Rachael McDonnell provides water expertise at Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Court

Dr Rachael McDonnell was an invited speaker at a workshop on ‘Policy options for food insecure countries’ held in Abu Dhabi on 19-20 November 2012. The event was hosted by the Crown Prince Court and organised by the policy think tank Chatham House.

McDonnell’s paper contributed to important discussions on the role of innovations in science/technology and policy for improving water management in food production systems. She examined the contribution of marginal waters, saline and treated wastewaters, and discussed how these can be better leveraged to relieve the pressure on freshwater resources.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a hotspot for food vulnerability. Rapid increases in water demand and population growth are compounded by extreme weather events and droughts leading to volatile food commodity markets.

The meeting brought together regional and international experts to discuss issues related to food security, including resource scarcities, crop breeding science, water efficiency strategies, environmental change and implications for policy. Other speakers included representatives from the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission, and the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Rachael McDonnell is a Senior Research Scientist at Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment, and a Scientist (Water Policy and Governance) at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture.


Africa Water Stewardship Scholarship quenches thirst for knowledge

Cliff Nyaga is a beneficiary of The Coca-Cola Company funded Africa Water Stewardship Scholarship, which funds his place on the MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management, class of 2012/2013. He reports on his first term studying at Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment.

12 December 2012, by Cliff M. Nyaga

As the first Africa Water Stewardship Scholar, I arrived in late September, tired but excited for the year ahead studying at Oxford University. The characteristic cold and grey British weather was a bit of a shock but was compensated for by the timeless elegance of the university colleges. Everything seemed quieter and more orderly than where I come from back home in Nairobi, Kenya.

The course started with meeting the 26 other students from 16 different countries on a fascinating residential field trip to Dorset and the Jurassic Coast. We got to know each other and the teaching staff over the weekend while studying various aspects of catchment management and the chalk aquifer system. The staff took us to a local pub where I got my first taste of English beer. Chat over a beer with my teacher? A first, but not bad experience!

Term started gently but then soon accelerated with intense academic activity, centred around taught modules on global water issues including water security, health and policy. There was much for me to work on, learn about, questions to ask and discussions to have. I was left wishing I had much more time. Field study trips in addition to rich study and research resources exposed me to new approaches to understanding and managing water issues and have also made me a better thinker. One highlight was visiting a green wastewater treatment plant at Wessex, where virtually ‘nothing is wasted’.

Not a week goes by in which I don’t attend a lecture from a visiting dignitary, or participate in debates and seminars that involve professionals working in the water sector. And when it’s time for a break from study, it’s easy to take a relaxing park stroll or hop on the bus and visit villages near Oxford (my favourite has been Burford, a village made of stone). A boat ride down the Thames in London was an unforgettable experience.

A great aspect of the scholarship is that I have been able to interact with key people at The Coca-Cola Company to develop a research dissertation on water sustainability. This has been an invaluable learning experience and allowed me to gain a greater understanding of their Replenish Africa Initiative (RAIN) programme in Africa. We have some interesting ideas which I will be developing over the winter break. When I say ‘break’, this is a bit of euphemism as the work continues with various assignments and readings, including preparation for next term. I have been dying to experience snow for the first time so hopefully this will provide an exciting interlude to my studies!

While working with communities on water supply back in Kenya, I had a strong desire to develop solutions for the challenges encountered and learn how Europe was able to overcome such problems and achieve its high level of water resource development. In this respect, Oxford is providing me with a firm foundation. I am learning from distinguished teaching staff with extensive experience in policy and practice, most interestingly on how to formulate cutting-edge solutions to water challenges facing Africa. When I return to Africa, I will take this knowledge with me. I look forward to making a positive difference in addressing the water challenges my continent faces.

This is the first in a three-part blog series. Read Cliff’s second and final blogs.


The hidden resource: groundwater’s role in achieving water security

Groundwater is critical to global water security. This was the clear message Professor Richard Taylor delivered at a seminar in Oxford on 13 November.

Knowledge gaps in groundwater science

Water stored underground provides around 36% of the world’s domestic supplies, and 42% of all irrigation water. Use of groundwater could also prove a useful adaptation to climate variability and change, Taylor said.

