Flood risk: making better infrastructure investments

Researchers at the Environmental Change Institute are helping evaluate and communicate best practice in national-scale flood risk analysis and long-term investment planning for flood management.

Thames barrier © Jack Torcello

Thames barrier © Jack Torcello

The FoRUM project – Flood risk: Building Infrastructure Resilience through better Understanding and Management choices – recently held two workshops to start a dialogue between scientists and stakeholders that make use of flood risk science in their work.

Paul Sayers, leading the project, explained: ‘understanding and assessing risk is a prerequisite to managing it. The ability of alternative investment strategies to reduce risk – at a regional, national or even international scale – presents particular challenges.’

The two workshops helped identify these challenges, compare alternative approaches and distil lessons from across different sectors.

The project has engaged academics and industry partners from the UK and Netherlands (including the Environment Agency, Network Rail, Rijkswaterstaat and Thames Water), as well as leading consultants from the flood and reinsurance sectors.

At the first workshop ‘Broadscale risk models’ stakeholders and researchers took an in-depth look at current methods for modelling national-scale flood risk. A second workshop aimed to get stakeholders up to speed on the most recent advances in planning long-term investment in infrastructure.

There are many different types of infrastructure that help reduce the damage caused by flooding; physical structures such as embankments and floodgates, as well as ‘natural infrastructure’ such as introducing greenspaces or managing beaches. A key challenge for water utilities and government agencies is deciding what investments to make, given uncertainties related to future flood risk.

While there have been significant developments in the last decade in how decision-makers address future uncertainty in investment planning, current practice still lags behind the latest thinking in academia. The FoRUM project is a significant step in bridging this gap.

The findings of these workshops are already influencing the future development of the tools used by the Environment Agency to support its Long Term Investment Scenarios (LTIS). Dr Jon Wicks, CH2M HILL, who is leading an Environment Agency project to scope the next generation LTIS tools, said: ‘the FoRUM workshops have been very helpful in highlighting alternative approaches and how they might be taken forward into practical application.’

The project is led by Paul Sayers and Jim Hall at the Environmental Change Institute, with support from Edmund Penning Rowsell (School of Geography and the Environment) and Rob Nicholls (University of Southampton). It is funded by Natural Environment Research Council’s Environmental Risk to Infrastructure Programme (ERIIP).

Presentations from speakers at the workshops are available to download via the links below.

Visit the FoRUM project webpages
See presentations from FoRUM Workshop 1: Broadscale risk models, Tuesday 17 March 2015
See presentations from FoRUM Workshop 2: Long term investment planning | Tuesday 5 May 2015

RCUK highlights Oxford’s ‘innovative’ smart handpumps project

The Research Councils UK is showcasing an Oxford University project which uses mobile phone technology to transmit data on handpump use in rural Kenya.

RCUK-handpump-story

Research trip to Kyuso, Kenya. L to R: Handpump mechanic in Kenya; Patrick Thomson, Oxford; Dr Rob Hope, Oxford; and Dr Peter Harvey, UNICEF.

The ‘Smart Handpumps’ project is led by Dr Rob Hope, an Associate Professor at the School of Geography and the Environment and Director of the Water Programme at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment. It is one of 13 projects funded by the seven Research Councils highlighted as ground-breaking and innovative research at the RCUK’s first ‘Research, Innovate, Grow’ conference, attended by business leaders, entrepreneurs, and policymakers.

The project, part funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, harnesses mobile phone technology to enable smart handpumps to send automated data on when and how much they are used. This flags up when they are broken so they can be fixed quickly, significantly improving waiting times for maintenance services. In rural Africa, one million handpumps supply water to over 200 million villagers. Yet up to one third of pumps are out of action at any one time.

Researchers work in two test sites in rural Kenya, Kyuso and Kwale, to resolve the problem of broken pumps and provide reliable water. From a delay of a month, the pumps at the sites are now fixed in under two days. Previously many households were paying nothing toward the service, but after a free trial many villagers are willing to pay for the new maintenance service based on past performance.

