Coping with the curse of freshwater variability

Oxford scientists say that institutions, infrastructure and information are the key ingredients for coping with freshwater variability and enabling economic growth, in an article published in Science.

The authors, which include Prof Jim Hall, Prof David Grey and Dr Simon Dadson, say that a key challenge to achieving water security is managing the risks posed by variable and unpredictable freshwater resources. Building resilience to these risks requires a transformation in the way investments are made.

Extreme events such as floods and droughts are hard to predict and future changes in variability are highly uncertain. The article highlights three dimensions of freshwater variability: change within the year (seasonal and monthly), year-to-year, and the unpredictable timing and intensity of extremes. When these three dimensions combine the situation is “most challenging – a wicked combination of hydrology that confronts the world’s poorest people,” say the authors.

The article warns that the inability to cope with variability can place serious burdens on society and the economy. Extreme events such as droughts and floods have ripple effects through the economy. For example, floods in Thailand in 2011 caused $43 billion in losses. Meanwhile in Ethiopia economic growth is 38% less that what would be expected based on average rainfall, due to the country’s complex hydrology.

Countries can do very little about their natural endowment of water: when and where it rains and how much water evaporates, infiltrates into the ground, and runs into rivers and lakes. However for those countries burdened with highly variable hydrology, investment in water management can help buy their way out of water insecurity.

The study’s analysis shows that countries that have achieved economic growth, despite high variability in freshwater resources, have invested heavily to reduce risk. In river basins with complex hydrology where there has been low investment, the economy suffers.

Countries along river basins with less variability are more wealthy, even though investments have sometimes been quite modest. Where the hydrology is highly variable, additional investment is needed to transition from water-insecure to secure, but this is least affordable and hardest to deliver in the poorest countries. Climate change may increase variability further, making water security an even more distant goal for countries already underequipped to cope.

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The authors highlight “the three ‘I’s” as essential for adapting to freshwater variability: institutions and good governance (such as river basin organisations, legal systems, and water pricing), infrastructure (such as water storage, wastewater treatment, groundwater wells) and information (including monitoring, forecast and warning systems, and modelling tools).

Crucially, coping with variability involves a combination of institutions, infrastructure and information – rarely will they generate their full benefits alone.

The article calls for a new approach to investing in water security. A broader and longer-term vision is needed that looks beyond individual projects to the sequence of investments that can create a pathway to water security. Context also matters when it comes to what combination and sequence of investments are needed.

This new approach will focus on risks, trade-offs and uncertainties to enable decision-makers to choose between alternative investment pathways and build a more water secure future.

This research stems from the work of a global Task Force on Water Security and Sustainable Growth, an initiative of the Global Water Partnership and OECD, co-chaired by Oxford University’s Professor Jim Hall and Professor David Grey.

Reference

Hall, J.W., Grey, D., Garrick, D., Fung, F., Brown, C., Dadson, S.J. and Sadoff, C.W. (2014) Coping with the curse of freshwater variability. Science, 346(6208): 429-430.

Weighing water risks

Dr Alex Money says that companies need to do more than just reduce consumption to address water risk, in a CurrentCast interview, broadcast to 20+ radio stations throughout the United States.

Alex MoneyWhen water risk first appeared in corporate reports, the focus was on reducing consumption. But Alex Money, a Research Fellow at the Smith School for Enterprise and the Environment, says this is a relative concept. “Using a litre of water in Canada is very different from using a litre of water in the Sahara”, he said.

Money believes that companies – especially those expanding into new markets – need to analyse water risk differently. “Getting water from where it is to where people are is the big challenge in terms of water security.”

Money suggests companies focus on their supply chains and local infrastructure. By looking at how to deliver water to new markets in a way that is equitable with other competing uses, companies can better analyse risk and help address global water access.

Listen to the 1 minute CurrentCast podcast

Related links

Attributing extreme weather to climate change in real-time

Dr Friederike Otto examines the question of how extreme weather events might be linked to climate change in this blog entry for the Carbon Brief.

The question of how extreme weather events might be linked to climate change is a key one.

It’s particularly important because in many regions, extreme weather like heatwaves, floods and droughts cause more damage than other, more predictable consequences of climate change, such as sea-level rise.

Scientists know that an increase in average temperature as the climate changes will lead to an increase in the number or magnitude of some extreme events, while others will get less likely.

But the chaotic nature of weather means it’s generally impossible to say, for any particular event, that it only happened because of climate change.

Read more on the Carbon Brief website

Dr Friederike Otto is a research fellow in the ECI Global Climate Science Programme at the Uiversity of Oxford and scientific coordinator of climateprediction.net.

Water research with policy impact in Kenya

Oxford’s smart handpump research has been recognised by in the Government of Kenya’s Water Services Regulatory Board’s (WASREB) annual Impact Report.

