Oxford-led REACH Programme collaborating with the garment industry to help Bangladesh’s poor

Oxford hosts science-industry event to support the development of a sustainable garment industry in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s garment industry has played a major role in the country’s recent economic development. The industry now accounts for around three-quarters of foreign export earnings, employs approximately 4 million and is earmarked for further growth: the government plan to double annual revenues to $50 billion by 2021. The growth of the industry has come at the expense of the country’s watercourses, and future expansion will likely but further pressure on the environment. Maintaining healthy rivers necessary to support this growth, while safeguarding water to support other uses such as agriculture and domestic consumption, remains a significant challenge.

The Oxford-led REACH Programme is working to overcome these problems in collaboration with Bangladeshi partners and industry. Last month, REACH participated in a science-industry event at Oxford University’s Begbroke Science Park, with key representatives from the Ready Made Garment (RMG) sector including GAP Inc., Primark, George at Asda, Marks and Spencer, and Tesco. The event sought to identify shared interests between business, the environment and the country’s poor, in order to help realise a more sustainable garment industry.

Further information about the event can be found on the REACH website.

ITRC brings “system-of-systems” infrastructure modelling to Palestine

Oxford-led consortium in UN collaboration to improve infrastructure planning in the West Bank and Gaza.

Last year, researchers at Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute highlighted the destabilizing role of drought in the Syrian crisis and the increased likelihood of such events as a result of anthropogenic climate change. The research was the latest to draw a link between water scarcity and conflict in the Levant – a key characteristic of the current tense relationship between Israel and Palestine. The Occupied Palestinian Territories face restricted access to both water resources and the energy needed to power water infrastructure. This problem is further compounded by their limited means to operate and maintain water and wastewater infrastructure, a situation made worse by the continued conflict. To add to these difficulties, infrastructure development in the region is largely piecemeal, characteristic of ad hoc, donor-driven investment, which often overlooks infrastructure interdependencies. For example, much-needed water infrastructure is currently under construction in the Gaza Strip, including a wastewater treatment plant and a desalination plant, without any guarantees of sufficient electricity to power these plants on completion.

It is such difficulties that a new collaboration between the UNOPS (United Nations Office for Project Services), and the Oxford-led ITRC (Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium) seeks to overcome. Over the past 5 years, the ITRC has developed a series of national-scale systems models to support the planning of interdependent infrastructure in the UK, further detail of which can be found in “The future of national infrastructure: a system-of-systems approach”, recently published by Cambridge University Press. This system-of-systems approach considers distinct but interconnected networks such as energy, water, telecoms, and waste-management, helping to plan long-term national infrastructure investment in a more coherent and robust manner. The approach has already demonstrated its worth in the UK through the ITRC’s collaborations with Department of Transport, National Grid, HM Treasury’s Infrastructure UK and more recently with the new National Infrastructure Commission led by Sir John Armitt.

ITRC is now applying its innovative tools and methods to the international context starting, with this UNOPS collaboration in Palestine. The work will provide the necessary evidence and analysis to develop a national infrastructure master-plan for the Palestinian Authority, improving infrastructure project prioritization, guide donor investment and make better use of its assets and resources currently at their disposal. It is hoped the research will strengthen the resilience and effectiveness of infrastructure systems in the West Bank and Gaza, establishing a stronger platform for economic development in the face of continuing climatic, political and socio-economic change. While the collaboration may not resolve the entrenched conflict, it is hoped that it will help alleviate some of the underlying conditions that might trigger unrest and hostility.

The Palestinian case study is expected to be the first phase of a longer-term engagement with UNOPS, who hope to roll-out the ITRC approach to other post-disaster, post-conflict areas in the coming years. Similar applications of the ITRC modelling processes and platform are also in the works for more developed countries including Dubai and China.


REACH building water security through the cloud

Oxford’s REACH Programme using Microsoft’s cloud-based solutions to analyse smart pump data in rural Africa.

Microsoft Research recently profiled the research of the Oxford-led REACH programme, a 7-year collaboration funded by DFID to improve water security in rural Africa and Asia. REACH researchers used a Microsoft cloud-based system to gather and analyse data collected from smart hand pumps in rural Kenya. Sensors integrated within the hand pump measure movement and vibration from usage. This information is sent to the cloud via SMS where it is subject to further analysis providing insight into groundwater depth and pump performance.

For more information on how Microsoft’s cloud-based tools are helping REACH scale up its research visit the blog post here.

‘Lo Riu Es Vida/The River is Life.’

Tweets from the WSPM MSc’s Ebro fieldtrip.

