Oxford University co-chairs global Task Force on Water Security and Sustainable Growth

Professors Jim Hall and David Grey are co-chairs of the Expert Task Force of the Global Water Partnership and OECD Global Dialogue on Water Security and Sustainable Growth, launched at the World Water Week in Stockholm on 2 September 2013.

The Expert Task Force is made up of a multi-disciplinary team of leading economists, water managers and scientists who will provide new evidence on the linkages between economic growth and water security. The group is coordinated by Dr. Claudia Sadoff of the GWP Technical Committee, co-chaired by Professors Hall and Grey, and includes Drs Simon Dadson and Dustin Garrick.

The Task Force will  develop, model and economically assess a set of water security scenarios at the global and basin level, with the aim to illustrate and compare different strategies and pathways for achieving water security. This new knowledge will enable countries to better understand and manage water risks, and ensure that efforts to promote economic growth and development are not jeopardised by these risks.

At the official launch of the project at World Water Week, Dr. Claudia Sadoff explained that “the structure of the task force will be to work from risk based perspective: we will document economic costs and risks associated with water, and then we will look at trade-offs and benefits.”

The Global Dialogue project also includes a high-level panel co-chaired by Angel Gurría, Secretary General of OECD, and  Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, President of Liberia and UN Goodwill Ambassador for Water and Sanitation.

Another component of the project will be a country level consultation process led by GWP that will investigate country perceptions and priorities regarding water security.

The Global Dialogue will result in a milestone report on ‘Water Security and Economic Growth’ to be presented at the World Water Forum in South Korea in 2015. The project will draw attention to the importance of water within the post-2015 Development Framework and will provide input to the United Nation’s Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals.

Related links

The GWP-OECD Global Dialogue on Water Security and Sustainable Growth

Fully Baked! The completion of a successful Africa Water Stewardship Scholarship

Cliff Nyaga is a beneficiary of The Coca-Cola Company funded Africa Water Stewardship Scholarship, which sponsors his place on the MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management, class of 2012/2013. He reflects on his year at Oxford and reports findings from his dissertation research on customer payment behaviours in urban African water utilities.

Finally my Masters at Oxford has come to an end. Looking back, it has been a speedy race against time and it is hard to believe it is over! Having gained access to a unique dataset of the Dar es Salaam city piped water utility in June this year, I immediately embarked on a three-month period of dissertation research.

While my intention was clear – to make strides towards the finishing line while fighting off tempting distractions from an approaching British summer – I lost this battle somewhere along the way. Barbeques, river swims, berry picking, garden parties and picnics somehow found their way into my diary. Striking a fair balance between thesis research and outdoor festivities was sometimes challenging. Nonetheless I got my head down and submitted my dissertation by the set deadline. Amidst the celebrations, the summer period is almost over which makes this the opportune time for me to pack and run back to Kenya before the cold autumn breeze sets in.

My dissertation research investigated the predictors of customer payment behaviours in piped water utilities in urban Africa. This is an important area of study because the sustainability of piped water services depends upon how well utilities can recover costs through revenue collection from water users.

It is perhaps surprising that factors that determine payment behaviours in piped African utilities are largely misunderstood and so often are assumed. Most utilities lack information on their service such as customers’ demographics, preferences and perceptions of service quality which in turn leads to poor policy decisions and poor implementation. However, understanding and promoting water stewardship in Africa fundamentally depends on access to good data to evaluate what works, why and for whom. Major investments without this data may have no lasting impact.

The Dar es Salaam water utility dataset used in my analysis suggests that it is possible to obtain fairly low-cost evidence to inform policy and investment decisions in African utilities. Ultimately, investing in good information could lead to improved piped water access for the unserved urban poor and water insecure consumers.

Reflecting on the last year, my time in Oxford can be summed up in one word – awesome! Each day has brought a new learning experience and for this I am greatly indebted to The Coca-Cola Company Africa Water Stewardship Scholarship. Indeed, this Scholarship has facilitated my transformation from the water novice I was a year ago to the expert I am today.

