The Smart Handpump comes to SoGE

Drilling commences for the installation of a new smart handpump at the School of Geography and the Environment.

The ‘Smart Handpump’ was developed in 2011 by a team at Oxford University with a field-ready prototype starting operational trials in Kenya in 2012. These trials demonstrated proof-of-concept for remote monitoring of handpumps using simple microprocessor, accelerometer and global system for mobile communications (GSM) components. Smart Handpumps provide hourly data related to pump usage, providing information on functionality as well as insights into daily and seasonal water use patterns.

In 2014, a preliminary analysis of the high frequency accelerometer data to show that the “noise” generated by pumping also contains useful information. High-rate waveforms from the data can be processed using robust machine learning methods that are sensitive not only to the dynamics of the whole system but also the subtle interaction between the user and the pump. The small changes in pump dynamics and the subtle reactions of the user become a prominent signal in determining the deterioration of pump mechanics and imminent failure. This same signal can also be used to for shallow aquifer monitoring at the pump and user phenotyping.

The SoGE borehole is drilled to 7m and will have a Samrat handpump installed. This suction pump is commonly used at shallow wells in Bangladesh. The different dynamics of this pump, compared to current studies on deep well Afridev pumps in Kenya, will enable researchers to build a more robust predictive algorithm that is able to distinguish across multiple pump types, user characteristics, and aquifer variabilities.

These data will be used to produce a low-cost predictive maintenance system that is scalable across large rural regions. This work is being supported by UNICEF, funded through a competitive tender process, as part of their Product Innovation portfolio. Field testing will be conducted in partnership with UNICEF country programmes in Eastern and Southern Africa.

By retrofitting a simple and inexpensive device to a standard pump handle the smart handpumps are able to pro-actively monitor the condition of handpumps and ensure that millions of people can have access to a reliable water source.

Take a look at the video to see our work in Kwale County in Kenya in action.

This project is a collaboration between Oxford University’s Engineering Department and Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the School of Geography and the Environment. In addition to UNICEF, the Smart Handpumps work is supported through REACH – Improving Water Security for the Poor and Gro for GooD – Groundwater Risk Management for Growth and Development, both major research initiatives funded by DFID and the UK Research Councils.

This article first appeared on the Environmental Change Institute website.

ITRC five years on: a new MISTRAL journey begins

Since 2011 the ITRC has developed the world’s first national infrastructure system-of-systems model, NISMOD. ITRC’s recently launched £5.3m MISTRAL programme will build on this success.

On Monday 23 May at the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), London, over one hundred high profile government and industry stakeholders gathered to celebrate the launch of the ITRC’s exciting new MISTRAL: Multi-scale InfraSTRucture systems AnaLytics programme and recently published book, The Future of National Infrastructure: A System-of-Systems Approach.


Professor Jim Hall speaks at the ITRC-MISTRAL launch | Photo by Julian Cottee

The ITRC has been awarded £5.3 million of funding from the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council for another five years of research. The aim of the MISTRAL (Multi-scale InfraSTRucture systems AnaLytics) programme is to develop and demonstrate a highly integrated analytics capability to inform strategic infrastructure decision making across scales, from local to global. MISTRAL will thereby radically extend the ITRC’s pioneering infrastructure systems analysis capability.

At the launch, Professor Jim Hall reported on the ITRC’s interim results in providing the analytical framework to the National Needs Assessment (NNA) led by Sir John Armitt. The NNA aims to inform the decisions of the National Infrastructure Commission which the media has been covering closely. The ITRC was delighted to welcome keynote speaker Lord Adonis, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and Keith Clarke, ICE Vice president, who also spoke.

“Five years ago, when we started on the ITRC journey, proposing theory, methodology and network models that stretched from the household to the globe, and from the UK to different national contexts would not have been credible. Now, thanks to what we have achieved in ITRC, the opportunity for multi-scale modelling is coming into sight.” Professor Jim Hall, Director of the Environmental Change Institute, and ITRC lead.


