Oxford flood experts contribute to government report on innovation and risk

Professor Edmund Penning-Rowsell and Paul Sayers co-authored a flooding case study in the Annual Report of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser 2014 ‘Innovation: Managing Risk, Not Avoiding It’.

The report of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser Mark Walport considers different perspectives on risk and innovation by the public, business and policy-makers. It aims to understand the bases upon which decisions are made about when and how to innovate.

The report states that “coastal and inland flooding remain high on the UK’s National Risk Register, with significant concerns around the three main sources of flooding: rivers, surface water and especially the sea”.

The high-level case study on flooding was written by Professor Edmund Penning-Rowsell (School of Geography and the Environment), Paul Sayers (Environmental Change Institute) and Andrew Watkinson (University of East Anglia). They discuss flood risk from three angles: the social perspective, the analysts’ perspective and the infrastructure planners’ perspective.

The report is available online and the flooding case study starts on page 101.

Panel discussion debates the role of dams in Africa’s development

Six distinguished speakers came together on 24 November 2014 to tackle the much debated topic of ‘Africa, Dams and Development’ in a panel discussion organised by the Oxford Water Network and the Oxford Martin Programme on Resource Stewardship.

dams panel

Dr Rob Hope, Director of the Water Programme at the Smith School for Enterprise and the Environment, chaired the event and asked the panellists, “how can dams better balance economic growth, environmental sustainability and human development in Africa?”

He pointed out that less than 10% of the hydroelectric power potential in Africa is developed. But there are major projects planned to change this, such as the Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia, the High Grand Falls Dam in Kenya, Inga 3 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Kandadji in Niger.

David Grey, Visiting Professor of Water Policy at the School of Geography and the Environment, said that Africa is deeply water insecure, food insecure and energy insecure. The continent faces exceptionally high variability in water both between and within years, and storage is essential for coping with this ‘difficult hydrology’, he said.

Professor Grey argued that “of course Africa needs dams”, but good dams and not bad dams. He highlighted the importance of learning lessons from the 23,427 large dams that have been built worldwide, very few of which are in Africa.

Michael Norton, a civil engineer and Global Water Director at Amec Foster Wheeler said that he supported the construction of large dams in Africa in principle. “Storing water at times when it’s plentiful for times when it isn’t is an extremely effective and sustainable technique to meet mankind’s drinking, food and energy needs,” he said. However, he urged for all forms of storage, not just dams, to be considered in terms of their costs, risks and benefits.

“Dams are simply not worth the cost” was the message given by Dr Atif Ansar, Lecturer at the Blavatnik School of Government. He presented a study of 269 large dam projects across the world which showed excessive cost overruns. The analysis revealed that actual costs more than double for two out of ten dams, and triple for one out of ten dams.

The theme of costs was continued by Dr Judith Plummer who presented her research at Cambridge University on the cost of delays in dam construction. She said that the impact of delays can be devastating for countries that actually need the dams. She also emphasised that the benefits of dams are hugely underestimated as they are difficult to value.

Jamie Skinner, who leads the Water Team at the International Institute for Environment and Development, considered the impacts of dams on biodiversity and ecosystems and asked “who will stand up for the environment?” Where government priorities favour development over environment priorities, there may be more traction in promoting the maintenance of ecosystem services of value to people, he said.

According to Skinner, African countries consider the World Bank as a donor of last resort because of their stringent requirements for ecosystem sustainability, whereas finance from China demands very few, if any environmental safeguards.

Dr David Turton, a Senior Research Fellow at the African Studies Centre, concluded the panel presentations with a case study of the Gibe III Dam in Ethiopia, where the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people in the lower Omo Basin will be affected by the dam.

“Dams must be made into development opportunities for the people that have to get out of the way to make them possible”, said Dr Turton. The principles for achieving this, he said, are widely accepted in theory but ignored in practice: open and transparent information sharing; meaningful consultation; and compensation, benefit sharing and livelihood reconstruction.

The presentation slides and video webcast are available online

Prize-winning article on Changing Conceptions of Rights to Water

Congratulations to Dr Bettina Lange at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies who has been awarded the Annual Richard Macrory Prize for the Best Article in the Journal of Environmental Law.

