News from a scientific frontier: the complexity of field-to-river connectivity in the Rother catchment

Researchers from the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute explore the dynamics of soil erosion and river sedimentation in a catchment in South East England.

Picture this: the River Rother flowing eastward through the High Weald on its way to the English Channel. An archetypal lowland scene in the English South Downs National Park, with a peaceful river winding sedately through a mosaic of woodland, farmsteads and villages, all set against a backdrop of green rolling hills.

Rother Catchment. SMART (Sediment and Mitigation Actions for the River Rother) project.

But things are not actually as tranquil and well-ordered as they might seem. The beauty of the view belies the poor ecological condition along much of the river. High sediment load is smothering the riverbed gravels. This is thought to be exacerbating pollution and degradation of the riverine ecosystem, threatening the ‘good ecological status’ required by the European Water Framework Directive, and increasing the costs of producing drinking water: a particular concern of Southern Water.

There is much debate as to the proportion of sediment generated by erosion from arable fields, versus that caused by natural erosion of the bed and banks of the river. In part, this is because it is far from easy to determine the routes by which runoff and sediment leaves eroding fields and reaches the river. The connectivity of runoff and sediment flows is difficult to map and even more difficult to capture in a quantitative model. This is a highly complex research frontier1 – one where science struggles to advance.

Ephemeral gully, Rotherbridge, Feb 2014. SMART (Sediment and Mitigation Actions for the River Rother) project.

For a number of years, the Environmental Change Institute’s Professor John Boardman, and a team of collaborators, have been working on field-to-river connectivity in the Rother catchment. For news from this scientific frontier, come along to a lunchtime seminar hosted by Oxford Water Network at the School of Geography and the Environment. Professor Boardman will present alongside ECI collaborator, Dr Dave Favis-Mortlock, at 1 pm on Monday November 13 in the Gilbert Room.

1. ‘There are three great frontiers in science: the very big, the very small, and the very complex.’ Rees, M. (2002) Our Cosmic Habitat. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, pp180.


About the researchers

Professor John Boardman
Emeritus Professor

John Boardman is a geomorphologist educated at the Universities of Keele (BA and DSc) and London (BSc and PhD). John retired from ECI in September 2008 and from his positions as Deputy Director of the ECI, Director of the MSc in Environmental Change and Management. He is now an Emeritus Professor at the ECI and continues working on land degradation issues, particularly in the Karoo, South Africa. He has published over 160 papers mainly on land degradation and has edited several books: Soils and Quaternary Landscape Evolution (Wiley 1985), Periglacial Processes and Landforms in Britain and Ireland (CUP 1987), Soil Erosion on Agricultural Land (Wiley 1990), Modelling Soil Erosion by Water (Springer 1998) and Soil Erosion in Europe (Wiley 2006). John continues to work on soil erosion in southern England and also on land degradation in South Africa.

Dr David Favis-Mortlock
Honorary Research Associate

Dave Favis-Mortlock is a geomorphological modeller whose research is focused on soil erosion by water and (more recently) long-term coastal change. Particular interests include self-organization of complex systems, modelling the impacts of changing climate and land use, and model evaluation.

He obtained an undergraduate degree in Environmental Sciences from Lancaster University. Then following a period in commercial computing and as a musician, he began doctoral research at the University of Brighton, co-publishing the first studies on the impacts of future climate change on erosion. In 1992, Dave moved to Oxford to begin work as a researcher at what was then called the Environmental Change Unit. Following ten years as a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, in 2011 he returned to the Environmental Change Institute. Dave is also a jazz violinist.

Using satellite data to respond to environmental disasters

The challenge of providing a rapid response to environmental disasters as varied as flooding, drought, illegal logging and oil spills is the focus of two new projects in which the University of Oxford is a key partner. Dr Steven Reece, data processing and machine learning lead at Oxford’s Department of Engineering Science explains how the project will work in action and the role that machine learning technology will play in it.

Preparing for a potential environmental threat is highly challenging and when it comes to identifying hazards, some data can be more useful than others.

Compared to other forms, satellite data, can quickly recognise small changes on the surface of the earth or sea that may be indicators of a larger problem in the making. For example, a new ‘hole’ appearing in a forest can provide evidence of illegal logging, or a slight colour change in crops may show the early effects of drought. Combining data from these images with other sources has the potential to create powerful information for governments and other actors.

Satellite imagery is very useful for quickly generating independent data from a wide variety of events on the earth as they unfold. The difficulty is how to organise and process this vast quantity of data and to combine it with other insights from the earth’s surface so that it can be used to inform decision-makers in the most effective way. There may also be gaps in the data, or some of it may be unreliable, and this is where machine learning technology can be really useful.

Machine learning is having a positive impact on many walks of life, supporting evidence-based decision making across a wide range of different application domains, and truly ground breaking data-centred solutions to key societal problems.

The Oxford University Department of Engineering Science are world leaders in the field. Our machine learning solutions, include tools that are capable of automating and processing large quantities of data from satellite images. This specialist knowledge will be key to a new international collaboration that will use machine learning enabled satellite imagery to make a real difference to people’s lives; improving emergency response to environmental disasters in Malaysia, Ethiopia and Kenya.

UK Space Agency funded projects led by the Satellite Applications Catapult and Airbus Defence and Space will provide a more-timely, accurate and detailed understanding of an environmental crisis than is currently available. The data gathered will be used as a starting point to create information for key decision makers in countries affected by environmental disasters, so that they are able to intervene as early as possible to protect local people and the planet.

Both projects: Earth and Sea Observation System (Malaysia) and Earth Observation for Flood and Drought Resilience in Ethiopia and Kenya, are supported through the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme and have attracted a total investment of £21 million.

The objectives of the work are directly relevant to many of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals:

In Malaysia we will be working with government agencies to tackle flooding, oil pollution and illegal logging, all of which pose serious social and economic threats to Malaysian people. Monsoon flooding is a major annual issue, and the project aims to enable evacuation plans and flood defences to be activated much faster. It will also generate data that will help the authorities to quickly identify and track oil leaks from shipping which are causing irreparable damage to Malaysia’s mangrove swamps, and to locate areas where illegal logging is taking place.

In Ethiopia and Kenya the focus will be on creating an improved understanding of flood and drought risk, thus helping to build local people’s resilience to these natural disasters and alleviate poverty. The intention is to use the same data to provide an emergency response where needed and to help develop longer-term strategies and solutions to drought and flood. In Kenya the project will also be generating tools to support the micro-insurance market, which is of key importance to farmers who have little or no access to insurance, by providing independent data about crop damage to verify farmers’ claims.
Our software can reconcile inconsistent data, filter out unreliable sources, and integrate information derived from other sources such as social media. It is even able to interpolate what may lie in the data ‘black spots’ between known observations, thus ‘filling in the gaps’ in the overall picture.

In collaboration with several other partners with different types of expertise, we will be bringing our specialist knowledge to bear on the real-world problems identified in Malaysia, Ethiopia and Kenya, and working out how they can be applied most effectively in these different contexts. In the drought-response work in Ethiopia and Kenya, for example, our engineers will be working with colleagues from the School of Geography and the Environment who specialise in hydrology. We will work together with partners from industry, to investigate how to use machine learning to integrate data from satellite imagery of crops with information of both surface and subterranean water resources. Combining views from above and below in this way is more powerful than looking at each one individually, and will create a much more accurate early warning of drought.

We hope that the lessons learned from this work will be used to better understand environmental threats in other areas of the world, and prevent their impact in the future.

This post originally appeared on the Oxford Science Blog.

Blended finance for water infrastructure: hope or hype?

Dr Alex Money of Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment explains why more catalytic innovation is needed to achieve transformative impact.

Water treatment plant, Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Photo: Stef Smits/IRC

What is blended finance?
Blended finance is a somewhat amorphous concept. A simple definition is: a combination of different sources of finance that enable the building and maintenance of water infrastructure. The rationale of blending is that different types of funders are willing to bear different levels of risk for a given return. For example, there may be plenty of money available from long-term, cautious investors in the private sector and pension funds, for projects that are considered low risk. However, water infrastructure in developing countries often carries political, economic and technical risks that can make the projects unattractive to cautious investors. Equally, there may be money available from development finance institutions and foundations that are prepared to finance higher-risk projects, but are constrained by having limited access to capital. Infrastructure often requires lots of finance. The construction of, for example, water treatment plants means that most of the cash is needed upfront, while the income to repay that investment (in the form of water and sewerage rates, for example) is achieved over the whole lifetime of the plant, which may be twenty years or even longer.