Download an introduction to MISTRAL: Multi-scale InfraSTRucture systems AnaLytics | Photo by Julian Cottee


Guests celebrate the launch of the MISTRAL programme at the drinks reception | Photo by Julian Cottee

This article first appeared on the Environmental Change Institute website.

Filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: seeking middle ground on the Nile

The construction of Ethiopia’s first large hydropower dam on the Blue Nile is a source of national pride for many Ethiopians and a source of concern for many Egyptians. This caution largely stems from a lack of understanding of the extent of the risks, and how these can be mitigated. New research, led by a partnership between the University of Oxford and the University of Khartoum, explores practical reservoir filling strategies, to minimize potential negative downstream impacts via transboundary coordination.

The drive for Ethiopia to harness its hydrological potential to lift people out of poverty, increasing water demands due to population growth throughout the basin, and the risk of prolonged drought will intersect on the Nile next year. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), located upstream of the major water users in Sudan and Egypt, is now around 50% complete, and its storage reservoir will begin to fill in earnest from 2017. While the many benefits and costs of the development of the Blue Nile have been debated and analysed by scholars and practitioners for decades, there is still no agreement as to how this reservoir should be filled or ultimately managed with the other dams in the Nile Basin. New research, led by Oxford DPhil candidate Kevin Wheeler, offers analysis of some useful strategies for transboundary cooperation, helping decision makers on all sides negotiate this critical filling period.


Construction of the GERD. Photo by Kevin Wheeler.

The challenge

It has long been recognized that struggles over water resources tends to bring about more compromise than conflict between competing stakeholders, yet the process of reaching compromise and implementing an agreement takes time and effort to achieve. In 2012, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt embarked on a tripartite effort to resolve the issue of the GERD by jointly analysing the planning and design documents provided by Ethiopia, and commissioning social and environmental impact assessments to be conducted by two consulting firms. The results of these studies are intended to provide recommendations as to how the GERD should be filled and managed. However, contractual issues have delayed the initiation of the consultancy work, while dam construction continues unabated. It is not clear if these analyses and recommendations can be completed in time to inform the reservoir filling process, and whether a strategy to do so will be agreed upon.

Meanwhile, a joint-collaboration between the University of Oxford and the University of Khartoum, and supported by researchers from the Eastern Nile Regional Technical Office (ENTRO) of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), the Hydraulic Research Centre in Wad Medani Sudan, the University of Colorado, and the University of California Los Angeles, has been exploring these issues. This research does not attempt to analyse the complex social and environmental implications of the dam, but seeks to provide an objective and unbiased analysis of what the benefits are in terms of new hydropower production for Ethiopia and what the immediate risks and benefits are to downstream countries with respect to the provision of water supplies and hydropower production. Foremost, it analyses potential practical strategies for dam filling with increased coordination between the three countries to minimize downstream risks.


Nile River Basin dams.

Shared learning and new strategies.

Fieldwork in Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt provided insight into reservoir operations in the Eastern Nile Basin, and informed the creation of a flexible hydro-policy model using the RiverWare software. This analytical tool can simulate complex dam management decisions, incorporating relevant physical processes, in a transparent manner which allows stakeholders to better understand the interaction of processes at work, provide new ideas, and test innovative strategies as they emerge.

Scenarios were developed to test transboundary policy arrangements that range from no international cooperation during filling, to various agreed annual release volumes from the GERD throughout the filling period, and finally the inclusion of additional basin-wide provisions to protect the elevation of Lake Nasser behind Egypt’s High Aswan Dam under critical conditions. Adaptation of the operation of Sudanese and Egyptian reservoirs to the presence of GERD were also simulated to demonstrate their need for well-planned management policies.

The results indicate that Sudan can largely manage their risk to major water supply diversions by changing the way they operate their reservoirs. Sudanese hydropower generation potential is likely to increase due to regulation of flows coming upstream from the GERD. For Egypt, the results show that the risk of the High Aswan Dam reaching the critical minimum power production elevation (147 m) is present, but largely depends on the volume of water in Lake Nasser when the filling of the GERD begins. An agreed annual release from the GERD significantly reduces this risk, but is not sufficient to entirely eliminate the risk of reaching this critical elevation. To avoid any unplanned shortages, an agreed annual release from the GERD can be complemented by both Egypt proactively reducing annual downstream releases and a cooperative basin-wide safeguard strategy to provide additional releases from the GERD in critical circumstances.