Last month, our Water Science, Policy and Management (WSPM) MSc students swapped the rarefied Oxford air for that of the Pyrenees, as they decamped to Spain for the annual Ebro field trip. A highlight of the WSPM year, the trip gives students an opportunity to consolidate their learning in advance of final exams, applying their theoretical knowledge to the real-world context of Spain’s Ebro river basin. WSPMers will be familiar with Michael Rouse’s favourite quote – “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world” (John le Carre). This maxim is particularly relevant to water management where on-the-ground complexity can undo even the best theory. The Ebro fieldtrip offers students a chance to get out from behind the desk and experience the interface between science, policy and practice. The 2016 trip proved to be a (literally) immersive experience: photos of white-water rafting on the frigid Gallego River can be found below among a selection of tweets posted by staff and students as they descended the course of the river, from the Pyrenees to the Ebro Delta. Read more…

Building resilient infrastructure in China

ECI research helps boost China’s climate resilience by identifying infrastructure hotspots.

China’s economic miracle has been underpinned by significant infrastructure development. While infrastructure networks foster growth, a greater reliance on these networks increases the economic impact resulting from a systems failure. Of particular concern are climate impacts, such as floods and drought, which are known to occur periodically in China. New research from Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute (ECI) has mapped the key hot-spots where climate impacts pose the greatest economic risk. These include the large urban centres of Beijing, Tianjin, Jiangsu, Shanghai and Zhejian, where infrastructure is highly concentrated, and failure can have significant knock-on effects, not only to the local economy, but also further afield due to China’s pivotal role in the global supply chain. The Oxford research is the first national-level study to consider the exposure and vulnerability of China’s infrastructure systemically, and offers great scope to improve the resilience of China’s infrastructure, a national priority identified within China’s National Climate Change Adaptation Plan.

Further detail on the study can be found a blog written by ECI DPhil student, Xi Hu, for the World Economic Forum.

A review of the Routledge Handbook of Ecosystem Services

Paul Whitehead, Professor of Water Science and Director of the NERC Macronutrient Cycles Programme, shares his thoughts on the new Routledge Handbook of Ecosystem Services, edited by Potschin, Haines-Young, Fish and Turner.

This handbook is a comprehensive guide to the current state of ecosystem services science and understanding. It is excellent to see a comprehensive coverage of this new and expanding field of ecosystem services. The expansion in this area of research has been impressive from a few papers in 2007 to over 18,000 today. Trying to see the ‘wood for the trees’ so to speak in this area has been difficult, with such a wealth of literature to catch up on. This handbook does an excellent job of integrating all the new ideas, concepts and approaches into one collection of short papers by the key experts in the field. There are very philosophical approaches about original concepts and new thinking, plus a call for a new approach to economics based on ecosystems valuation and accounting. There is also advice on the practical issues and difficulties of valuation and assessment, with illustrations using GIS, modelling and alternative costing approaches.

In my experience, the difficulty of applying such a methodology in a public arena, was bought home to me in the Kennet River Public Enquiry, where the argument was the trade-off between water abstraction in a classic chalk stream versus degradation to the river in terms of low flows, enhanced pollution and ecosystem degradation. In that 10 week public enquiry, the ecosystem valuation methods were largely discounted by the Enquiry Public Inspector (appointed by DEFRA) because of the methodology used for valuation of the ecosystem benefits. The rather vague methodology for valuation was up against the hard £6 million costs of replacing the abstraction by a 30 mile pipe and pumping system for Swindon. This was easier for the Public Inspector to grasp than the ecosystem valuation method used. This is really at the crux of the acceptance in the public domain. So for ecosystem services methodology to be accepted the techniques still seem to need additional development and the concepts need further acceptance by public inspectors, environmental managers and government at a range of levels.

Also, the field does not seem to really know how to translate the knowledge on ecological, soil and riverine processes into quantities and hence to valuation. For example, rivers do a great deal of ecosystem restoration via natural processes. So bacteria clean up rivers by converting organic matter to carbon dioxide, reaeration in rivers raises oxygen levels thereby preventing low oxygen levels and fish kills. There are also enhanced denitrification in rivers thereby reducing nitrates which damage ecology, biodiversity and can cause human health problems.

All of these process can be modelled and quantified although putting a value on them is difficult. So it seems to me that the science and valuation has further to go, especially making better use of the process based knowledge. Nevertheless this handbook is excellent in bringing together a really important and increasingly influential field and first handbook to address this complex and innovative area of research.

More information on the Routledge Handbook of Ecosystem Services can be found here.