In Memoriam: Professor W. Mike Edmunds

“It’s all about the rocks!” So, Mike would gently direct students and reticent researchers to the unerring importance of groundwater for society’s sustainable development in the past, present and future.

Mike Edmunds with the MSc Water Science, Policy and Management students on the Lulworth Cove field trip, Dorset (Class 2009/10)

Mike Edmunds with the MSc Water Science, Policy and Management students on the Lulworth Cove field trip, Dorset (Class 2009/10)

Mike’s passion for sustainable and equitable management of groundwater led to dramatic and internationally-significant scientific discoveries that were recognised by the O.E. Meinzer Award (2009) as the first British recipient, and the Whitaker Medal (1999). Seminal scientific advances on controls on water quality in regional aquifers, recharge over time and space, and the origin of mineral and thermal waters were published in over 150 scientific papers and books.

After an outstanding career spanning 35 years at the British Geological Survey (BGS), he joined Oxford University as Research Director of the Water Research Centre at the School of the Geography and the Environment, and a member of Christ Church. He continued to advance global groundwater science and management, notably in the UNESCO G-WADI programme, but also focused on developing and launching a novel and interdisciplinary MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management with Rachael McDonnell, Michael Rouse and David Johnstone. Launched in 2004 it is now in its 11th year with over 220 alumni from 52 countries. Mike’s classes have launched many successful academic and practitioner careers inspired not only by the quality of his scholarship but his celebrated field courses to Dorset and the Ebro basin every year.

The MSc course has been the touch-paper for a renaissance in water research in Oxford now linking over 70 faculty and research staff in the Oxford Water Network established in 2009. Mike has contributed to innovative, interdisciplinary water science including his significant inputs to new programmes on Improving Water Security for the Poor and Groundwater and Poverty. Both programmes reflect Mike’s significant and enduring personal contributions to improving the lives of rural people in Africa and Asia not only through his world-leading science but also his personal commitment, including over a decade as a trustee of Wells for India, which has transformed the lives of thousands of poor people in Rajasthan.

Above all, Mike has been an inspiration to all the staff and students who have had the privilege of working with him over his 13 years at Oxford University. We celebrate his significant achievements to educating the next generation of global water leaders and establishing a legacy for the next wave of water research at Oxford. We are greatly shocked and saddened by his sudden death and our sympathies and thoughts are with Kathy, his four children and his six grandchildren.

Oxford University staff, students and friends
(29 April 2015)

Download the In Memoriam with more photos
Tribute on the G-WADI website
Tribute UNESCO UK website

MSc students get ‘hands on’ with freshwater biodiversity at Otmoor

The MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management class recently journeyed to Otmoor, a historic wetland landscape to the northeast of Oxford, to learn about freshwater biodiversity and wetland restoration. Melissa von Mayrhauser reports back.

Students search for invertebrates in pondwater

Students search for invertebrates in pondwater collected at Otmoor.

Armed with wellies, nets and buckets, we collected invertebrates from elongated ponds to conduct a biological survey. Due to their diversity in freshwater, sedentary tendencies and life cycles that often extend for at least six months, invertebrates are ideal candidates to use as an indicator of water quality.

Netting dragonfly nymphs, water spiders and freshwater shrimp was a welcome change of pace from library revisions. We collected sediment in our nets from different pond mesohabitats and emptied the findings into our shallow containers. We then used spoons to search through the vegetation for hidden species, from damselfly nymphs to ramshorn snails.

Analysing these macroinvertebrates in jars over sandwiches at a local pub, we happily found high biodiversity and species that usually live in freshwater with low pollution, meaning that the water quality of elongated ponds was high.

After lunch, we spoke to the wetland’s warden from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds about the ways that they are working to restore the area to a wetland landscape with more robust biodiversity, as it had been prior to the nineteenth century. They are able to manipulate water levels to achieve this goal.

This trip was not only a picturesque excursion to a nearby preserve, but also a hands-on case study, helping us to pin principles from our course to a specific place in our backyard. Several of the students will use similar fieldwork practices for their dissertations to study species richness and biological water quality around the world. And water students in a wetland are as happy as a mayfly nymph in a reed bank!

Oxford University water research at the 2015 European Geosciences Union General Assembly

There was a great turnout for the School of Geography and the Environment at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly, where eight students and staff presented their latest water and climate related research findings.

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Map of a global topographic index developed by Toby Marthews and colleagues.

The annual EGU General Assembly is the largest European geosciences event and took place this year on 12-17 April in Vienna. The meeting covers all fields of science dealing with planet Earth, including volcanology, the Earth’s internal structure and atmosphere, climate, as well as energy, water and other resources.

Our students and staff were among the 11,000 scientists at the event from 108 countries. Oxford University presence included oral and poster presentations by Associate Professor Simon Dadson, post-doctoral researchers Emily Barbour, Gianbattista Bussi, Benoit Guillod, Rachel James, Toby Marthews and Daniel Mitchell, and doctoral candidate Franziska Gaupp.

Franziska Gaupp presented research on the role of storage capacity in coping with water variability in large river basins. Using a global water balance model, her analysis shows that current storage is able to buffer water variability in most basins. However, hotspots of water insecurity were found in South Asia, Northern China, the West Coast of the United States, Spain, Australia and several basins across Africa.

Emily Barbour’s research examines the complex relationship between water resource management and poverty in the Bangladesh Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Delta. Her poster shares experience with engaging policymakers and stakeholders to discuss the impacts of climate and socio-economic change on water availability and quality.