A peer-reviewed article documenting this research is available here. For further information contact Kevin Wheeler at


How far has devolution come in Kenya?

Oxford DPhil candidate Johanna Koehler explores devolution of water governance in Kenya in a blog for

Since the promulgation of its new constitution in 2010, Kenya has pursued a policy of decentralisation which has seen a number of key functions such as water and health devolved from national to county level. This process has seen the creation of 47 county governments, each with its own county water ministry. Following a three-year transition period, service delivery is now fully devolved, but water resource management mainly remains the responsibility of the national government, presenting new challenges for water governance in Kenya.

This was one of the key issues discussed at this April’s Third Annual Devolution Conference in Meru, Kenya, where Johanna Koehler presented a policy brief exploring a number of key issues on water policy choices facing Kenya’s 47 counties based on her research. Further information on the research and her experience of the Devolution Conference can be found in a blog posted on the REACH website.

Why we urgently need more research on the social impacts of dams 

Dam construction is on the rise globally, bringing with it a host of impacts, many undesirable. These must be thoroughly understood if they are to be addressed, yet academic literature mapping such impacts remains limited in scope. Julian Kirchher, lead author of a new University of Oxford study on the social impacts of dams, outlines current biases in the scholarly work on the topic, and the implications of these biases.

A major boom in dam development is under way with at least 3,700 dams either planned or already under construction. These are expected to increase global hydropower production by 73% to 1,700 GW in the coming years. 37 GW of capacity was added in 2014 alone, equivalent to almost three times of Africa’s current total installed capacity. Asia is a particular hotspot of dam construction with capacity additions of almost 29 GW in 2014, more than in any other region of the world.

Yet dams remain extremely controversial due to their myriad environmental and social impacts. Dam-induced displacement is the most emotive issue: up to 200 million people have been displaced because of infrastructure development in the past century; possibly 80 million of these were displaced due to dams. Examples of currently disputed large dam projects are Myanmar’s Myitsone Dam, Brazil’s Belo Monte Dam or Mozambique’s Mphanda Nkuwa Dam.

Many negative environmental and social impacts of large dams could be significantly mitigated with state-of-the-art knowledge and experience on planning and management practices. Yet dams’ negative impacts must be thoroughly understood in order to design tailor-made interventions addressing them. Scholarly work can be instrumental for both conceptualizing and mapping these impacts.

Academics have investigated dams’ impacts since the late 1950s. Thousands of studies have been published until now on the topic by scholars from a variety of disciplines – both by social scientists (e. g. anthropologists, political scientists, sociologists, geographers and economists) as well as natural scientists (e. g. biologists or engineers). Publications on the topic have surged in the past 25 years.

However, many significant knowledge gaps remain. This is the key finding of a study my colleagues at the University of Oxford and I have just published. This study is the very first systematic review ever carried out on dams’ social impacts. For this purpose, we have created a sample of 217 articles on the topic at hand that we have systematically analysed across more than 40 categories.

These are five major insights from our work:

First, we found that scholars study dams that are much larger than the average dams built (Figure 1). Two mega-dams (China’s Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest dam, and India’s Sardar Sarovar Dam) are particularly well-studied, as our work evidences. This bias is problematic since the impacts of mega-dams may be very different to those of small(er) dams (this statement does not mean to imply that small(er) dams only result in small(er) impacts).

Second, we found that most of the literature (almost 90%) focuses only on these mega-dams’ resettlement area impacts. Yet dam’s spatial impacts go far beyond this. For instance, dam development may threaten the food security of 60 million people in the Mekong River Basin because of dams’ downstream impacts. In order to assess the viability of a project, dams’ resettlement area impacts as well as dams’ social impacts occurring downstream, upstream as well as for the entire country (and beyond) must be considered.

