Connecting the Sustainable Development Goals to improve water security for the poor

A cheat sheet on key themes for incoming water students by Rosanna Bartlett, REACH Partnership Funding Manager, Oxford University.

With a new cohort of students about to commence the MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management at Oxford, now is an opportune time for us in the REACH programme to reflect broadly on global developments in water security over the past year. The recent World Water Week conference in Stockholm provided high-level insights into global trends with dialogue between scientific, business, policy and civic communities. Here are five takeaways to get the new students up to speed:

  • The agreement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) last year was a major milestone for global development. All eyes in the global water community are on SDG 6 which aims to ‘ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’. Water is intrinsically connected to realising many, if not all, of the SDGs. Last month, UN-Water released the brief Water and Sanitation Interlinkages across the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which considers the main synergies and conflicts between SDG 6 and other SDGs. For example, ‘sustaining economic growth [SDG 8.1] needs to be achieved in such a way as to not jeopardise water quality [SDG 6.3] or the sustainable supply of freshwater [SDG 6.4]’. When competition for scarce water resources is rife, understanding the trade-offs and economic outcomes of different water allocation scenarios can help make optimal policy decisions. Understanding the linkages between different aspects of the SDGs is an important element of the REACH programme, which aims to understand the relationships between water services, water resources and sustainable growth.
  • Ensuring access to water and sanitation is essential to achieving the principal objective of the SDGs, which is to end poverty [SDG 1]. Both of these issues relate closely to principles of equity and distribution. At World Water Week, Léo Heller, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, said that we must end inequality within cities in order to achieve universal access to drinking water and sanitation. This means reaching everyone, not just the easy to reach.
  • Any efforts to improve water security and achieve SDG 6 will be hampered without placing gender at the forefront. To do this, the relationship between gender and water needs to be better understood. Currently, gender-disaggregated water data are among the least available of national-level indicators, and 45% of countries do not produce any gender statistics related to water.
  • Although data collection is the foundation of the monitoring of the SDGs, global water monitoring systems are in decline, with the biggest gaps found in developing countries. Currently, an important task of the United Nations Inter-Agency and Expert Group on SDGs is the review and refinement of SDG indicators.
  • On the theme of sustainable growth, the need for better water financing is increasingly gaining traction. While capital is abundant, investors are reluctant to invest in the water sector as it is seen as a risk. ‘Get the price for water right’ was a message heard often at World Water Week. But Dr Alex Money from the University of Oxford suggests that what matters in finance is the return on capital compared to its cost. Although returns on capital would be more attractive if water was priced at its full local economic cost, ‘what gets missed is how much the cost of capital has fallen in the last decade. All things being equal, this is equivalent to a 30-50% real-term rise in water prices,’ he said. According to Dr Money our best hope for achieving the water SDG is to mobilise capital to reflect changes in the relative attractions of the sector.

Overall, it seems the global water community is increasingly recognising the complexity of the water security challenge. However, while the three themes of universal water services, water resources, and sustainable growth were covered at World Water Week, these were often addressed as separate issues, led and attended by distinct groups of people and organisations. Linkages between the three were few and far between.

For example, the discussions around water services and the SDGs focused on monitoring, finance and equity; but there was little consideration of resource sustainability issues, such as how climate change is impacting already water-scarce regions and what that means for service delivery. There were plenty of examples of how water resources underpin sustainable growth, but limited understanding of the linkages with water services or poverty.

Silos are starting to fall, but slowly. Joining the dots in this messy field of water security is where REACH hopes to add value. The challenge for water professionals and students alike lies in drawing connections between these many facets of water security.

This post first appeared on the REACH website.

Where will you get your water today?

Dr Katrina Charles, REACH Co-Director, reflects on her recent trip to Ethiopia.

On a trip back to Wukro town in the Tigray region of Ethiopia this month, I am amazed at the transformation. Our last visit took place in the middle of a drought. The landscape was brown, with many fields tilled, waiting for the rain. But this time the fields are a patchwork of lush greens of healthy tef, wheat and millet crops. Reservoirs are full, where previously there was only bare, dusty ground. The river, which was bone dry, is not only flowing now, but is a hive of activity as people bring themselves, their clothes and bedding, their vehicles and livestock, down for a wash.

This amazing change is also notable for the absence of queues for drinking water.