The Masters course in Water Science, Policy and Management has empowered me with knowledge and skills to engage with the water access challenges facing Africa head on. Furthermore, I have made resourceful professional and social networks while in Oxford comprising of lead organisations, researchers and students working in the water profession all over the world. This will be a great asset as I start my career and will help me achieve my goal of improving water access in Africa.

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

Ian Thompson wins grant to develop new hybrid technology to combat water pollution

Prof. Ian Thompson, Department of Engineering Science, has been awarded funds from the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) to develop a hybrid technology for treating recalcitrant water contaminants using electron beams.

The project is one of seven aimed at solving environmental challenges that have been awarded a total of £1.5M under the Challenge Led Applied Systems Programme (CLASP). The projects plan to produce tangible results in a 3-5 year period and bring STFC researchers together with other academic disciplines and industry through new collaborations to solve real environmental challenges.

See the full list of successful projects

Managing phosphorus water pollution in an uncertain future

An Oxford-led study suggests that multiple strategies may be needed to manage phosphorus in rivers. Sources of phosphorus pollution vary depending on future changes in rainfall and runoff under different scenarios of climate, land use and water resource management.

Phosphorus causes eutrophication or over-fertilisation of rivers, a serious problem that leads to excessive growth of algae, having a harmful effect on plant and animal life. Managing phosphorus levels in rivers is therefore a major global, national and European concern. Phosphorus can come from diffuse sources such as agricultural fertilisers or point sources such as sewage treatment works.

The study, led by Dr. Jill Crossman and Prof. Paul Whitehead, assesses how the water quality and hydrology of the Thames River system respond to future changes in climate, agricultural land use and water resource allocations. It then evaluates the effectiveness of phosphorus management strategies under these scenarios of future change.

The authors of the study found that the relative contribution of phosphorus from diffuse and point sources vary according to future rainfall and runoff. During high flow periods, agricultural diffuse sources are the main problem, and during low flow periods point sources dominate.

The study suggests that the best approach to phosphorus management may be to adopt multiple strategies for use at different times and locations in order to target the dominant source.

Read the full journal article in Science of the Total Environment

Why a ‘water war’ over the Nile River will not happen

Instead of issuing harsh rhetoric, Egypt should work together with Ethiopia and endorse its dam-building programme, says Dr. Harry Verhoeven, Convenor of the Oxford University China-Africa Network (OUCAN).

Is northeastern Africa heading for a bloody “water war” between its two most important countries, Egypt and Ethiopia? Judging by the rhetoric of the past two weeks, one could be forgiven for thinking so.

Ethiopia’s plans to build a multibillion dollar dam on the Nile River spurred Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi – whose country lies downstream from Ethiopia – to vow to protect Egypt’s water security at all costs. “As president of the republic, I confirm to you that all options are open,” he said on Monday. “If Egypt is the Nile’s gift, then the Nile is a gift to Egypt… If it diminishes by one drop, then our blood is the alternative.”

The following day Dina Mufti, Ethiopia’s foreign ministry spokesman, said that Ethiopia was “not intimidated by Egypt’s psychological warfare and won’t halt the dam’s construction, even for seconds”.

Read the full opinion piece in Aljazeera online.

Harry Verhoeven completed a doctorate at the University of Oxford, where he teaches African politics. His research focuses on conflict, development and environment in the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes Region, and he is the Convenor of the Oxford University China-Africa Network (OUCAN).

Proportional water allocation policies help federal countries cope with drought extremes

Dr. Dustin Garrick (School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford Martin School) delivered a presentation on drought management in federal rivers at a conference on Water in the Anthropocene, held in Bonn on 21-24 May.

Garrick and colleagues compared water allocation policies used to divide water and spread drought risk between state jurisdictions in federal countries, analysing the Colorado, Ebro and Murray-Darling Rivers. He highlighted the importance of proportional allocation rules to cope with climatic variability. Proportional allocation rules distribute water based on a share of available water – not a fixed volume or priority.