The smart pump data also show how much water the pump is using and its reliability. It is therefore possible to charge communities that use their pump less at a lower rate than those who use the pump more frequently. Equally, the first ever hourly data on observed handpump water use provides important insights into water demand and seasonal variation. For example, in both sites the researchers have evidence to show that when it rains people switch to alternative water sources which may be less safe.

Professor Rick Rylance, Chair of RCUK, said: ‘We are delighted to be holding such an exciting and engaging event to show how the UK is a world leader in research and innovation, with a reputation for excellence of which we are immensely proud. We truly punch above our weight on the global stage in terms of the quality of research we produce and its high impact on economic growth and prosperity. Strong, sustained investment in the UK research base is essential to strengthen and let fly the excellence, creativity and impact of the UK’s world leading researchers, innovators and businesses. We need to invest now to secure its future.’

The Government of Kenya has identified the translation of the research into a business model as an important contribution to their efforts to find new and sustainable ways to maintain water services. Local businesses set up by the project now gather data that monitors the performance of the agencies delivering water services in a measurable and accountable manner.

The work is expanding in Kenya, with other countries in Africa and Asia interested in adopting the model based on the evidence the project has provided on innovative engineering solutions and institutional design, including mobile water payment systems.

Research from the project has recently been published as an open access article in the journal World Development.

Koehler, J., Thomson, P. and Hope, R. (2015) Pump-priming payments for sustainable water services in rural Africa. World Development, 74: 397-411.

Read the Oxford University press release

The RCUK Research Innovate Grow event

Eleven projects featured in the RCUK event

Dr Rob Hope

Smart Water Systems research

African wetlands and climate

Dr Simon Dadson at the School of Geography and the Environment, has led a team of researchers from Oxford University, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Met Office and the University of Cape Town in a project to investigate the role of African wetlands in the climate system.

Okavango River

Okavango River in Botswana © Simon Dadson

The research, which was funded by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council and comes to an end this year, enables the calculation of river flows and inland flooding in data-sparse regions. The system is now integrated within the UK Met Office’s Unified Model suite of global and regional climate models and is being used worldwide.

The scientific impact of this work is to further understanding of how climate variability and change effects water resources availability, but also to get a better view of how patterns of changing freshwater availability affect local meteorology. The project has generated significant interest among the African environmental science community and enabled several research fellows to undertake exchange visits to Oxford, and vice versa.

Dr Dadson will build upon this work in a new project with the University of Reading which will investigate the influence of wetland-climate feedbacks on African hydroclimate.

Read the impact case study ‘How changes to inland waters impact regional climates’

Visit the project webpage and access the project data

UK Government warned to take urgent action on climate change

A new set of reports by the Committee on Climate Change calls for urgent action by the UK Government to avoid the increasing costs and impacts of climate change.

Climate Change ReportProfessor Jim Hall, Director of the ECI, sits on the Adaptation Sub Committee and was involved in the adaptation report, which comprises the first statutory assessment of the UK’s National Adaptation Programme. The assessment revealed a number of risks which need to be addressed by government, including an increase in the number of homes at risk of flooding, despite extensive spending on flood defences; and the threat posed within the next generation from rising temperature on the UK’s farming.

Lord Deben, Chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, commented on the report saying: “This Government has a unique opportunity to shape climate policy through the 2020s. It must act now to set out how it plans to keep the UK on track. Acting early will help to reduce costs to households, business and the Exchequer. It will improve people’s health and wellbeing and create opportunities for business in manufacturing and in the service sector.”

Read the full set of reports on the Committee on Climate Change website

Article from the Environmental Change Institute website

Is the Western US drought caused by climate change?

Climateprediction.net has launched a new experiment to find out if climate change has made the drought in California, Oregon and Washington more likely.

The Western US drought has ranged from troublesome to severe. Californians have just experienced a fourth winter of drought, following three years that have marked some of the most severe drought conditions in the past century.

Oregon is in its second year of drought thanks to very low snowpack because of warm, mild winters. Washington is in its first year of drought – a result almost exclusively tied to warmer winter temperatures.