Third, we found that the vast majority of articles neglect perspectives beyond those of the displaced communities – a direct result from the focus on resettlement area impacts, we assume. For instance, only about 20% of articles present the view of the dam developer or the international donor in a dam project, compared to 80% of articles presenting the views of displaced communities.

Fourth, we found that almost no articles (only 5%) are positive regarding their overall judgement of dams’ social impacts. NGOs may be tempted to infer from this data that (allegedly objective) scientists largely condemn dams. Yet we fear that the identified bias in the unit-of-analysis focus (with an over-emphasis of displaced communities’ views) may have biased the judgement of scholars on the overall project since displaced communities are likely most critical of a dam.

Fifth, we found that most scholars (approximately 70%) only evaluate impacts that occur 5-10 years upon dam completion. Yet impacts can already commence in the planning phase (with governments withholding investments for villages to be displaced years prior to the construction start already, for instance) and may last for decades. Such impacts must be highlighted by scholarly work in order to be addressed by practitioners.

Figure 1: Dam Heights


The impact of academic work on practitioners is considered to be limited nowadays. Yet perceptions of the social impacts of dams are driven in large part by the scholars analysing them. Indeed, this field of study is extremely applied. For instance, Thayer Scudder, arguably the world’s leading authority on the social impacts of dams, is currently consulting within Laos’ Nam Theun 2 Dam project. Meanwhile, Michael Cernea, also an eminent scholar on the topic, was the World Bank’s senior advisor for sociology and social policy introducing sociological and anthropological approaches to the organization.

Yet our study suggests that practitioners must be extremely cautious when reading scholarly work on the social impacts of dams. Currently, decisions are taken to pursue small dams over large dams without a full understanding of the trade-offs involved because of an incomplete literature on the subject. Academic writings on the topic also do a disservice to the people who experience positive impacts of dam development, and those negatively impacted other than by resettlement from large dams.

The University of Oxford hosted a conference on dams and development in late 2014. All panellists – indeed, those supporting as well as those opposing the construction of large dams – agreed that more evidence is needed on the topic at hand. This is also showcased by the meta-synthesis my colleagues and I have carried out. I very much hope that our new study will stimulate debate among scholars researching dams’ social impacts. Much more research on this timely topic is urgently needed.

More info

The final version of the University of Oxford study on the literature analysing dams’ social impacts can be accessed here. A free-of-charge pre-print version of the study is available here.

A version of this article will appear on the Global Water Forum website

The author of this post (Julian Kirchherr) is a doctoral scholar at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.


Transboundary water cooperation in the Levant

Water cooperation remains a key challenge for Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Jordan. Oxford University researchers are collaborating with key stakeholders to improve water resource management in the region.

The breakdown of the Oslo peace process in the 90s, left Israeli-Palestinian water cooperation in a state of limbo. The “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” approach adopted by negotiators, stymied an agreement on shared water resources, which could not take place in the absence a broader permanent settlement. This uncertainty has been to the detriment of both Israelis and Palestinians and their riparian neighbours in Jordan. The absence of an agreement left a governance vacuum which has led to severe environmental degradation, while maintaining an unfair water allocation arrangement.

Over-abstraction has vastly diminished the Sea of Galilee, the River Jordan, and the Dead Sea; the once mighty Jordan now sees 95% of its flow diverted, and is a mere trickle as it enters the Dead Sea, which has lost a third of its surface area, and continues to recede at a rate of one meter per year.

The Interim Agreement (Oslo II), which was to provide the basis for final peace negotiations, established inequitable water sharing of the Mountain Aquifer, dividing water 80:20 in favour of Israel. This was not intended as a permanent solution, but has endured over the last two decades, significantly restricting the water resource development within the West Bank.

These challenges are not confined to the Jordan Basin. In Gaza, 1.8 million rely on the shallow, over-abstracted, coastal aquifer – a resource blighted by saline intrusion, untreated sewage effluent and agriculture run-off; 95% of groundwater is no longer potable and by end of year this is expected to rise to 100%. There is also currently no single functioning wastewater treatment plant in Gaza: an estimated 9 million litres of raw sewage flow into the Eastern Mediterranean daily. This forced the temporary shutdown of Israel’s neighbouring Ashkelon desalination plant earlier this year. Similarly, transboundary flow of untreated effluent between the West Bank to Israel continues to pollute both surface and groundwater.

