-oriented aspirations.

Gareth Walker is a DPhil student at the School of Geography and the Environment. His research focuses on water scarcity in relation to resource planning and institutional reform in the English and Welsh private water sector.


Oxford contributes to World Bank report on climate change adaptation in Arab countries

Dr Rachael McDonnell provided input to a comprehensive World Bank report ‘Adaptation to a Changing Climate in the Arab Countries’, which was launched at the COP 18 climate change conference in Doha, Qatar. The report highlights the acute consequences of climate change in the Arab world and calls for urgent actions to reduce vulnerability.

McDonnell was lead author for the chapter ‘Agriculture, rural livelihoods, and food security are stressed in a changing climate’ and contributed to two further chapters on ‘Climate change contributes to water scarcity’, and ‘Implement policy responses to increase climate resilience’.

Challenges faced in the Arab world include worsening water scarcity, very low and variable rainfall, and excessive exposure to extreme events such as droughts and desertification. The report highlights the need for immediate responses to avert the anticipated consequences of rising food and water insecurity.

“Climate change is a reality for people in Arab countries,” said Inger Andersen, World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa region. “It affects everyone – especially the poor who are least able to adapt – and as the climate becomes ever more extreme, so will its impacts on people’s livelihoods and wellbeing. The time to take actions at both the national and regional level in order to increase climate resilience is now.”

Through coordinated actions at multiple levels, the report concludes that the Arab world can successful adapt and adjust to the challenges of a changing climate, as it has done for centuries.

See the World Bank webpage for the full report, story highlights, press release, video blog, and other resources.

Smart handpumps one of the Guardian’s 12 global development innovations of 2012

Featured alongside disease-eating prawns and solar-powered lamp-posts, Oxford University’s Smart Handpumps are recognised by the Guardian newspaper as one of twelve innovations for global development that caught the eye in 2012.

The so-called ‘smart’ handpumps use a mobile technology device designed by Oxford University which generates information on handpump use and can quickly detect a breakdown. The project is being trialled in 60 villages in the Kyuso district in Kenya where water is scarce during the dry season and functioning handpumps are critical for people’s survival.

The mobile data transmitter monitors movement of the handpump handle and estimates the volume of water being pumped. It sends periodic text messages to relay information on handpump performance to research teams in Nairobi and Oxford. Early detection of a problem means someone can be quickly dispatched to resolve it.

The project is funded by the UK Department for International Development and led by Dr Rob Hope, Senior Research Fellow at the School of Geography and the Environment.

“There are a lot of gadgets and gizmos and devices out there, but those alone don’t really resolve the enduring problem of rural water supply sustainability,” Rob Hope is quoted in the Guardian article. “It’s really the institutional reforms that emerge from using the information in a more effective manner. That’s where our research is really focused.”

Read the full article online

Dryland agriculture a major issue for climate change

People living in rural communities in the world’s driest areas are hit hardest by climate change impacts, according to the report from an International Conference on Food Security in the Drylands. Many of the most effective climate change interventions will be rooted in agriculture, which these communities depend on for their livelihoods.

Oxford University’s Professor Mike Edmunds and Dr Rachael McDonnell were among the invited speakers at the Qatar National Food Security Program conference which was held in Doha, Qatar on 14-15 November 2012, under the auspices of the Heir Apparent, His Highness, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

Mike Edmunds’ paper addressed water security in low rainfall areas, emphasising the need to base sustainable development policy on renewable water resources (especially groundwater). He urged people to consider the advantages of locally sourced water as a basis for sustainable rural development. Rachael McDonnell examined the many new science and policy advances being made in using saline and treated wastewater to meet food security challenges in drylands.

The report calls for action to help rural communities produce food and secure their livelihoods while faced with land degradation, water scarcity and unpreditable weather patterns. Many solutions are available now, such as crop diversification, efficient water management, ‘climate smart’ technologies and conservation agriculture. Targeted investment backed up with sound policies are urgently needed to ensure that these opportunities are seized.

The conference brought together over 400 people to discuss the challenges and opportunities for building food security and mitigating climate change in drylands. These included ministers and senior government officials, policymakers, researchers, development practitioners and representatives of international and regional organisations, farmers’ unions, private and public financial institutions, and private agri-business enterprises.

Read the full conference report.