Allocation reforms in the three rivers indicate that proportional allocation rules are prevalent among upstream states, while downstream states seek fixed volumes to increase water security. The comparative study suggests that proportional rules distribute risks and benefits in a way that is perceived as fair and limits conflict when compared with fixed allocation systems.

The conference ‘Water in the Anthropocene: Challenges for Science and Governance. Indicators, Thresholds and Uncertainties of the Global Water System’ was organised by the Global Water System Project.

A Declaration signed by the participants of the conference warns that within one or two generations, the majority of the nine billion people on Earth will be living under conditions of severe pressure on fresh water, due to climate change, pollution and overuse.  However, these experts assure that this outcome is entirely avoidable. The Declaration calls for a partnership of scientists, public stakeholders, decision-makers and the private sector to take action to protect and conserve water systems worldwide.

Read the Bonn Declaration on Global Water Security

Visit the conference website

A Kenyan glass half full

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

Despite having now settled into the academic rhythm of Oxford University life I am still struggling to understand when (and if!) the English winter will end. Since the new year, classes have come thick and fast in the second teaching term.

Hilary term started with an assignment due on the first day and immediately after, a class to attend. Soon thereafter heavy loads of work began flooding in day after day and the library became my new best friend. As the term got busier, I was left with little time to explore the rest of England.

A highlight of the term was meeting my Coca-Cola Company sponsor and discussing my experiences and the numerous initiatives the company is involved with in Africa to improve water access – what a great connection to my area of study!

A scheduled study trip to the Ebro River Basin in Spain at the end of term to learn about water management in the basin provided a stimulating environment to understand how the science, policy and management issues we have been studying on the course play out in a real and complex context.

The Ebro basin trip started on a rather medieval note high up in the Pyrenees mountains, where we stayed in dormitory accommodation built several hundred years ago! The rich Spanish history in Murillo marked a perfect start to our trip.
As we drove down the basin, different dynamics of the basin’s challenges emerged. Most interesting were the competing positions taken by upstream, middle and downstream water users. Today, understanding the Ebro River from the source to the mouth has changed my perspective on management of water resources.

The weather got progressively warmer as we drove towards the Mediterranean coast, and in Barcelona I wore just a T-shirt for the first time since arriving in Europe. Unexpectedly so many other firsts also came my way: my first sip of desalinated water, Spanish beer and my first Spanish dish – paella – which was something to really look forward to after a rather mobile day!

Arriving back in Oxford for spring break just before start of the Trinity term, there was tension in the air from the moment we landed; perhaps a reminder of what lay ahead – revising for examinations. My Spanish memories were immediately engulfed in a deep study period, and time passed so quickly as I approached the exam days in mid-May. This was probably my toughest and most stressful period in Oxford.

The examinations were an experience in themselves: the University dress code required me to wear academic dress – the Sub-fusc – when sitting for all the papers! It was an exciting moment that made me feel honoured to be part of the old Oxford tradition. Within one week the exams were over and a much needed break set in.

Post-exams, I am more relaxed and focused on an exciting dissertation topic for the next three months. My research aims to understand predictors of payment for water services in urban Kenya and Tanzania. This will help identify key factors to enable urban water utilities to improve revenue collection and therefore lead to more sustainable and inclusive piped water services.

Thanks to the Oxford mobile/water for development team, I now have access to multi-country data sets which will provide an empirical basis for objective analysis. I look forward to disseminating my research findings sometime in September and hope they will influence policy decisions in the region for a more sustainable water supply sector in the future.

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

New book distills best practice for flood risk management

Paul Sayers and Edmund Penning-Rowsell (both Visiting Research Associates at the School of Geography and the Environment) are co-authors of a new book which synthesises lessons from international experiences and identifies best practice approaches to flood risk management in challenging large-scale and inter-related environments.

Over recent decades the concept of flood risk management has been cultivated across the globe. Implementation however remains stubbornly difficult to achieve. In part this reflects the perception that a risk management paradigm is more complex than a more traditional standard-based approach as it involves ‘whole systems’ and ‘whole life’ thinking; yet this is its main strength and a prerequisite for more integrated and informed decision making.