Eng Robert Gakubia, CEO of WASREB, identifies the continuing challenge of attaining national targets for urban and rural water with the need to explore innovative approaches highlighting the “interesting work done in Kitui County” by Oxford University in a a special section.

The Smart Handpump research and implementation has been led by Patrick Thomson and Rob Hope with colleagues in the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, the School of Geography and the Environment, and the Department of Engineering Science with funding from ESRC, NERC, DFID and the Skoll Centre, see: http://www.smithschool.ox.ac.uk/research/water-programme/

Read the Impact Report

Welcome to 2014/15 MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management

The School of Geography and the Environment welcomed the new cohort onto the MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management at the beginning of October.

The class of 2014/15 on the Lulworth Cove field trip, Dorset

The class of 2014/15 on the Lulworth Cove field trip, Dorset

The first event, a three-day induction fieldtrip to Dorset, was a great success. Visits to Wessex Water and the Freshwater Biological Association provided the students with an introduction to the interaction between science, regulation and management in the UK, and between competing water users within the catchment. The Course Director Dr Katrina Charles said, “we are now in the 11th year of the course, and we are excited to be welcoming 23 students from 13 countries, including from Ecuador, Kenya, Zambia and Mexico.”

Global experts discuss drought risk

A symposium was held in Oxford on 22 September, bringing together global experts on the causes and impacts of droughts. The speakers shared experience and expertise from Australia, America, Europe and the UK, providing interdisciplinary insights into the climatic and socio-economic factors that contribute to drought.

“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got!” said Professor Donald Wilhite, University of Nebraska, stressing the need to change the way droughts are managed. Although drought is a normal part of climate variability, unprepared governments and vulnerable societies often react to droughts with shock and alarm. Professor Wilhite proposed that droughts can act as a window of opportunity to change from post-impact crisis response to a pre-impact drought risk management approach. The cost of preparedness action against drought is insignificant when compared to the cost of inaction, he said.

The speakers at the symposium are members of the International Advisory Board of the Oxford-led MaRIUS project on drought and water scarcity in the UK. Oxford University’s Professor Jim Hall presented the project which was launched earlier this year and adopts a risk-based approach to understanding droughts and water scarcity; analyses the impacts on people, the environment and the economy; and will develop methods to support decision-making and improve drought risk management.

Dr Henny van Lanen from Wageningen University in the Netherlands said that there is medium confidence that droughts will intensify in the 21st Century in some areas and during some seasons in southern and central Europe, central North America, Central America and Mexico, northeast Brazil and southern Africa. Elsewhere in the world inconsistencies in models make it difficult to draw any firm conclusions. The ability of scientists to identify future drought trends is constrained by available data, various definitions of droughts, different ways to quantify or identify a drought, and the inability of models to include all the factors that influence a drought.

Climate change poses a challenge to water planners, as drought risks in the future may be greater than in the past. Professor Casey Brown, University of Massachusetts, argued that the best approach to address these uncertainties is to focus on understanding the project and its vulnerabilities to climate change. By identifying the key climate variables to which the system is sensitive and the magnitude of climate changes that cause unacceptable outcomes, a water planner can incorporate the desired or acceptable level of resilience into the project.

Drawing on research in the Shale Hills / Susquehanna wetland catchments in northeastern United States, Professor Christopher Duffy from Penn State University presented a methodology for assessing the vulnerability of wetlands to climate change and droughts. Early results show that upland catchments are the most vulnerable based on depth to groundwater which acts as a buffer during periods of low rainfall.

Professor Lucia De Stefano stressed that stakeholder input is essential for understanding vulnerability and response to drought. Her research in Spain and on a pan-European scale found that there are inconsistencies in drought perceptions across scales and that improving communication could benefit drought management and address mismatches between policy objectives and implemented measures.

Dr Narendra Kumar Tuteja from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology shared experiences from Australia, a country that has faced around eight major drought events in the last century, with the Millennium drought (1997-2009) radically influencing national water reform. He talked about the need for water availability forecasts at a range of time scales for operational water planning and management, and the challenges in generating these. He underscored the importance of continued and extensive consultation with stakeholders and users in order to deliver useful research, data or tools.

Rural water sustainability in Africa

UNICEF has signed a partnership agreement with Oxford University to test new models for rural water sustainability in Africa.

The two year programme of work is led by Dr Rob Hope with Professor David Bradley, Patrick Thomson and Johanna Koehler, and government and private sector collaborators in Kenya. The work builds on an earlier DFID funded project with the second phase expected to deliver:

  • A scalar and replicable model for the sustainable delivery of rural water services.
  • A pre-payment system that underpins a business model for long-term, local sustainability.
  • Measuring health and burden impacts related to handpump functionality and failure events.