Scope for future water cooperation

The Ashkelon shutdown is a stark reminder of how the fortunes of Israeli and Palestinians are bound together: the flows and water and sewage effluent do not respect man made boundaries. Transboundary cooperation is not only essential for protecting the environment, but is also key to peace and prosperity in the region.

Fostering water cooperation between Israel, Palestine and Jordan is a primary focus of EcoPeace (formerly Friends of the Earth Middle East), a peace-building, environmental NGO. Israeli and Jordanian directors Gidon Bromberg and Munqeth Mehyar recently presented the work of EcoPeace at a seminar held at Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment, while visiting Oxford to attend the Skoll World Forum. In 2009, the Skoll Foundation recognised EcoPeace’s work via a $750,000 Social Entrepreneurship Award. EcoPeace has played a key role in regional water negotiations, proposing an approach to water sharing between Israelis and Palestinians in 2012.

While the experience of the past two decades does not suggest a bright future for regional water cooperation, EcoPeace is quietly confident that conditions are now ripe for change. EcoPeace believes that the political burden of reaching an agreement has been greatly reduced by recent water supply advances. Israel is now a leader in desalination and reuse technology, and has significantly increased potable water availability via these technologies over the past decade.

While desalination is energy intensive, the proximity of water production to coastal cities, makes it price competitive when compared to pumping water from the Sea of Galillee in the north. Supplying coastal settlements frees up more natural water elsewhere in Israel’s well-connected water distribution system, allowing more water to be released from the Sea of Galilee along the Jordan, or to be abstracted from the Mountain Aquifer. With more water in the system, the potential for political concessions is now much greater.

Oxford’s contribution to water research in the Middle East.

Last month, Baroness Deech raised a question in the House of Lords highlighting the role of UK water research collaboration in Israel and the Middle East more generally. Oxford is leading water research in the region via a number of projects:

Oxford researchers are collaborating with EcoPeace in Bethlehem and Tel Aviv and the WANA Institute in Amman, on the DeFWS (Delivering Food and Water Security for a Middle East in Flux) project. The project, funded by British Council Institutional Links program under their Trilateral Water Research call, is led by Professor Steve Rayner of Oxford’s Institute of Science, Innovation and Society (INSIS) and coordinated by Dr Michael Gilmont (Environmental Change Institute and INSIS)

The project, which was launched in April 2016 and runs until early 2017, will specifically analyse current water use levels between different economic sectors in Jordan and the Palestinian territories, the water intensity of different elements of agricultural production. Evaluations will be made as to the potential for greater economic returns on water across different sectors, and the scope for increased agricultural productivity through changes in crop productivity and crop type. Additional work will examine the feasibility of change from a political and social perspective, and evaluate relative risks to water and food security of action and inaction.

ITRC – UNOPS collaboration
The Oxford-led ITRC (Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium) is collaborating with the UNOPS (United Nations Office for Project Services) to support infrastructure planning in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The project aims to apply ITRC’s innovative “system of systems” approach, which supports the planning of interdependent infrastructure, help develop a national infrastructure master-plan for the Palestinian Authority. It is expected to the first phase of a longer term engagement with UNOPS which will see further roll-out of ITRC approach to other post-disaster, post-conflict areas.

The political economy of China’s South-North Water Transfer

MPhil graduate Huw Pohlner explores the recently inaugurated megaproject which diverts water from China’s Yangtze River to its arid industrial north.

In 2014, the world’s largest interbasin water transfer project began delivering billions of cubic metres of water to Beijing, Tianjin and other major northern Chinese cities.

In a paper, recently published in Global Environmental Change, Oxford MPhil, Huw Pohlner, explores the political economy and institutional implications of the South-North Water Transfer megaproject.

Freshwater finally started to flow along the Middle Route of the South-North Water Transfer (SNWT-MR) in December 2014, 62 years after Chairman Mao famously pointed out the imbalance in water supply between China’s northern and southern river basins.