The book, entitled ‘Flood risk management: a strategic approach’ results from a collaborative effort between WWF, the Chinese Government’s General Institute of Water Resources & Hydropower Planning (GIWP), UNESCO, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and a number of leading international experts from the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia, and the United States.

The comprehensive volume reviews historical flood events that have shaped modern approaches, before describing emerging good practice. It identifies ‘nine golden rules’ that underpin good flood risk management decision making today, and explores a number of techniques and topics in detail, such as risk and uncertainty analysis, spatial planning, and emergency planning.

The flood risk management book is part of a series on strategic water management and accompanies two other publications on river basin planning and basin water allocation planning.

Download all three books

New tool launched to calculate nitrogen footprint

Scientists at Lancaster, Virginia and Oxford universities have produced a web-based tool that allows anyone living in the UK to calculate their own ‘nitrogen footprint’.

The tool, known as the N-Calculator, asks you to input certain information on what you eat, how you travel and how much energy you use in your home, and then calculates the likely effects on the environment in terms of nitrogen pollution. It is hoped that the tool will encourage people to choose more sustainable ways of living.

Scientists have warned that reactive nitrogen pollution is already a major environmental problem that is causing significant damage to air and water quality across the UK. Nitrogen runoff from farms and man-made effluents are largely responsible for algal blooms that affect river systems, whilst atmospheric nitrogen pollution is leading to significant losses of biodiversity. Most of the nitrogen pollution arises out of agricultural processes used in the growing of crops or grazing of animals. In addition, a significant proportion of the average UK nitrogen footprint comes from vehicle emissions.

“Nitrogen is essential for growing crops for food or high quality grass for cattle, as any farmer knows,” said Paul Whitehead, Professor of Water Science at the School of Geography and the Environment, and Director of the NERC-funded Macronutrients Cycles Programme. “However, the widespread use of nitrogen fertilizer to boost crop production has resulted in a runoff of excess nitrogen from farms into our rivers, lakes and groundwaters.”

The researchers used publicly available data such as national atmospheric data, national land use and farm statistics, to make the calculations. The N-Calculator website also makes recommendations for how to lessen your ‘nitrogen footprint’. Lifestyle choices affect your nitrogen footprint: reducing your nitrogen footprint means cutting back on road and air travel, choosing renewable energy and, most importantly, altering the balance of the foods contained in your diet.

“Unlike your carbon footprint, what you eat is the most important factor determining your nitrogen footprint,” said Dr Carly Stevens of Lancaster University. “By altering the amount and type of food that you eat, you can make a big difference to your impact on the environment.”

The tool, first developed in the US, has been updated and adapted for UK users by researchers from Lancaster University under a project funded by the NERC Macronutrient Cycles programme at Oxford. The device was originally created by award-winning scientist James N Galloway and his research colleagues, Allison Leach, at the University of Virginia, Albert Bleeker of ECN and Jan Willem Erisman of the Louis Bolk Institute, both of The Netherlands.

Calculate your N Footprint

Visit the Macronutrients Cycles Programme website

Special issue of Ecological Economics examines water allocation policy and transaction costs

Dr. Dustin Garrick (School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford Martin School), co-edited a special issue of Ecological Economics on transaction costs and environmental policy, featuring papers on water, carbon, biodiversity and land use issues. Three papers examine water allocation reforms and deliver insights about institutional responses to water allocation tradeoffs.


Transaction costs are comparably high for water allocation challenges because property rights are complex and contested. By clarifying conceptual issues and taking stock of empirical evidence and methodological innovations, this collection of papers stimulates more attention to transaction costs in environmental policy design and evaluation and provides recommendations to improve policy choices.

In a comparative study of water markets in the US and Australia, Garrick and colleagues highlight the need for flexibility to adjust water rights and diversion limits in response to policy learning. The study illustrates how the measurement and evaluation of transaction costs can encourage policy choices that improve water market performance and build capacity to adapt to climatic variability and competition.

Visit the special issue Transaction Costs and Environmental Policy online