This past winter, Governor Jerry Brown issued water restrictions for the first time in the history of the state. In 2014 alone, the drought cost $2.2 billion and caused over 17,000 farm workers to lose their jobs.

In the video above, Abby Halperin, Myles Allen and Friederike Otto at the Environmental Change Institute explain how serious the ongoing drought is, and how this Weather@home experiment will help determine what effect, if any, human-induced climate change has had on the likelihood of the drought.

With the help of volunteers all around the world running simulations on their home computers, the experiment will simulate and compare thousands of possible Western US winter seasons in the world as it might have been without climate change, with possible winter weather in the world as we know it. If the chance of a drought in these two worlds is the same, then climate change cannot be blamed for this particular event. However, if the chance of a drought is greater in the world with climate change, this indicates that climate change increased the risk of drought.

Read more about the Weather@home experiment and how you can get involved

Britain leads global water initiative

In May 2015, Professor Paul Whitehead gave a keynote talk at the launch of Britain’s first national water benchmarking scheme. The event took place at world-renowned Pinewood Studios, giving it “00” status!

paul-whitehead

AquaMark is a multi-million pound grant scheme managed by consultants ADSM and is free to join for all UK participating organisations. The national project will fund a range of services so that sophisticated benchmarks can be derived for over 500 different building classifications, allowing commercial users to reduce water usage by an average of 30%. The project is the first of its kind and is set to put Britain at the forefront of global water benchmarking.

Paul Whitehead, Professor of Water Science at the School of Geography and the Environment, delivered a keynote on ‘Security of water supply: managing for the future and minimising risk’. He explained the implications of climate change for water resources in the UK, and introduced modelling tools for predicting future water shortages and environmental risks.

Oxford University research is helping identify and address water security risks, both in the UK and globally. Professor Whitehead highlighted the MaRIUS project on drought and water scarcity in the UK, the Macronutrients Cycles Programme, and the ESPA Deltas project which explores the impact of future climate change and socio-economic change in the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers in India and Bangladesh.

Patrick McCart, ADSM Founder and Director, commented: ‘Right now there exists a real opportunity for UK organisations, both large and small, to participate in this ground-breaking research project. Britain is set to become the global advisor on sustainable water supplies for commercial users. The recent events experienced in California and São Paulo, have highlighted how essential it is that businesses and organisations are supported with all the necessary tools to combat water scarcity.’

The launch took place in Pinewood studios and was supported by over 100 blue chip and public sector organisations.

The project has received backing from the water industry, regulators OFWAT, The Environment Agency, and leading research experts BRE, BSRIA and the University of Oxford.

For further information about joining the scheme, please visit www.adsm.com/AquaMark

See Paul Whitehead’s presentation ‘Security of water supply: managing for the future and minimising risk’

Desertification: the environment gone pear-shaped?

On 17 June, World Day to Combat Desertification, Dr Troy Sternberg asks some important questions. What is desertification? Is it caused by climate or humans? Are deserts taking over? Can the process be stopped?

The Gobi Desert

The Gobi Desert. Photo by Nanel

The idea of desertification came in the 1970s when scientists noted that parts of the Sahara Desert appeared to be expanding by kilometres per year. News reports and popular imagination extrapolated the numbers and declared that deserts were spreading at alarming rates. Articles began, ‘at this rate, in 10 years (choose your favorite African city) will be covered in sand.’

In 1994 the United Nations created the Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) to address the issue. Soon the term was applied to China and India, the American Southwest and the Middle East. Desertification had captured the public’s imagination and became the go-to term for ‘something’s happening in the desert.’

In time, science and climate knowledge diverged from popular perceptions of desertification. With interest, investigation and new techniques, like satellite imagery, researchers were able to better understand climate and landscape interaction in arid regions. Two important factors became clear: (1) climate variability, particularly in precipitation, resulted in fluctuations in land cover, and (2) humans had significant impact on desert environments.

The first point, now broadly acknowledged, highlights how climate affects vegetation patterns. With more rain plant cover increases, while in dry or drought years ecological productivity decreases. Thus in wetter years deserts ‘shrink’ whilst ‘expanding’ in drier years.

The second point stresses the huge impact people have on landscapes, especially drylands. Agriculture, livestock grazing, resource extraction, urbanisation and intensive land use all affect desert environments. Once damaged, marginally productive arid landscapes are unlikely to recover.

Soon the idea of desertification grew in complexity. It was not a simple case of ‘deserts taking over’ or just a ‘climate event’. One year’s ‘desertification’ might be replaced by the next year’s ‘greening’.

The UNCCD developed a definition of desertification as ‘land degradation in arid, semi-arid and sub-humid areas resulting from various factors including climatic variations and human activities’. The focus identifies a process resulting from many potential causes. Implicit is that desertification reflects a change in state, crossing a threshold in which original productivity is lost.

Much discussion uses the term ‘desertified’, where perhaps degradation would be more appropriate. This allows for changes in precipitation or land use (e.g. farmland left fallow or ending overgrazing) that may improve vegetation and pasture. As with several scientific terms that enter the popular lexicon, there is more nuance and shades of meaning to desertification than its usage suggests.

Two Oxford University researchers, Dave Thomas and Nick Middleton, wrote about this in ‘Desertification: Exploding the Myth’ in 1994, a book that highlighted the use and misuse of the term. Now over twenty years later the word is ever more popular and has become a shorthand way to say the environment has gone pear-shaped. Few writers take the time to look at contributory factors, from drought to conflict and war, poverty, intensive cultivation on unsuitable land and development pressures. Indeed, the term has become so generic that it has little real meaning.

A recent article of mine ‘Contraction of the Gobi 2000-2012’ showed how the size of East Asia’s largest desert has been decreasing due to increased precipitation (Sternberg et al. 2015). However, Chinese researchers were convinced that it was not precipitation but ‘good government anti-desertification policies’ that led to the shrinking of the desert.

In a recent visit to Oxford the UNCCD representative stressed ‘degradation in any environment’ rather than using the word ‘desert’. Where is the funding appeal for a dry or dessicated piece of land? Much better to rebrand desertification as a term for severe degradation. That implies the potential to change, reverse and improve landscapes through human action; a positive message the public can embrace.

On this day take a moment to think about the two billion people, predominantly poor, who live in marginal arid and semi-arid regions, to realise the implications of a term we use lightly.

Dr Troy Sternberg is a geographer researching desert environments and societies, based at the School of Geography and the Environment. His current focus is on how climate hazards impact landscapes and people across Asian drylands.

Related links

Water, Civilisation and Power in Sudan

At the launch of his book ‘Water, Civilisation and Power in Sudan’ in Oxford on 18 May 2015, Harry Verhoeven gave a snapshot of Africa’s most ambitious state-building projects in the modern era, where water played an important role. The book is the result of Harry’s doctoral research at Oxford University, and remarkable access to politicians, generals and intellectuals in Sudan over many years.

Worker clearing logs during the heightening of the Roseires Dam, August 2009. Photo by Harry Verhoeven

Worker clearing logs during the heightening of the Roseires Dam, August 2009. Photo by Harry Verhoeven

On 30 June 1989, a secretive movement of Islamists led by Dr Hassan Al-Turabi allied itself to a military group to violently take power in Africa’s biggest country.

Turabi organised a coup to prevent an anti-Islamist backlash in Egypt or America and formed the Al-Ingaz regime, the first modern Sunni Islamic Revolution since the seventh century AD.

The alliance of Islamists and generals sought to transform Sudan from one of the world’s poorest nations into a beacon of Islamic civilisation and prosperity across the Muslim world.

Harry Verhoeven’s book “Water, Civilization and Power in Sudan: The Political Economy of Military-Islamist State Building” reveals the centrality of water in Sudanese politics under military-Islamic rule.

The Al-Ingaz regime promised ‘Economic Salvation’ – the rescue of Sudan’s economy through a ‘hydro-agricultural mission’ with massive investment in water infrastructure and irrigated agriculture. The Nile River was seen as Sudan’s lifeline and its most important political artery.

Verhoeven describes the vast Merowe Dam as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the hydro-agricultural mission. His analysis shows how the Al-Ingaz Revolution’s use of water and agriculture to consolidate power is linked to twenty-first-century globalisation, Islamist ideology, and intensifying geopolitics of the Nile.

Harry Verhoeven is Assistant Professor of Government at the School of Foreign Service (Qatar), Georgetown University. He is an Associate Member of the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford and the Convenor of the Oxford University China-Africa Network (OUCAN).

Corporate investment in water: a fix for the California drought?

Dr Alex Money, Research Fellow at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, explains the lack of appeal of water for investors, in a feature ‘California Drought: Finding a Fix’ on BBC World Service Business Daily.

california-drought-bbc

California is amidst a historic fourth year of drought. In April their Governor Jerry Brown ordered the state’s first ever mandatory water restrictions, directing cities and communities to reduce water usage by 25%.

Aired on Thursday 28 May 2015, the BBC World Service reports on how citizens and the government are coping with the drought, featuring an interview with the state’s Governor Jerry Brown and comment from Oxford University’s Dr Alex Money.

The programme asks: what is the role of business in tackling the water shortage problem? Why isn’t Silcon Valley – California’s global hub for high-tech innovation and development – leaping to find fixes to the Californian drought?

Dr Money explains that return on investments in water infrastructure is made through water fees paid by companies and individuals at the point of use. The problem is that the infrastructure required to deliver water is typically expensive. High upfront capital expenditure is coupled with a return over a long period of time, making water a risky investment.

While clever technologies such as desalination and membranes for water purification exist, investment is lagging because of the risk-return problem, according to Dr Money.

Asked whether California could learn from Israel’s example where 80% of municipal wastewater is reused for irrigation, he says: “In Israel’s case it reflects quite a long-sighted view that water is a scarce resource. They’ve made some important investments in terms of reclaiming, recycling and reusing water. I think the problem is, in many other places water hasn’t been regarded with the same level of scarcity or value as it has been in Israel.”

Listen on BBC iPlayer (17 minute total, Alex Money from 12:40)

 

New EU project on coastal hazards and an Oxford ‘Think-Shop’

Professor Edmund Penning-Rowsell, Distinguished Research Associate at the School of Geography and the Environment, is managing a new research and knowledge transfer project to better protect society from coastal hazards.

coastal-hazards

The EcosHaz project will develop a framework to assess the costs and benefits of prevention and response to coastal hazards such as flooding, shoreline erosion, storm surges, sea level rise and oil spill accidents.

Until now, investment decisions in Europe in this field have been based more on local or regional political agendas than logical risk assessments.

Professor Penning-Rowsell, also Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research at Middlesex University said: “Coastal hazards are a major concern for authorities and populations as they can have severe impacts on the economy as well as the health and safety of people. The project will provide state of the art guidance on assessing the costs and benefits of risk prevention measures, compared to the costs for response and rehabilitation. This will enable decision-makers to make sensible choices based on sound evidence.”

The project team will train up personnel in coastal authorities and their consultants or advisers, so that they can adopt economic assessment tools in their work and reduce the damage caused by coastal hazards.

Partners within the consortium are: Sigma Consultants, Greece; the University Pablo de Olavide, Seville, Spain; the Flood Hazard Research Centre, Middlesex University, UK; the Maritime Institute in Gdansk, Poland; the Department of Economic Theory at University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain; and the Università degli Studi di Catania, Italy.

A ‘Think-Shop’ (the antidote to the proverbial “Workshop”) will be held in Oxford on 7 October 2015, to brainstorm coastal protection and conservation issues. Those interested should contact Edmund Penning-Rowsell at Edmund@penningrowsell.com.

Visit the EcosHaz project website

Ecoshaz

eac logo

Project co-funded by the EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection.
The sole responsibility of this communication lies with the author.
The Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information therein.