A Kenyan glass half full

Cliff Nyaga is a beneficiary of The Coca-Cola Company funded Africa Water Stewardship Scholarship, which sponsors his place on the MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management, class of 2012/2013. He reports on his second term studying at Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment.

Despite having now settled into the academic rhythm of Oxford University life I am still struggling to understand when (and if!) the English winter will end. Since the new year, classes have come thick and fast in the second teaching term.

Hilary term started with an assignment due on the first day and immediately after, a class to attend. Soon thereafter heavy loads of work began flooding in day after day and the library became my new best friend. As the term got busier, I was left with little time to explore the rest of England.

A highlight of the term was meeting my Coca-Cola Company sponsor and discussing my experiences and the numerous initiatives the company is involved with in Africa to improve water access – what a great connection to my area of study!

A scheduled study trip to the Ebro River Basin in Spain at the end of term to learn about water management in the basin provided a stimulating environment to understand how the science, policy and management issues we have been studying on the course play out in a real and complex context.

The Ebro basin trip started on a rather medieval note high up in the Pyrenees mountains, where we stayed in dormitory accommodation built several hundred years ago! The rich Spanish history in Murillo marked a perfect start to our trip.
As we drove down the basin, different dynamics of the basin’s challenges emerged. Most interesting were the competing positions taken by upstream, middle and downstream water users. Today, understanding the Ebro River from the source to the mouth has changed my perspective on management of water resources.

The weather got progressively warmer as we drove towards the Mediterranean coast, and in Barcelona I wore just a T-shirt for the first time since arriving in Europe. Unexpectedly so many other firsts also came my way: my first sip of desalinated water, Spanish beer and my first Spanish dish – paella – which was something to really look forward to after a rather mobile day!

Arriving back in Oxford for spring break just before start of the Trinity term, there was tension in the air from the moment we landed; perhaps a reminder of what lay ahead – revising for examinations. My Spanish memories were immediately engulfed in a deep study period, and time passed so quickly as I approached the exam days in mid-May. This was probably my toughest and most stressful period in Oxford.

The examinations were an experience in themselves: the University dress code required me to wear academic dress – the Sub-fusc – when sitting for all the papers! It was an exciting moment that made me feel honoured to be part of the old Oxford tradition. Within one week the exams were over and a much needed break set in.

Post-exams, I am more relaxed and focused on an exciting dissertation topic for the next three months. My research aims to understand predictors of payment for water services in urban Kenya and Tanzania. This will help identify key factors to enable urban water utilities to improve revenue collection and therefore lead to more sustainable and inclusive piped water services.

Thanks to the Oxford mobile/water for development team, I now have access to multi-country data sets which will provide an empirical basis for objective analysis. I look forward to disseminating my research findings sometime in September and hope they will influence policy decisions in the region for a more sustainable water supply sector in the future.

This is the second in a three-part blog series. Read Cliff’s first and final blogs.

New book distills best practice for flood risk management

Paul Sayers and Edmund Penning-Rowsell (both Visiting Research Associates at the School of Geography and the Environment) are co-authors of a new book which synthesises lessons from international experiences and identifies best practice approaches to flood risk management in challenging large-scale and inter-related environments.

Over recent decades the concept of flood risk management has been cultivated across the globe. Implementation however remains stubbornly difficult to achieve. In part this reflects the perception that a risk management paradigm is more complex than a more traditional standard-based approach as it involves ‘whole systems’ and ‘whole life’ thinking; yet this is its main strength and a prerequisite for more integrated and informed decision making.

The book, entitled ‘Flood risk management: a strategic approach’ results from a collaborative effort between WWF, the Chinese Government’s General Institute of Water Resources & Hydropower Planning (GIWP), UNESCO, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and a number of leading international experts from the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia, and the United States.

The comprehensive volume reviews historical flood events that have shaped modern approaches, before describing emerging good practice. It identifies ‘nine golden rules’ that underpin good flood risk management decision making today, and explores a number of techniques and topics in detail, such as risk and uncertainty analysis, spatial planning, and emergency planning.

The flood risk management book is part of a series on strategic water management and accompanies two other publications on river basin planning and basin water allocation planning.

Download all three books

New tool launched to calculate nitrogen footprint

Scientists at Lancaster, Virginia and Oxford universities have produced a web-based tool that allows anyone living in the UK to calculate their own ‘nitrogen footprint’.

The tool, known as the N-Calculator, asks you to input certain information on what you eat, how you travel and how much energy you use in your home, and then calculates the likely effects on the environment in terms of nitrogen pollution. It is hoped that the tool will encourage people to choose more sustainable ways of living.

Scientists have warned that reactive nitrogen pollution is already a major environmental problem that is causing significant damage to air and water quality across the UK. Nitrogen runoff from farms and man-made effluents are largely responsible for algal blooms that affect river systems, whilst atmospheric nitrogen pollution is leading to significant losses of biodiversity. Most of the nitrogen pollution arises out of agricultural processes used in the growing of crops or grazing of animals. In addition, a significant proportion of the average UK nitrogen footprint comes from vehicle emissions.

“Nitrogen is essential for growing crops for food or high quality grass for cattle, as any farmer knows,” said Paul Whitehead, Professor of Water Science at the School of Geography and the Environment, and Director of the NERC-funded Macronutrients Cycles Programme. “However, the widespread use of nitrogen fertilizer to boost crop production has resulted in a runoff of excess nitrogen from farms into our rivers, lakes and groundwaters.”

The researchers used publicly available data such as national atmospheric data, national land use and farm statistics, to make the calculations. The N-Calculator website also makes recommendations for how to lessen your ‘nitrogen footprint’. Lifestyle choices affect your nitrogen footprint: reducing your nitrogen footprint means cutting back on road and air travel, choosing renewable energy and, most importantly, altering the balance of the foods contained in your diet.

“Unlike your carbon footprint, what you eat is the most important factor determining your nitrogen footprint,” said Dr Carly Stevens of Lancaster University. “By altering the amount and type of food that you eat, you can make a big difference to your impact on the environment.”

The tool, first developed in the US, has been updated and adapted for UK users by researchers from Lancaster University under a project funded by the NERC Macronutrient Cycles programme at Oxford. The device was originally created by award-winning scientist James N Galloway and his research colleagues, Allison Leach, at the University of Virginia, Albert Bleeker of ECN and Jan Willem Erisman of the Louis Bolk Institute, both of The Netherlands.

Calculate your N Footprint

Visit the Macronutrients Cycles Programme website

Special issue of Ecological Economics examines water allocation policy and transaction costs

Dr. Dustin Garrick (School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford Martin School), co-edited a special issue of Ecological Economics on transaction costs and environmental policy, featuring papers on water, carbon, biodiversity and land use issues. Three papers examine water allocation reforms and deliver insights about institutional responses to water allocation tradeoffs.


Transaction costs are comparably high for water allocation challenges because property rights are complex and contested. By clarifying conceptual issues and taking stock of empirical evidence and methodological innovations, this collection of papers stimulates more attention to transaction costs in environmental policy design and evaluation and provides recommendations to improve policy choices.

In a comparative study of water markets in the US and Australia, Garrick and colleagues highlight the need for flexibility to adjust water rights and diversion limits in response to policy learning. The study illustrates how the measurement and evaluation of transaction costs can encourage policy choices that improve water market performance and build capacity to adapt to climatic variability and competition.

Visit the special issue Transaction Costs and Environmental Policy online