The primary study location is Kitui County, Kenya, with a programme of collaborative initiatives with UNICEF’s 21 country offices in the East and Southern Africa region. Watch a video and read the report from the first phase of this work.

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University of Oxford and University of Khartoum explore collaboration

In September, members from the Oxford Water Network hosted Professor Gamal Abdo, Director of the Water Research Centre of the University of Khartoum, Sudan.

<em>Professor Mike Edmunds and Professor Gamal Abdo</em>

Professor Mike Edmunds and Professor Gamal Abdo

This four day meeting emerged from two ongoing relationships including 25 years of collaboration between Oxford Professor Mike Edmunds and Professor Abdo in the field of groundwater hydrology, and DPhil Candidate Kevin Wheeler’s work in seeking collaborative trans-boundary river management alternatives through consulting with the Nile Basin Initiative.

Professor Abdo met with faculty and students from the School of Geography and Environment, Environmental Change Institute, and the Department of Politics and International Relations to discuss the possibilities for collaboration in educational resources, research opportunities and knowledge dissemination.

A number of educational collaboration mechanisms were identified for further exploration including course and lecture support, bibliographic support, and expanded bilateral MSc and DPhil student support.

The potential for furthering research collaboration emerged through shared interest in Professor Edmunds hydrological and hydrogeological studies in Sudan, Dr Simon Dadson’s research on the effect of water management strategies on land-atmosphere feedbacks in Africa, and Kevin Wheeler’s ongoing work on impacts of Ethiopian dam operations on Sudanese water security.

We welcome any additional expressions of interest from members of the University to conduct water-related work with University of Khartoum – please contact Mike Edmunds wme@btopenworld.com

Groundwater and poverty research in Marrakech

Oxford University research on Unlocking the Potential of Groundwater for the Poor (UPGro) was presented at the International Association of Hydrogeologists in Marrakech, Morocco in September.

Jacob Mutua Representing the NERC catalyst grant led by Dr Rob Hope, Jacob Mutua (pictured on right) presented results from the Kwale study site in Kenya linking groundwater science with institutional and poverty assessments. Jacob is part of an international consortium including Kenyan universities (University of Nairobi, JKUAT), government and private sector (RFL Ltd., Base Titanium Ltd., KISCOL) and the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC). Jacob is now starting the DPhil programme at the School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford, with matched funding from Base Titanium and Oxford University.

To find out more about the research, view the poster ‘Groundwater risks and institutional responses, Kwale County, Kenya

 

Report identifies the ‘most vulnerable’ to climate-related disasters

Extreme weather events leave populations with not enough food both in the short- and the long-term, says a new report by the Environmental Change Institute that examines the impacts of climate-related diasters on food security. The authors conclude that better governance could have lessened the impact on the poorest and most vulnerable, and affected populations have been let down by the authorities in past disasters.

The report, commissioned by the charity Oxfam, tracks the effects on four countries: Russia which experienced a heatwave in 2010; flood-hit Pakistan the same year; East Africa during the drought of 2010-2011; and the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. The researchers conclude that the authorities in each of the countries studied were unprepared for extreme weather events, and citizens suffered even more than they needed to.

The report, ‘A Sign of Things to Come?’, says that during the floods in Pakistan ‘coercive landlords’ took advantage of smallholders and people affected by the floods. Overall, the flooding is estimated to have led to an 80% rise in wheat and rice prices in 2010.

The drought-affected people of East Africa did not receive international or domestic aid for six months, partly due to the risks posed by armed groups. Food prices reached record levels in several markets that included the cost of wheat in Ethiopia, maize in Kenya and red sorghum grain in Somalia, says the report. It notes that children under five accounted for over half of all deaths in Somalia.

On a global level, the report warns that climate change is expected to increase the intensity and frequency of heatwaves and floods. It says although there is no scientific evidence to show a specific weather event would not have happened without climate change, scientists can estimate whether it increases the risk of an event. It finds that the Russian heat wave and the East African drought were more likely because of climate change, but there is not yet the evidence to say that climate change played a part in the floods in Pakistan or Typhoon Haiyan.

One of the lead authors Dr John Ingram said: “Weather has always affected food security, particularly for many of the world’s poorest people. Perhaps we think of farmers or fishermen first, but extreme weather will affect many more people in other ways too. While direct measures such as emergency preparedness and the strengthening of response-related institutions is helpful, this study has identified the need for a wider cultural shift to ensure the poorest and most vulnerable are properly protected. This goes beyond mere technical improvements to equipment or redirected funding and gets to the very heart of what ‘climate justice’ should be about.”

Reference

Coghlan, C., Muzammil, M., Ingram, J., Vervoort, J., Otto, F. and James, R. (2014) A sign of things to come? Examining four major climate-related disasters, 2010-2013 and their impacts on food security. Oxfam Research Reports, Oxford. Oxfam.