When we visited in February the water utility was operating a ‘shifting system’, opening a very limited number of valves at different times of the day and week, so that everyone received a share of the very meagre amounts of water available. This meant that households would get water for one hour a week, sometimes in the middle of the night; and this water arrived in a trickle allowing them to only fill one jerican. People had to resort to other water sources, walking farther and paying more.

Fast forward to September, the water from the piped system is back to the usual standard of water for two to three days per week. Not a perfect system, but better.

In the surrounding rural areas, the queues of jericans at each handpump and rural water point are nowhere to be seen, as are the teams of children who carried them and pumped the water. Water points are deserted; everyone seems to be at the river.

But the earlier drought didn’t just impact on drinking water. Food was also less available as many of the local crops failed. We saw people bringing their livestock down to the dam for a drink. Women working in the market were spending longer and travelling further to buy produce to sell.

These changes in the way people access and use water, how they experience water security, were especially of interest to us. Improving water security is about reducing water-related risks, but these risks don’t just come from the water, which can be measured in terms of quantity and quality. These risks are influenced by the choices people make, choices made on the basis of economics, time, convenience and tradition. And they affect all aspects of people’s lives.

Home to 42,000 people, Wukro is the location for REACH’s observatory on ‘Small town pathways to water security’ where we’re studying the changes in water security as UNICEF implement a Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programme, to provide lessons for other small towns in Africa.

When the impact of WASH programmes is measured, the focus is often on changes to the main source of water used, and the quantity and quality of water obtained. In contrast, our water security approach aims to understand how people make their decisions about which water source to use, and how this changes with water availability and with the evolving water services.


During the wet season the fields outside the town are verdant, and the water storages full.
The river that was dry previously is now a hive of activity for work and play as people make use of the availability of water.
This reservoir was almost empty, but is now full again following the return of the rains.

This post was first published on the REACH website.

Oxford welcomes back Dustin Garrick

Water expert, Dr Dustin Garrick, returns to Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment to establish a programme on the commons and enterprise.

dustin-garrickDr Dustin Evan Garrick returned to Oxford in July 2016 to start a new post as Departmental Research Lecturer of Environmental Management based in the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment.

Dr Garrick will establish a programme to develop the next wave of research on collective action and the commons, assessing how and why the private sector engages in water allocation reform to mitigate the risks of resource competition and shocks.

His research examines property rights and incentives to allocate freshwater across uses, users and political borders, building on longstanding programmes and partnerships in Australia and Western North America, as well as growing international work, on water allocation reform, water markets, fiscal decentralisation and drought resilience.

Dr Garrick will work closely with the Oxford Water Network, the MSc programmes in SoGE and the Water Security Initiative to chart pathways to water security, bridging natural and social science expertise and methods and strengthening international networks of science, policy and enterprise.

Prior to his return to Oxford this summer, Dr. Garrick was Philomathia Chair of Water Policy at McMaster University, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Water Security at Oxford and founding member of the Oxford Water Network (2011-13) and a Fulbright Scholar in Australia, where he remains an associate of the Centre of Water Economics, Environment and Policy at the Australian National University.

He maintains, a website that tackles the political economy of water allocation reform, building on his 2015 book, Water Allocation in Rivers under Pressure, which will be released in paperback in January 2017

Quenching thirst for data in rural Kenya

Susanna Goodall, Research Associate at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, presents a recent audit of water infrastructure in rural Kenya, undertaken by the REACH programme.

Kitui County in Kenya has a population of more than one million. In the rural and semi-arid northern region of the county, people traditionally find water for drinking, cooking, washing and watering animals from a variety of unsafe sources such as hand-dug shallow wells, temporary scoop holes in dry river beds, and stored surface water in earth dams and rock catchments.

For several decades the government and NGOs have been investing in infrastructure across this rural area to improve access to clean drinking water. Numerous handpumps have been installed, as well as small piped schemes with deep boreholes powered by diesel generators, mains electricity and more recently solar panels. However, there is no unified record of the assets that exist, where they are, who manages them and their current state of use and repair.

Since devolution, county governments are tasked with ensuring water services for the population, bringing budget decisions closer to the ground and highlighting the need for data in planning and decision making.
As a first step towards tackling this information deficit, we carried out a Water Audit in one sub-county in order to put together a comprehensive database of piped water schemes. Assisted by county government staff, a team of four enumerators visited every water scheme, met with the management committee, and collected information on the infrastructure, functionality, management, finances and water quality.