Despite its strategic importance, our understanding of the magnitude of groundwater resources across the world is strikingly poor. A groundbreaking 2012 study by Taylor and colleagues showed that the volume of groundwater in Africa is 10-100 times greater than water found above the surface. Far greater investment in groundwater monitoring and science is needed, if this resource is to be harnessed to achieve water security.

Climate change impacts on groundwater recharge

While knowledge on the current state of groundwater is patchy, still less is known about how these resources will change into the future. It is unclear how the trend towards more frequent and heavy rainfall events expected as global temperature rises will impact groundwater recharge.

The 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report referred to just one study on the impact of climate change on groundwater, which projected a dramatic 70% reduction in groundwater recharge in some parts of Brazil and Africa. The model used assumed that more intensive rainfall would more often exceed the capacity for water to infiltrate soils.

However, Taylor provided stark evidence to the contrary, suggesting that more heavy rainfall events may in fact lead to greater groundwater recharge. This more optimistic outlook was based on a study of 55 years of observational data of rainfall and groundwater levels in semi-arid Tanzania.

The records from Tanzania show that recharge is closely associated with extreme seasonal rainfall, with only seven rainfall events during the 55 years accounting for 80% of the recharge. Increased use of groundwater could therefore prove a useful adaptation to climate variability and change, suggested Taylor.

Sustainability of groundwater use

In Bangladesh, China and India, tapping into groundwater reserves for irrigation has enabled these countries to dramatically increase food production to meet the needs of their expanding populations.

However, groundwater is being used faster than it can be replenished in some parts of the world, warned Taylor, including north-west India, the California Central Valley, and the North China Plain. Indirect impacts on groundwater, for example due to irrigation demand, can outweigh any direct impacts of climate change on recharge rates. The sustainability of resources therefore remains a key concern.

Groundwater depletion is not always inevitable and in some cases, groundwater abstraction can actually lead to greater recharge. Taylor’s research shows that in parts of the Bengal Basin in Bangladesh, water pumped out of the ground is almost completely replenished by the yearly monsoon. The subsurface effectively acts as a storage reservoir, with pumping during the dry season making space for greater storage and recharge during rainy periods.

Whether abstraction leads to groundwater depletion or increased recharge depends on the geology and soils, with sandy soils being favourable to recharge in the Bangladesh case.

The inadequacy of global water scarcity metrics

Current metrics of freshwater availability are based solely on river flows. According to Taylor, these measures are fundamentally flawed as they ignore groundwater, and therefore warp perceptions of water security.

Water scarcity metrics are also unhelpful when it comes to planning for adaptation to climate change. Using water more efficiently, and increasing storage, can both help buffer increasing varibility in flows. “We need to think of storage more holistically”, said Taylor. This means considering not only constructed storage such as reservoirs, but also the water stored naturally beneath the Earth’s surface.

This blog is based on a talk given by Richard Taylor, Professor of Hydrogeology at University College London, as part of the Water Security, Growth and Development seminar series. Download the presentation slides


Jim Hall’s work on coastal flood risk wins Lloyd’s Science of Risk Prize

A paper co-authored by the Director of the Environmental Change Institute, Professor Jim Hall, has been awarded the Lloyd’s Science of Risk Prize in the Climate Change category at a ceremony held at Lloyds of London on 29 November 2012.

The research, led by Professor Richard Dawson at Newcastle University, revealed that in some cases, allowing natural cliff erosion, rather than maintaining physical defenses could reduce the impact of flooding in neighbouring low-lying land.

Populations in coastal areas face considerable threats from sea level rise and increases in the frequency and intensity of storms associated with climate change. Urbanisation and expanding economic activity in these areas only add to the scale of risk.

This award-winning study, entitled ‘Integrated analysis of risks of coastal flooding and cliff erosion under scenarios of long term change’ and published in the journal Climatic Change, used an integrated assessment methodology to explore the trade-offs between flooding and coastal erosion risks on the Norfolk coast.

Professor Hall and colleagues analysed the complex interactions between climatic and socio-economic change and coastal management policy, and for the first time quantified in economic terms, their impact on both flood risk and coastal erosion.