The SNWT-MR is one of three projects designed to link the Yangtze and its tributaries with the three major river basins of the North China Plain: the Yellow, Huai, and Hai. The Eastern Route is also complete but the Western Route is still in planning.

Engineered to initially deliver an average of 9.5 billion cubic metres of water per annum to Henan, Hebei, Tianjin and Beijing for use by up to 50 million people, the SNWT-MR is a megaproject intended to change the reality of serious water stress in China’s north.

By physically altering the hydrology of a large swath of the country, enlarging the scale at which water can be managed, and transgressing basin borders, the SNWT-MR creates a new regime for water governance. This megaproject response to water stress affects the very way that Chinese institutions of water governance function.

Water pricing 

Water prices in China are set by provincial and municipal governments in accordance with the principle of cost recovery as outlined in the 2002 Water Law, and vary by region and water use category. But the price of water delivered by the SNWT-MR to the cities of the North China Plain is set by the central government’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) in line with the 2014 Management Regulations for the Use of Water from the SNWT Project. In Hebei, for example, this means that a sixth or more of all water used in the province in a given year could be subject to direct price manipulation by central government.

Water pricing institutions have been transformed by the SNWT-MR in one other important way. The NDRC has introduced a two-part tariff for provinces and municipalities purchasing water from the scheme, again, laid out in the 2014 Management Regulations and confirmed in the 2015 SNWT-MR tariff legislation: a fixed fee is charged on all water allocated to each outlet along the canal and a volumetric fee is then calculated based on actual withdrawals.

For example, in Hebei the provincial government will be charged over USD $250 million a year for its allocation of 3.47 billion cubic metres even if it uses none of that allocated water. The intended effect is to financially incentivise use of SNWT-MR water over competing sources and to guarantee minimal recovery of project construction and maintenance costs.

Both of these transformations in water pricing institutions are innovations, in the Chinese context, and are products of the enormous costs of building and maintaining the megaproject and uncertainties in future demand.

But although these institutional reforms are likely to change water management practices in China, there are still obstacles that stand in their way.

Institutional fragmentation

Bureaucratic fragmentation between and among central government ministries and provincial governments has long been an object of intrigue for scholars and policymakers. Institutional reforms in the wake of the SNWT-MR’s completion are particularly exposed to the effects of this fragmentation given the rescaling of governance that the SNWT-MR implies.

Numerous central and local political entities with overlapping jurisdictions and competing interests were and are involved in the planning, construction and operation of the SNWT-MR. Key players at the national level include the Ministry of Water Resources (MWR), the NDRC and the Ministry of Finance. Owing to its broad geographic reach, six provincial and municipal governments are directly implicated in the megaproject as suppliers or users of water, and several more are affected downstream of the abstraction point on the Han river.

Recognising the need for cooperation and holistic management of the SNWT-MR (and the Eastern and Western Routes too), the State Council created the ministry-level Office of the Construction Committee for the South-North Water Transfer Project in 2003. Primarily responsible for overseeing project construction and the relocation of affected communities, the mandate of the Office and its relationship with the MWR are less clear in the operations phase of the SNWT-MR. With water pricing under the control of the NDRC, opportunities for fragmentation and conflict remain.

China has announced several major national water policies in recent years – the ‘three red lines’ in 2011 and the Water Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan in 2015, for example, established instruments and targets for water quantity and quality control – and it is still unclear precisely how the SNWT-MR will interact with these.

What is clear is that existing institutions of water governance will continue to be challenged by the SNWT-MR in operation, and further institutional change is required if the long-term benefits of the project are to be fairly distributed and its negative social, economic and environmental effects mitigated and appropriately compensated.

Huw Pohlner is a Senior Consultant at Australian water policy advisory firm Aither. He is a member of the Food Energy Environment Water (FE2W) research network and has published on water policy online and in print. Huw’s work on the South-North Water Transfer can also be found on chinadialogue and APPS Policy Forum, where much of this piece was originally published. Huw graduated from Oxford’s MPhil Geography and the Environment in 2015.