The results were presented at a WASH Forum on 25 August which was supported by UNICEF and included all stakeholders involved in water services provision in the county. Data is important for decision-makers as it can be used for evidence-based budgeting and work planning. For example, knowing that 22 schemes (45%) are not fully operational, affecting 62,000 people, can justify the necessary budget for rehabilitation. Most breakdowns are due to pump or generator failure, demonstrating the importance of preventive maintenance. The average downtime due to failure is a shocking 3-10 months, flagging the need for a call to action on behalf of water users. Mapping the data is also a powerful tool and can highlight areas with little investment to date, clusters with a lot of infrastructure or water quality concerns (eg high salinity).

This low-cost, collaborative Water Audit methodology can be scaled up to cover the whole of Kitui County. While a one-off survey gives a snapshot of the situation, a mechanism for updating and analysing the data and a good information management system will be next steps for ensuring that up-to-date information is available for decision-makers and for holding service providers and management committees accountable.

Read the policy brief ‘Maintaining Africa’s water infrastructure: findings from a Water Audit in Kitui County, Kenya’

This post was first published on the REACH website.

How to avoid anti-dam protests

Dam developments often face opposition. Oxford DPhil candidate, Julian Kirchher, presents research exploring what drives dam protests.

The Bakun Dam under construction in Malaysia. The Bakun Dam faced particularly fierce resistance. Source: pHotosHo0x. Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

The Bakun Dam under construction in Malaysia. The Bakun Dam faced particularly fierce resistance. Source: pHotosHo0x. Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

A major boom in dam development is under way globally with at least 3,700 dams1 either planned or already under construction. These are expected to increase global hydropower production by 73% to 1,700 GW1 in the coming years. 34 GW of capacity was added in 2015 alone2, equivalent to 2.5 times of Africa’s current total installed capacity.3 Asia is a particular hotspot of dam construction with capacity additions of almost 28 GW in 20152, more than in any other region of the world.

Fifty years ago, engineers constructing large-scale infrastructure such as dams struggled most with the technical challenges of these mega-projects. However, the greatest obstacles faced by such projects today are almost always socio-political4. Indeed, public protests delay large dam projects all around the world. Examples of current contested large dam projects are Myanmar’s Myitsone Dam5 or Myanmar’s Mong Ton Dam6, Brazil’s Belo Monte Dam7 and Mozambique’s Mphanda Nkuwa Dam8.

Scholars have mostly explained the emergence of significant anti-dam-protests with the political system of a country.9 According to these scholars, significant anti-dam-protests emerge only if the country in which the dam is constructed is reasonably democratic; if a country is autocratic, no protests emerge10. Protests such as those against Myanmar’s Myitsone Dam, which started when Myanmar was still under military rule, could therefore not be explained by these academicians11.

This work seeks to address this by examining the root causes of protests. For this purpose, we have carried out a study that features 12 cases (available here) to analyse protests against recent dam projects in Asia – some occurring in rather authoritarian, some in democratic countries. Our overall analysis is based on field research conducted in Asia (mostly in Myanmar and Thailand) over the course of several months, complemented by online surveying and document analysis.

Our study reveals that the political system indeed impacts the emergence of anti-dam-protests. We thus corroborated the scholarly consensus on this topic. However, we also found a set of additional root causes that determine the likelihood of significant anti-dam-protests. These are project-specific root causes which can be altered relatively unproblematically (unlike the political system) by those responsible for a project, e.g. the dam developer or the funder pursuing it.

These are the three key findings from our study that are likely of most interest to dam developers and funders that hope to prevent significant protests against a dam project:

First, we found that the non-adherence to international social safeguards such as those by the International Finance Corporation (IFC)12 or the World Commission on Dams (WCD)13 to be the most significant determinant of massive anti-dam-protests. Indeed, projects lacking international social safeguards (such as Malaysia’s Bakun Dam14 or Myanmar’s Myitsone Dam15) faced particularly fierce resistance since project-affected people were felt to bear all of the project’s costs, while gaining none of its benefits. Implementing social safeguards such as those recommended by the WCD – the gold standard for dam building16 – is the choice of the dam developer and funder.