The article “Changing Conceptions of Rights to Water?—An Eco-Socio-Legal Perspective” investigates the meaning of a ‘right’ to water, focussing on water use for agricultural production.

The authors explore how the concept of private property rights to water relates to the idea of water stewardship, which obliges stakeholders to protect water resources for the benefit of the wider public.

The article highlights changes to environmental regulation in the UK in recent years where there has been a greater emphasis on water stewardship aimed at tackling the risks of water scarcity. For example, water abstractions have been further regulated through the Water Act 2003 and the draft Water Bill (now the Water Act 2014).

The authors conducted research on how farmers in England think about their right to access and use water and how this understanding is changing in light of developments in UK water regulation. They develop a eco-socio-legal perspective for understanding how conceptions of rights to water are generated.

The article is now available for free online here

Oxford researchers bridge the gap between flood risk science and management

Paul Sayers and Professor Jim Hall at the Environmental Change Institute have been awarded a grant from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to capture current knowledge of methods for assessing flood risk and determining future infrastructure investments.

The past decade has seen significant developments in the approaches to assessing and managing flood risk, with both research and industry-led innovations. This has, however, led to a great number of methods that are difficult for practitioners and researchers to access and build upon. It is not always clear what best practice is, or how credible results are from different approaches.

The project ‘Flood risk: Building Infrastructure Resilience through better Understanding and Management choices ‘ (FoRUM) which is funded by NERC’s Environmental Risks to Infrastructure Innovation Projects call, will gather the current state-of-the-art knowledge on flood risk assessment and long-term investment planning.

The researchers will develop a common understanding of alternative methods and the uncertainties associated with each. This knowledge will be then be shared with stakeholders in the research, private and public sectors. Through the dialogue between researchers and stakeholders, FoRUM will establish the foundation for future advances in this field and collaboration between business and academia, ensuring that scientific developments have relevance to real-world needs.

The research team is led by Professor Jim Hall and Paul Sayers in the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University with support from Professor Rob Nicholls (Southampton University) and Professor Edmund Penning-Rowsell (Oxford University). They are working closely with leading practitioners with an interest in flood risk and ability to make use of innovative science, including from the Environment Agency, Network Rail, Thames Water, JBA, CHM2HILL, AIR and HR Wallingford.

For further information, contact paul.sayers@ouce.ox.ac.uk

Developing a model for coastal cliff erosion

Risk of coastal cliff erosion in the next century is mostly driven by feedbacks between different components of the coastal system – the atmosphere, land and ocean – rather than from the threat from climate change and sea-level rise, according to a new study.

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The research, led by Dr Andres Payo and colleagues at the Environmental Change Institute presents a new methodology for modelling and assessing the role of different feedbacks and processes that affect coastal change.

Coastal managers have significant experience in planning and managing the ever-changing cliff shoreline. However, the need for more resilient coastal systems means that it is necessary to anticipate and plan for future change at timescales as large as 50 to 100 years, posing new challenges for coastal managers and modellers.

To help coastal system modellers address this challenge, this study develops a framework of how different processes interact with each other and the role of a given feedback in the overall cliff system.

A feedback is a change to a component of the coastal system that causes a knock-on effect which further alters the original change. A positive feedback increases the rate of cliff erosion. For example as waves erode the cliff, abrasive material such as sand and gravel will become loose, and the incoming waves will carry these materials, resulting in even more cliff erosion. Negative feedbacks have the opposite effect and decrease the rate of cliff erosion.

The study contributes to the ongoing effort of scientists to identify potential feedbacks, determine their direction of influence, and assess their relative importance. By understanding how the individual and overall feedback strengths are influenced by different future environmental and human intervention scenarios, it will be possible to provide better assessment at the time scales needed for coastal management.

This research was funded by UK Natural Environmental Research Council with support from the Environment Agency as part of the project: iCOASST Integrating Coastal Sediment Systems.

Reference

Payo, A., Hall, J.W., Dickson, M.E. and Walkden, M.J.A. (2014) Feedback structure of cliff and shore platform morphodynamics. Journal of Coastal Conservation. DOI 10.1007/s11852-014-0342-z