“By understanding some of the interconnected processes we start to appreciate that flood protection is not just about building the biggest dyke possible,” said Professor Richard Dawson, speaking to the Lloyd’s Science of Risk team. “There are other ways of working more subtly with nature and natural processes rather than trying to tackle nature head on and fighting it with a wall.”

Read more about the winners.


Dawson, R.J., Dickson, M.E., Nicholls, R.J., Hall, J.W., Walkden, M.J.A., Stansby, P., Mokrech, M., Richards, J., Zhou, J., Milligan, J., Jordan, A., Pearson, S., Rees, J., Bates, P., Koukoulas, S. and Watkinson, A. (2009) Integrated analysis of risks of coastal flooding and cliff erosion under scenarios of long term changeClimatic Change, 95(1-2): 249-288.

UNESCO Chair says extraction, more than climate change, is causing rivers to run dry

As global temperature rises, it is predicted that river flow regimes will change, affecting the lives of billions of people. Some countries have already seen a sharp decline in water availability in recent decades. Though it may be tempting to blame climate change, high levels of water extraction may more accurately explain why rivers are running dry, according to Professor Quentin Grafton.

In a guest lecture at Oxford University on 29 October, Professor Quentin Grafton explored reasons behind reduced river flows in four river systems. The research has recently been published in the journal Nature Climate Change. Grafton is the UNESCO Chair in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance and Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment & Policy at the Australian National University.

Grafton’s research focuses on river basins at latitudes where climate change is predicted to exacerbate drying trends. He presented insights from four river systems – Australia’s Murray-Darling, North-America’s Colorado, Southern Africa’s Orange-Senqu and China’s Yellow River – and compared the impacts of water extractions and projected climate change on river flows in these basins.

Historic records show a dramatic decrease in flows in the four rivers. Over the past five years, the median outflow of each river, as a proportion of its modelled natural flow is: 0% for the Colorado, 41% for the Yellow, 12% for the Murray-Darling and 33% for the Orange-Senqu. The Murray-Darling river now stops flowing 40% of the time, compared to just one per cent in the past.

But the science shows that there has not been any long-term decline in rainfall in these areas. Instead, streamflows are declining due to excessive water extractions to meet escalating demand, and therefore poor water governance is to blame.

Bad planning rather than climate change then may underlie the current crisis in the Murray-Darling basin, suggested Grafton. Irrigation is practiced on only two per cent of its area, but accounts for a massive 90% of water extracted from the system. The critical challenge is how to balance water use for irrigation with maintaining flows to keep the river ecosystem healthy.

But these findings are encouraging, Grafton said. By setting up policies and frameworks for better water governance, rehabilitation of these rivers is possible. For example, the Murray-Darling basin is home to the world’s largest water market and this has facilitated the reallocation of water for environmental flows. Crises can catalyse water reform, as long as good evidence is available to support decision making.

By Emma Weisbord, MSc Water Science, Policy and Management

Download Quentin Grafton’s presentation slides

Oxford water alumna features in Financial Times magazine

Kelsey Leonard, who last month received an MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management, featured in the Financial Times Magazine on 24 November 2012.

In September Kelsey became the first Native American woman to be awarded a degree from Oxford Unviersity. She is an enrolled member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation of Southampton, New York.

A photo of Kelsey simling in her graduating gown proudly clutching her mortar board was published in the Financial Times magazine. It appeared alongside an interview with Uganda’s first female university graduate, Sarah Ntiro, who also studied at Oxford University in the 1950s.

In an interview with the Oxford Student Online, Kelsey called her time at Oxford “a unique experience” where she enjoyed “meeting graduate students from around the world and being taught by a faculty at the cutting edge of research in environmental science”.

The MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management attracts a diverse range of UK and international students each year. The current 2012/2013 group includes 27 students from 17 countries.

Award-winning programme uses carbon credits to deliver safe water in Kenya

In 2011, nearly 900,000 water filters were distributed to households in Western Kenya, promising access to safe drinking water for 4.5 million people. Oxford University is leading research to evaluate the programme’s impact on diarrhoea, dysentery and dehydration among children under five and people living with HIV.