Second, we found that projects in countries with high levels of perceived corruption faced a lot of resistance. A particular case in point is again Myanmar’s Myitsone Dam. 90% of its electricity is supposed to be exported to China in exchange of USD 500 million annually17. Our field research revealed that revenues generated via the electricity exports were expected to only benefit the country’s elites, not the people of Myanmar and their development. While the overall level of corruption in a country is unlikely to be influenced by those responsible for a dam project, various transparency policies and additional non-corruption measures can be implemented for a specific project.

Third, we found that a project’s environmental risk significantly determined if massive anti-dam-protests would occur. Every large dam project entails major environmental risks18, yet the magnitude of risk still varies from project to project. For instance, not every project is prone to earthquake risks. We learnt that projects reported to be close to a major fault line – such as Myanmar’s Myitsone Dam19 or India’s Sardar Sarovar Dam20 – faced greater resistance because those downstream feared an earthquake-induced dam breach21. Because such environmental risk is impacted by the dam site chosen it can be controlled by the dam developer and funder.

The interviews carried out for our study indicate that dam developers increasingly choose dam sites that will only require limited resettlement – assuming that dam projects with such limited resettlement would not face major resistance. Our study rebuts this assumption. Indeed, we found several projects with limited resettlement (e.g. Thailand’s Kaeng Suea Ten Dam requiring the resettlement of 5,000 people or Laos’ Xayaburi Dam requiring the resettlement of 2,100 people22) that still faced massive protests. A combination of the political system, lacking social safeguards, corruption, and environmental risk can largely explain these protests.

Root causes such as poor social safeguards, corruption, or environmental risk are widely seen as the inversion of good governance principles23. While our study indicates that the application of good governance principles may be able to prevent massive anti-dam-protests, more research will be needed. After all, our sample size of 12 is limited which thus mandates caution regarding the study’s generalizability. Furthermore, our quantifications of root causes such as lacking social safeguards – necessary for the modeling of protest emergence likelihoods – are at least partly subjective. We thus provided all raw data used for our paper in its appendix to ensure that our quantifications can be scrutinized.

Massive anti-dam-protests are a major concern of dam developers and funders today. We hope that our research helps to illuminate why such protest occur and what can be done do to prevent them. Implementing international social safeguards is the most promising starting point we identified. There is a moral imperative to implement such safeguards and our research suggests there may also be a business one.


  1. Zarfl, C. et al (2015) A global boom in hydropower dam construction. Aquatic Sciences 77 (1), 161-170.
  2. International Hydropower Association (2016) 2016 Hydropower Status Report.
  3. World Energy: Hydropower.
  4. McAdam et al. (2010) Site Fights: Explaining opposition to pipeline projects in the developing world. Sociological Forum 25 (3), 401-427.
  5. Kiik, L (2016) Nationalism and anti-ethno-politics: why Chinese Development failed at Myanmar’s Myitsone Dam. Eurasian Geography and Economics
  6. Kirchherr, J. et al. (2016) The interplay of activists and dam developers: the case of Myanmar’s mega-dams. International Journal of Water Resources Development.
  7. Bratman, EZ (2014) Contradictions of Green Development: Human Rights and Environmental Norms in Light of Belo Monte Dam Activism. Journal of Latin American Studies, 46, Issue 2.
  8. Sneddon, C and Fox, C (2008) Struggles Over Dams as Struggles for Justice: The World Commission on Dams (WCD) and Anti-Dam Campaigns in Thailand and Mozambique. Society and Natural Resources 21 (7).
  9. Xie, L (2010) Environmental Movements and Political Opportunities: The Case of China. Social Movement Studies 9 (1)
  10. Swain, A, Ang, MC (2004) Political structure and dam conflicts: comparing cases in southeast Asia. World Water Council 4th World Water Forum.
  11. Appendix (2012), Chronology of the Myitsone Dam at the Confluence of Rivers above Myitkyina and Map of Kachin State dams, in: Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs , 31, 1, 141-153.
  12. IFC (2012) Performance Standards on Environmental and Social Sustainability.
  13. World Commission on Dams (2000) Dams and Development: a new framework for decision-making. EarthScan, London.
  14. Lee, WC et al (2014) Compensation policy in a large development project: the case of the Bakun hydroelectric dam. International Journal of Water Resources Development 31 (1).
  15. Kirchherr et al. (2016) Multi-causal pathways of public opposition to dam projects in Asia: a fuzzy set qualitative comparative analysis (fsQCA). Global Environmental Change 41, 33-45.
  17. Development Networking Group (2008) Damming the Irrawaddy. Chiang Mai, Thailand.
  18. Ziv et al. (2012) Trading-off fish biodiversity, food security and hydropower in the Mekong River Basin. PNAS, 109 (15).
  19. Parthasarathy, R, Dholakia, RH (2011) Sardar Sarovar Project on the River Narmada. History of design, planning and appraisal. CEPT University Press, Ahmedabad.
  20. Wang, Z, Bowles, DS (2006) Dam breach simulations with multiple breach locations under wind and wave actions. Advances in Water Resources 29 (8), 1222-1237.
  22. de Graaf, G, Paanakker, H (2014) Good governance: performance values and procedural values in conflict. The American Review of Public Administration.