In short, water infrastructure in the developing world needs access to significant upfront capital, from providers that can tolerate elevated political, market and technical risks. The current imbalance between supply and demand is reflected in the ‘infrastructure gap’ – that is, the difference between what is currently spent on infrastructure per year, and the amount needed in order to meet current and future demand – estimated at around US$ 1 trillion per year.

Blended finance, it is proposed, makes it possible to close the infrastructure gap by unlocking more capital through managing the risk and return attributes of projects. Blending small amounts of risk-tolerant capital (that will bear the ‘first loss’ on projects that run into difficulties) with larger amounts of long-term capital (that will supply upfront funding with an extended payback period), broadens the range of projects that can be funded:

Fig. 1. Blended finance. Source: author

Why the hype?
Following the announcement of the Sustainable Development Goals, there has been more attention on the strategic use of development finance to mobilise additional commercial finance towards achieving the SDGs. In 2016, a High-Level Meeting of the OECD announced that it would develop an “inclusive, targeted, results-oriented work programme” on blended finance. The programme’s mandate is to collate evidence and lessons learned; develop best practices for deployment; and to deliver policy guidance and principles. The OECD’s Blended Finance Principles are to be published as a key research output in 2017.

Is there hope?
It is undoubtedly the case that investments in water infrastructure could be better optimised across financial actors in the public, private and third sector. This optimisation would accelerate progress towards the SDGs, with the potential to improve the quality of life for millions of people. Inasmuch as the Blended Finance Principles and similar initiatives will help to identify suitable projects, the prospects are hopeful.

However, I believe that further catalytic innovation is necessary before blended finance can have a transformative impact on water infrastructure financing. To that end, a research group that I lead is currently working on the design of a digital intermediation platform to connect infrastructure projects to multiple sources of finance (development bank, institutional investor, private wealth etc.), using a validation layer. This layer would pre-qualify projects using on-the-ground personnel and assets, increasing their risk-adjusted return. The platform embeds a typology of investors (recognising differences in risk appetite) along with a typology of water infrastructure (recognising differences in return characteristics), and links to our broader work with the World Water Council and others. It’s an early-stage research project, but we’re pleased with the traction that we’ve already been available to gain. If you’re interested in learning more, just drop me an email and we will add you to our distribution list.

Contact: Alex Money  –

This article was originally posted on the IRC website.

Dams on Myanmar’s Irrawaddy river could fuel more conflicts in the country

Dr Julian Kirchherr outlines the threat dam building poses to peace in Myanmar, drawing from his doctoral research undertaken at Oxford University’s School of Geography and Environment.

Dam projects on the Irrawady in Myanmar could not only devastate livelihoods but add more conflicts to an already sensitive region. Saw John Bright, Author provided

Myanmar makes many headlines these days. While most of the focus has been on the Rohingya issue, the country is also heading towards an important economic and livelihood crisis. Myanmar was once called “Asia’s rice bowl”, and that label stuck for much of the 20th century. While the country is keen to reclaim this title, it’s doubtful this ambition will be realised soon.

At the centre of this looming livelihood crisis is large dams. In September 2011, now six years ago, Myanmar’s then-president Thein Sein surprised his countryfolk and international observers by suspending the construction of the Myitsone Dam project in northern Myanmar, the largest of seven dam projects to be built on the Irrawaddy River.

The project had, from its commencement in 2009, been extremely unpopular in the country because of its vast negative impacts on livelihoods, disrupting fisheries and local agriculture.

Even though Myanmar’s political system was extremely restrictive at this time, a major campaign had emerged against it, led by local communities and NGOs.

The Myitsone Dam’s suspension is widely considered as the main symbol of Myanmar’s political change from autocracy to democracy.

When I carried out field research in Myanmar last year a Burmese environmental activist told me:

This was the first time since the 1962 Burmese coup d’état that the country’s political leadership took public opinion into account

Originally, the Myitsone Dam project was supposed to be completed this year. Although a decision on its fate was supposed to be made last year by Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, it remains suspended until today. Many fear, though, that construction may resume soon. The impacts on livelihoods would be devastating.