LifeStraw® Carbon for Water is an innovative public health programme which distributes LifeStraw Family water filters to households in Western Kenya, enabling citizens to safely treat water in their own home.

The ten-year programme is implemented by the private company Vestergaard Frandsen in partnership with the Kenyan Government. It is one of the largest water treatment programmes realised without public-sector funding, and the first ever to be supported by carbon financing.

By using LifeStraw filters, families no longer need to purify their water through boiling, which means less firewood is burned as fuel. Vestergaard Frandsen claims carbon credits for the greenhouse gas emissions saved, which can then be sold and the revenue used to cover programme costs.

Crucially, carbon credits can only be obtained once it is shown that the filters are being regularly used. The certification methodology was designed by the Oxford-based organisation ClimateCare, and ensures that the programme delivers real and long-lasting sustainable development benefits. This results-driven system incentivises important investments in health education and robust monitoring systems.

The programme was chosen by the United Nations Climate Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as one of their landmark ‘lighthouse activities’ which help developing countries to curb their greenhouse gas emissions or adapt to climate change. It will be showcased at the COP18 Climate Change Conference in Doha, Qatar, at the end of November.

It is expected that the use of LifeStraw, alongside the provision of health and hygiene education, will significantly reduce the risk of contamination and illness. Dr John Haskew, an Academic Clinic Fellow at Oxford University’s Department for Public Health, is leading the health impact evaluation, which makes use of cutting-edge mobile phone technology and electronic medical records.

The health impact studies focus on populations most vulnerable to water-borne diseases. The Oxford-led team is evaluating the impact of the programme on diarrhoea and dehydration among children under five years old. They will also establish whether the use of LifeStraw can reduce rates of diarrhoea and infection among people with HIV, and even delay the development of the HIV disease itself.

Watch a video about the LifeStraw Carbon for Water programme

A new owner of a LifeStraw Family water filter in Western Province, Kenya. Photo: Vestergaard Frandsen

Mobile money and water services in East Africa

The unprecedented growth in Africa’s mobile communications sector offers new opportunities to address the continent’s persistent water service challenges, claims a new article published in Water International, a collaboration between past and current students at the School of Geography and the Environment.

The article is co-authored by two current DPhil students, Tim Foster and Aaron Krolikowski, a current student of the MSc Water Science, Policy and Management, Cliff Nyaga, and a former MSc student, Ilana Cohen. The research stems from Oxford University’s thriving mobile/water for development (mw4d) initiative.

The concept of mobile money is simple – money can be transferred between electronic accounts and the payment system can be easily accessed using a standard mobile phone.

A number of water service providers in Africa have started offering their customers mobile money as a payment option. This alluring marriage between water services and mobile technology offers many potential benefits.

For customers, mobile money provides an easy, fast and convenient payment method, particularly for the millions of people without a bank account or a branch nearby. For water utilities, the direct electronic transfer of money should reduce transaction costs and improve their revenue collection; savings which could then be channelled into extending coverage and improving the quality of services.

This could go some way towards addressing the considerable challenges faced by Africa’s water service sector. Service providers are commonly caught in a downward spiral of deteriorating finances, infrastructure, and operational performance. In urban areas, the expansion of service coverage is failing to keep apace with population growth, meaning that the number of urban Africans without access to a safe water supply is actually increasing.

However, there is very little evidence to determine whether the alleged benefits of mobile water payments are being seen. The new research by Oxford University investigates the impacts of mobile water payments in East Africa and explores customer behaviour and barriers to uptake.

The study shows that uptake of mobile water payments is surprisingly low.  In Dar es Salaam, a free mobile payment option has failed to attract more than 1% of customers. There are a number of reasons for its limited success, including low customer awareness, lack of utility receipts for proof of payment, and high transaction tariffs charged by mobile network operators then passed on to customers.

However, one success story shines. In the community of Kiamumbi in Kenya, a remarkable 80% of customers opt to pay their water bills with mobile money. The research confirms that these customers make considerable savings of time and money, and are also more likely to pay their bills on time.

Fortunately, the common barriers to wider uptake of mobile water payments can be tackled by the water service providers themselves. Once behavioural and operational constraints are overcome, the real test will be whether the savings made through the use of this payment tool are translated into improved access to and sustainability of water services.