About the author

Julian Kirchherr is a doctoral scholar at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford. The final version of the University of Oxford study on the root causes of massive anti-dam-protests can be accessed here. A free-of-charge pre-print version of the study is available here.

This article originally appeared on the Global Water Forum website.

Innovative I-Drop Water bringing safe and affordable drinking water to Sub-Saharan Africa

Oxford alumni start-up is working to disrupt the bottled water market via its innovative decentralised water purification and vending system.

Sales of bottled water continue to rise, with researchers estimating the industry will reach $280 billion globally by 2020. Despite the industry’s profitability, it remains an exemplar of unsustainability – hugely wasteful both in environmental and financial terms. Bottled water costs many time more than tap water, yet in many countries it is often the only reliable source of potable water. It is the poorest who bear the brunt of this expense, spending a disproportionately large chunk of their income on what should be a low-cost commodity.

This paradox caught the attention of Saïd Business School MBA alumni, James Steere and Kate Thiers-Steere, founders of an innovative water start-up, I-Drop Water. While traveling around Africa for business, James was struck by the widespread consumption of bottled water despite its high cost. Ironically, at the time he was distributing water purification products using a new filtration media. Despite the huge potential for his products, the mass-market that needed them most was ultimately unable to afford them: the technology was sound but the African business model was not.

This question caused much debate between James and Kate, who eventually concluded that this was ultimately an example of a failure of business and not, as is more popularly described, a failure of governance. Using knowledge gained through their MBA, the pair set about developing a business to overcome these barriers: this was to become I-Drop Water.

Established in 2015, I-Drop water supplies decentralised purification systems to shop owners, which provide safe drinking water to consumers using refillable containers at around 80% less than the price of bottled water. I-Drop can install purification units at no capital cost to a retailer, with whom they share a percentage of sales revenue. The system is designed to serve both formal and informal grocery outlets, and can operate wherever there is a non-saline water source.

James built a proof of concept in 2014 and tested it in a grocery store with an accommodating shop-owner. Sales were encouraging, but the complexity of oversight prompted the idea of incorporating a GSM-based remote monitoring and control system. The following year, I-Drop Water built and tested its unit with integrated GSM controls. Since launching the first commercial prototype, the company has never looked back, and is now deploying one unit almost every day and has expanded into four countries.

I-Drop Water’s achievements were recently recognised by the Skoll Centre, who presented the founders with a Skoll Venture Award: a prize open to Saïd students and alumni pursuing social enterprise.

“We are incredibly proud to win a Skoll Venture Award,” said Kate. “The Skoll Centre is in many ways responsible for us meeting and for I-Drop Water existing. It is one of the most important centres for social entrepreneurship, and the validation for this business we started only 12 short months ago is fantastic. It’s also helped us raise awareness amongst like-minded businesses and people who are interested in the opportunity that business provides to tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges.”

I-Drop Water now has commercial pilots running in Ghana, Zimbabwe and Botswana and its already established South African business is growing fast. The company sees real growth opportunities in cities and towns across sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Asia and Latin America. This first phase of growth has been aided by initial seed funding, but now the firm is looking to launch a Series-A round of fundraising to support further expansion.

Ultimately, its founders believe I-Drop Water’s unique combination of technology and innovative business model holds the potential to transform the supply of drinking water in low income countries, and in doing so, disrupt the unsustainable bottled water market, reduce plastic waste, and provide safe affordable drinking water to the poor.