The map featured on this page shows a topographic index developed by Toby Marthews and colleagues – a measure of the ‘propensity for soil to become saturated’ – which will be an invaluable resource for use in large-scale hydrological modelling. In a second poster, Toby presented findings from a study which sought to find out if human-induced climate change contributed to the devastating 2014 drought in the Horn of Africa. The modelling results suggest no human influence on the likelihood of low rainfall but clear signals in other drivers of drought.

It’s difficult to study extreme weather events such as floods and droughts, because, by definition, they don’t occur very often. A way to overcome this issue is to use large ensembles of climate model simulations to produce ‘synthetic’ weather events. This was the topic of Benoit Guillod’s talk which he illustrated with an example of synthetic drought events in the UK being generated for the MaRIUS project (Managing the Risks, Impacts and Uncertainties of drought and water Scarcity) in order to better understand and predict droughts. In a second talk Benoit presented results on the impact of soil moisture on rainfall – an important interaction in the climate system.

Taking a more local perspective, Gianbattista Bussi spoke about his research on water quality in the River Thames basin which analyses the dynamics of fine sediments. Another strand of the work models the growth and movement of phytoplankton – microscopic algae which are an important food source for river wildlife, but over-growth can lead to algae bloom, depleted oxygen levels and the death of fish and other species.

It was fantastic to see so many of our researchers in Vienna sharing their insights and knowledge about the Earth’s water and climate systems.

Visit the EGU General Assembly website

Presentation files

Water Lives to screen at the 2015 UK Green Film Festival

Water Lives is a science advocacy animation about the important life underpinning and sustaining our freshwater ecosystems. It has been selected for screening alongside the documentary H2Omx at the 2015 UK Green Film Festival.

Water Lives was produced in 2012 by Rob St John, a former student of the MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management at the School of Geography and the Environment, and course director Dr Paul Jepson. A collaboration between artists and scientists, Water Lives shows how freshwater is a living, dynamic system inhabited by beautiful, important organisms largely unseen by the naked eye.

The curious and otherworldly physical form of freshwater organisms provides artistic inspiration for the animation, which also features a series of haiku about freshwater ecosystems written by acclaimed environmental poet John Barlow.

Watch the animation

Visit the 2015 Green Film Festival website

How to get rid of industrial waste: feed it to bacteria

A spin-out company is pioneering the use of bacteria that literally eat the toxic by-products of high-tech engineering.

Professor William Pope, Microbial’s Chief Executive Officer, with untreated metal working fluid (left) and metal working fluid after treatment with MicrocycleTM (right)

Professor William Pope, Microbial’s Chief Executive Officer, with untreated metal working fluid (left) and metal working fluid after treatment with MicrocycleTM (right)

Microbial Solutions Ltd has developed a clever solution to the disposal of ultra-high toxicity fluids, a serious issue for high-tech metal working companies such as those that manufacture aircraft and cars. Extremely precise engineering is required to create something like an aeroplane’s wing or a modern fuel efficient engine, and the interface between the metal and the machine cutting it has to be constantly lubricated with a carefully emulsified mixture of high-grade oils and water. The fluid carries away metal swarf, facilitates the most accurate cut possible, and absorbs heat which could otherwise damage the product and the tool.

There is a problem, however: bacteria love these oil and water mixtures. They are warm and full of hydrocarbons which the bacteria feed on, providing a perfect breeding ground. Under normal working conditions the fluids can rapidly become so contaminated with bacteria that they have to be replaced. This is expensive, and therefore the lubricating fluids contain biocides to make them as toxic as possible, resulting in fluids that last much longer, give better machining performance and save companies money.

In the long run, though, even these fluids become unusable, and this creates another problem: a highly toxic waste product that has to be disposed of. Expensive and energy-intensive chemical methods can be used to break up the fluids, but these will not remove all the toxic components. The poisonous sludge left behind also has to be disposed of – incinerated, or in some parts of the world buried in landfill, where it will slowly break down anaerobically, but at the cost of releasing the greenhouse gases methane and CO2 into the atmosphere. The disposal process can cost companies hundreds of thousands of pounds a year.

It was research by Chris van der Gast, a DPhil student affiliated to the Department of Engineering Science and working at the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), which began to address this problem. In conjunction with Professor Ian Thompson (then at the CEH, but now at Oxford University), Chris investigated whether bacteria could be employed to deal with the poisonous waste. It seems counterintuitive to use bacteria to consume something that has deliberately been treated with biocides, but in fact almost anything can be eaten by bacteria – it is just a question of finding the right ones.

After a careful worldwide search of the hundreds of bacteria that survive naturally in metal working fluids, five were selected, and this mix of bacteria was able to create a self-sustaining system. At ambient temperature and pressure, with no need for high energy inputs, the bacteria gradually consume the toxic fluids (including the waste oil), producing small amounts of carbon dioxide. Toxicity, carbon and nutrient balancing keeps bacterial growth at a stable level and prevents algal bloom. The grey water left over at the end of the process can be recycled or released directly into the sewers, and the system has proved capable of running for years at a time without the need to add more bacteria.

The research led to the spin-out of Microbial Solutions in 2008. Industry was quick to see the potential of the company’s patented MicrocycleTM bacterial treatment, since it helped them to meet increasingly stringent targets for reduction of pollution, landfill waste and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as saving them considerable amounts of money. The technology has been trialled by British Aerospace and the Ford Motor Company, with highly successful results; Microbial Solutions has won Technology Awards from both companies, as well as a UK Award for Environmental Excellence, and the future of its innovative bioreactors looks extremely promising. Meanwhile, further research into the innovative uses of bacteria in environmental engineering is continuing in the Department of Engineering Science.

Peter Fish, