Water resource decoupling in the Jordan Basin

Dr Michael Gilmont shares insight from a new British Council funded report highlighting opportunities to enhance water security in the Jordan River Basin.

In Jordan, water scarcity and food insecurity are increasingly understood as existential threats to human security and the natural environment. Despite its water scarcity, over the past 2 decades, Jordan has demonstrated considerable ability to grow its economy and its agriculture without commensurately increasing water usage, thereby ‘decoupling’ economic and agricultural growth from increased water resource needs. Higher levels of agricultural water productivity (crop per drop) and wastewater reuse have been two crucial measures to decouple national water needs from available natural water supply, along with the import of much water-intensive food production (including 98% of national wheat needs), and economic growth concentrated in non-water intensive sectors of the economy. Jordan is not alone in these trends; others’ in the region have also made considerable progress in circumventing their water limits, with Israel demonstrating long term commitment and measurement of water allocation and productivity.

University of Oxford, in partnership with Jordan’s WANA Institute, and the regional NGO EcoPeace, has been working to deepen our understanding of water resource ‘decoupling’ in Jordan Basin. The research, funded by the British Council, applies the conceptual model below (Fig 1).

Figure 1: Revised water resource decoupling model (developed from Gilmont 2014, 2015), incorporating four mechanisms of decoupling.

In July 2017, the project partners published a report highlighting the potential volumetric gains that could be achieved in Jordan and the Palestinian Territories if they moved towards regional best practice in terms of agricultural water productivity and wastewater reuse. The study also highlights where Israel could learn from its neighbours, particularly in rainfed tree-crop production. The analysis also draws on the role that strategic enhancement of food imports can play in mitigating national water scarcity, and allowing water resources to be targeted at the highest economic and social returns.

The project team used data on agricultural production and water application to assess, as national averages, water needs per unit ton of food production for 14 key crops including banana, dates, olives and tomatoes. The crops were chosen on the basis of their national importance, high total water use, or potential for improved relative water productivity. National average data was ground-truthed through a series of interviews with farmers, with data collected on water application, crop yields, relationships between farmers and government agricultural institutions, and crop market conditions. The interviews focused on areas of direct climatic comparability between the three jurisdictions, and confirmed many of the trends revealed through national average data, as well as highlight areas of uncertainty.

On the basis of national average data, our analysis for Jordan suggests that current production tonnages could be produced with 168 million cubic meters (MCM) per year less water than is presently used. This represents a close to 30% reduction in agricultural water applied at the farm. Our analysis has also shown instances of regional best practice in water productivity by Jordan in date and olive production, effectively supplementing rainfall with irrigation to high economic returns in the North Jordan Valley. An additional 50MCM saving could be achieved through increased imports of already import-dependent crops, subject to further research into economic and social impacts.

Current wastewater recovery is comparable to Israeli volumes in terms of water metered and paid for in the domestic sector, at about 60%. However, 50% losses through water theft and leakage in the domestic sector mean that actual recovery of water supplied is around 30%. Increased wastewater supply to agriculture will therefore be conditional upon reduced non-revenue water in the domestic sector.
For the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza, the research was constrained by limited secondary data on agricultural water productivity, and a diversity of responses from farmers on water use. The analysis did however demonstrate that up to 115MCM/yr could be recovered as recycled wastewater on the basis of regional best practice.

For Jordan, achieving highlighted agricultural productivity gains represent a considerable opportunity to improve agricultural knowledge and best practice, and deliver investment in the Jordanian agricultural sector through both technical and management improvements. The investments would enable current production tonnages to be maintained with less water, These investments would both enhance the rural economy and livelihoods, and simultaneously deliver improved water security for Jordan. If combined with other instruments in the 2016 Jordanian National Water Plan, our identified savings, reallocated across the Jordanian water economy, could help eliminate the anticipated remaining deficit between actual and policy-mandated supply by 2025, while allowing for growth in agricultural output and urban water supply. Strategic import substitution could enable the elimination of over-pumping of renewable groundwater resources, and important step towards advancing the restoration of Jordan’s water resources to sustainable levels of use. Proactively enhancing Jordan’s decoupling trends, enabling reallocation of water and enhancement of the agricultural sector, presents the opportunity to become an exemplar of advanced water security in the Arab world.

The research was led by Professor Steve Rayner at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, and coordinated by Dr Michael Gilmont at the Environmental Change Institute, both University of Oxford.

Reference: Gilmont, M., Rayner, S., Harper, E., Nassar, L., Tal,N., Simpson, M., Salem, H. (2017) Decoupling national water needs for national water supplies: insights and potential for countries in the Jordan Basin. WANA Institute, Royal Scientific Society in Amman, Jordan.

How Sustainable Land Management can improve lives in the Ethiopian Highlands

Alice Chautard, Communications and Knowledge Exchange Manager of Oxford University’s REACH programme, shares her experience of a recent field visit to Amhara.

Children of Aba Gerima. Image: Alice Chautard/REACH

In June 2017, Dr Katrina Charles and I travelled to the REACH programme’s Aba Gerima site, located in western Ethiopia, some 25km from Bahir Dar. As we flew to Bahir Dar from the capital Addis Ababa, we passed over hundreds of streams and rivers, stretching as far as the eye could see beneath us. This is the source of the Blue Nile, and at first sight, it is hard to imagine that the highlands of Ethiopia could ever struggle for water.

However, in the Ethiopian Highlands, water security isn’t just a matter of how much water is available throughout the region. The area suffers from severe land degradation, caused in part by farming practices that make the soil prone to being washed away during heavy precipitation events in the rainy season. It is estimated that the Ethiopian Highlands lose about 1.5 billion tons of topsoil annually. Beyond the loss of fertile land, soil erosion also contributes to increased sedimentation in streams and to poor water infiltration. This can lead to reduced agricultural productivity and growth: a serious issue in the Highlands where agriculture constitutes a vital part of the economy.

Soil erosion. Image: Alice Chautard/REACH

There is hope, however, that the situation will improve. The government of Ethiopia has adopted a sustainable land management (SLM) approach to protect vulnerable environmental systems and stabilise the income and livelihoods of the poor. Since 2012, the Water and Land Resource Centre (WLRC) has been working in six Learning Watersheds to help farmers implement SLM practices that encourage better infiltration, such as terracing and the construction of soil bunds. These help recharge groundwater and increase water availability from streams and wells during the dry season, providing greater water security for both households and agricultural water users. Valuable grasses and trees can also be grown on soil bunds so farmers can harvest fodder for animals, and compensate the reduction in planting area. SLM increases soil moisture, which is an essential input for agricultural production and contributes to improving food security.

So far, the results have been positive, with an increase in stream baseflow during the dry season, improved food production, and an 80% reduction in soil loss. Farmers who had relied on surface water sources in the past are increasingly gaining access to groundwater via handpumps and to improved drinking water at the same time. As part of the initiative, the installation of small-scale irrigation technology has also led to the planting of high-value crops such as bananas, mangos, avocados and coffee.

Ensuring that these developments contribute to poverty reduction at the household level and to supporting human development is not a straightforward endeavour. In Ethiopia in particular, there has been limited work assessing the impacts of SLM approaches and the benefit of the bio-physical improvements for poverty reduction. Building on WLRC’s work on Sustainable Land Management in Aba Gerima, the REACH programme, with WLRC and in partnership with the International Food Policy and Research Institute (IFPRI), and the IRC aims to shed light on the complex relationships between poverty dynamics and water security, from both the natural science and social science perspectives. Understanding the gender differences in access to and control over water is a key component of this work. REACH will be engaging and working with key government and practitioner stakeholders, such as the Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Electricity (MoWIE) and the MoANR, throughout the programme to inform water management and policy decisions around SLM and ensure research outputs lead to practical improvements on the ground.

Young ploughboy. Image: Alice Chautard/REACH

As part of REACH, WLRC and IFPRI have designed a survey exploring the impacts of SLM on poverty and how changes in water security benefit women, men, girls and boys. The survey was completed in July, with over 500 respondents from the two learning watersheds. Some of these initial results will be presented at a high-level symposium with MoWIE and MoANR in September 2017.

You can find out more about our Sustainable Land Management Observatory here.

Present and future flood vulnerability, risk and disadvantage

New Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, led by Environmental Change Institute researcher, outlines the link between flooding and social vulnerability in the UK.

Two-thirds of cities experiencing relative economic decline face above average flood disadvantage according to new research led by Paul Sayers, Honorary Research Associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. The report, commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, entitled ‘Present and future flood vulnerability, risk and disadvantage: A UK assessment’ highlights how floods interact with social vulnerability across the UK to create flood disadvantage, an issue which will be exacerbated by climate change.

Today some 6.4 million people live in flood prone areas, with around 1.5 million of these people living in vulnerable neighbourhoods (which include people on low incomes, with poor health and other factors that means floods are likely to have more negative impacts on people). According to the research, over 50% of the population exposed to flooding in the most vulnerable neighbourhoods can be found in just ten local authorities.

The number of people living in flood prone areas is set to increase to 10.8 million people by the 2080s, assuming a plausible but more extreme future scenario (of high population growth and a 4 degree centigrade increase in temperatures due to climate change).
Cities in relative economic decline experience levels of flood disadvantage above the UK average, suggesting floods could undermine economic growth in areas that need it most and lead to a spiral of decline if repeated floods occur.

Recent developments are also facing increasing risk. Of the 300,000 properties built in the most socially vulnerable neighbourhoods between 2008-14, nearly 14% are in areas prone to fluvial or coastal flooding. By the 2080s, those living in these developments will experience a disproportional increase in flood risk compared to new developments built elsewhere in the floodplain. This is especially the case where new developments have taken place in socially vulnerable coastal communities.

Spatial distribution of Expected Annual Damages (EAD)

The report highlights a series of recommendations for policymakers including:

  • Adopt new indicators to highlight the risks faced by the most socially vulnerable (including a new Neighbourhood Flood Vulnerability Index (NFVI), a Social Flood Risk Index (SFRI) and a measure of Relative Economic Pain (REP)
  • Use these new indicators to better target support for the most socially vulnerable in flood investment decisions.
  • Ensure flood risk management policy actively supports inclusive growth.
  • Better reflect the disproportionate long-term flood risks faced by vulnerable neighbourhoods in national and local planning policy.

​​​For further information contact Paul Sayers, email: paul.sayers@sayersandpartners.co.uk

Reference: Sayers, P.B., Horritt, M., Penning Rowsell, E., and Fieth, J. (2017). Present and future flood vulnerability, risk and disadvantage: A UK scale assessment. A report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published by Sayers and Partners LLP

Paul Sayers is Honorary Research Associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. He has over twenty years international experience in all aspects of flood and coastal risk management – including large scale strategic planning studies in the UK, China, Africa, Europe and the US.  Paul leads Sayers and Partners, a specialist consultancy focused on the management of the water environment and its associated risks.

Prof Edmund Penning-Rowsell is Pro Vice Chancellor for Research at Middlesex University. He is also part of the teaching staff on Oxford University’s Water Science, Policy and Management MSc.

Beyond evidence

Experts gather at Wolfson College to explore how knowledge practices inform the governance of environmental challenges.

There are few areas in modern life untouched by regulation. Recent regulatory disasters such as the VW Emissions Scandal, once again, raise the question of whether insufficient knowledge is the cause of such regulatory failures.

Last month, delegates gathered at Wolfson College, Oxford, to explore how evidence is used to inform environmental governance challenges, at a workshop hosted by Oxford University’s Centre for Socio-Legal Studies.

The workshop drew perspectives from across a variety of disciplines, including cultural and urban geographers, economists, political scientists, socio-legal researchers and academic lawyers. Among the speakers were Oxford Water Network members Bettina Lange (workshop convenor), Chris DeckerCatharina Landström and Kevin Grecksch,

Presentations explored how a range of knowledge practices from environmental science and economics inform the governance of contemporary environmental challenges. Speakers touched upon topics such as the regulation of water scarcity and drought in the UK, hydraulic fracking for shale gas, carbon accounting under the Paris Agreement, as well as a range of climate change adaptation measures in North-Western Germany.

The diversity of disciplinary perspectives made for a simulating discussion which considered the opportunities for, and limitations of, evidence in informing environmental regulatory decision-making. This debate touched upon a range of cross-cutting analytical themes, including the relevance of network metaphors, deep uncertainty of knowledge in the context of innovative technologies, as well as agency and scale for understanding the production and dissemination of evidence for the purposes of regulatory decision-making.

The workshop saw the development of a series of ‘law in action’ perspectives around these themes. These were informed by the participation of staff from the Environment Agency and the Competition and Markets Authority, and grounded in the research presented at the workshop.

A detailed workshop programme and abstracts are available from the Law Faculty website.