Foster, T., Hope, R., Thomas, M., Cohen, I., Krolikowski, A. and Nyaga, C. (2012) Impacts and implications of mobile water payments in East Africa. Water International. DOI:10.1080/02508060.2012.738409

DFID’s challenges and opportunities for delivering water security in a post-MDG world

As the Millennium Development Goals come to a close in 2015, the international development community finds itself at a transition point. As they evaluate the progress made and redefine the targets ahead, decision-makers have the exciting and daunting task of shaping global policy for the coming generations.

This blog is based on Jean-Paul Penrose’s talk in Oxford on 30 October, part of the Water Security, Growth and Development seminar series. As the Senior Water Resources Adviser at DFID, he underscored the role the UK Government will play at this turning point. With an aid budget of £7.7 billion and £112 million bilateral water spending last year, DFID is a potent stakeholder in these discussions. As all eyes turn to the post-2015 framework, Penrose highlighted the challenges posed and opportunities available for delivering global water security.

Penrose emphasised the crucial need to build on the weaknesses of the MDGs to define the future of water resources management. For example, a greater focus on energy and transport could allow for the integration of these issues and emphasise water as a driver of growth and human development.

In particular, he pointed out the importance of the water security paradigm to frame water projects around poverty alleviation and sustainability, two agendas attractive to the international community. The challenge lies in ensuring that poverty goals resonate with developed countries, and sustainability remains a focus in developing nations.

From the perspective of DFID, the water security paradigm provides traction in negotiating support from government officials. Increasingly, this sort of political buy-in is essential to the implementation of large infrastructure projects. Such projects, said Penrose, need to account for the future of water resources and climate change. Though not many water supply and sanitation programmes have this dimension, DFID has prioritised both long-term maintenance and water resources sustainability.

However, Penrose pointed out that water resources management projects still lack clear evidence to lend them full credibility in the eye of the public. To justify investments and political support, we need to mobilise experts to generate metrics, unit costs, and results.

New stakeholders are playing an increasingly important role in this process: emerging powers diversify input, the private sector fuels investments, and foundations prepare rulebooks for new developments.

The key, according to Penrose, is to not let this uncertainty stifle the potential for progress. The public needs clear strong stories, and decision-makers need to take more identifiable risks. If the British government is to follow through on their declaration of water as a human right, popular paradigms like water security must be harnessed to implement change.

By Clémentine Stip, MSc Water Science, Policy and Management

Un Photo by Martine Perret

Dr Rene Bañares-Alcántara develops new optimisation model for analysis and evaluation of water policies

Rene Bañares-Alcántara and Aidid Chee Tahi from Oxford University’s Department of Engineering Science have developed a new modelling system which can help policymakers evaluate water policies. The modelling system was presented at the 2012 American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) Annual Meeting.

Rene Bañares-Alcántara presented the paper ‘A semantic representation of policy goals in the modeling of electricity generation and water treatment systems’ at the AIChE Annual Meeting on Monday 29 October in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The event is an educational forum for chemical engineers interested in innovation and professional growth, and aims to promote ‘cleaner energy, stronger economy, and better living’.

The paper introduces a modelling system which can be used for the analysis and evaluation of water policies, including those aimed at ensuring water supply security and sustainability.

Optimisation models are useful tools for policymakers because they allow different scenarios to be evaluated during the formulation of energy and water policies. Existing models are based solely on mathematical equations that process numerical data, and policy goals set by the policymaker must first be translated into mathematical information that can be input into the model. However, a complete consideration of energy and water policies also requires evaluating non-numerical data, such as social and political issues.

The model proposed in Rene’s paper breaks new ground by considering both numerical and non-numerical information. It supports policymakers by converting their policy goals into information usable by the optimisation model. A prototype water modelling system was developed and applied to a case study of the state of Penang in Malaysia. A water model was created automatically from a set of water policy goals, and then optimised to generate a water treatment and supply system.

The full extended abstract is available from the event website

Dr Rene Bañares-Alcántara is a Reader in Engineering Science and leads the Systems Engineering Group at the Department of Engineering Science.

Photo credit: AIChE