Protests against dams in Myanmar in 2015.
Kyaw Nyi Soe, Author provided

Myanmar Damocles projects

The main purpose of the dams to be built on the Irrawaddy River is hydropower production. Myanmar’s hydropower potential stands at 108 GW – the largest potential of any country in Southeast Asia. But only 52% of households have access to electricity.

The country needs to harness its vast hydropower resources to change this, particularly since Myanmar’s renewable energy potential beyond hydropower is relatively limited. For instance, Myanmar has 3,400 km2 of land with wind speeds greater than six meters per second, the minimum needed for modern wind turbines. This equates to only 0.5% of the country’s total area. Hence, wind power will not be able to satisfy Myanmar’s rapidly growing energy needs. Myanmar is developing renewable alternatives to generate energy as it has only modest fossil fuel potential.

The planned projects on the Irrawaddy River have a combined capacity of more than 15 GW. For those to be resettled by them, they are so-called “Damocles projects”. This term reflects the constant threat hanging over villagers in the communities which are close to the dams: the fear of resettlement. Many of the (to be displaced) communities are Kachin, a Christian minority in Myanmar that has lived on these lands for hundreds of years already.

Such projects create tangible negative impacts on communities even if not implemented. For instance, communities invest much less in homes and businesses due to a fear of being resettled soon, while stress levels for resettlees are particularly high. Advocacy work against a dam project can also heavily consume people’s time and resources.

But the projects’ social impacts exceed far beyond resettlees. Almost 40 million people live in the Irrawaddy River Basin. This equates to two-thirds of Myanmar’s total population.

The rivers to be dammed are important source of livelihoods for local inhabitants.

Many of these rely on fisheries for sustenance and/or a large part of their food. However, large dams act as barriers in a river system, blocking the movement of migratory fish species. So migratory fish downstream can be reduced by as much as 20% due to large dam construction, according to some estimates, while measures to address dams’ negative impacts on fisheries such as fish ladders can only partially mitigate this effect.

Many point out that large dams boost agricultural productivity which can offset the negative impacts on fisheries. Indeed, flooding can be regulated via dams which can improve agricultural productivity by several percentage points, according to some studies.

However, large dams can also block the flow of nutrients which, in turn, can reduce agricultural yield. Myanmar still is a predominantly agricultural economy, with around two-thirds of the population employed in agriculture and almost 40% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) generated in the agricultural sector. Reduced agricultural productivity would thus be devastating for the country.

Conflict zones

Myanmar’s best potential hydropower sites are all in conflict areas.

Ethnic conflict between the Kachin in northern Myanmar and the Burmese military -with the Kachin demanding more self-determination from the national government since the early 1960 already – was reportedly exacerbated in 2010 once work on the Myitsone Dam had started.

The Kachin and the Burmese military then clashed in 2011 ending a 17-year ceasefire agreement. Some international observers have attributed this to the Myitsone Dam construction.

Such conflicts can further threaten food security since they displace thousands of people who then struggle to rebuild their livelihoods. While international attention is focused on Myanmar’s evolving Rakhine state crisis with the Rohingya, a less noticed military conflict is also waging in northern Kachin state.

Air strikes by the Burmese government have gradually intensified since 2016 because the Burmese government wants to eliminate the Kachin resistance in an effort to unite Myanmar. Kachin State has not witnessed such a violent armed combat for at least 20 years. Any dam constructed in Kachin State these days – which would be an initiative led by the national government – would further fuel this conflict. It’s been estimated this ongoing conflict has led to the displacement of 100,000 civilians.

Impacts of dams

Large dams will have profound impacts on livelihoods of those living in the Irrawaddy River Basin.

Hence, harnessing Myanmar’s hydropower resources will require careful managing of trade-offs by policy-makers – which includes thorough assessments of likely impacts and the creation of alternative livelihoods for those negatively affected by large dams. Myanmar has many regulations in place already – most notably its Environmental Impact Assessment Procedures, adopted in early 2016 – to deal with these trade-offs.

The ConversationThese are (largely) sound on paper. However, few of them are implemented and until today little information is shared by the government regarding dam development in Myanmar. If the country’s political leadership wants to achieve sustainable development for Myanmar, this will need to change immediately.

Julian Kirchherr, Assistant Professor (Sustainable Business and Innovation Studies), Utrecht University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.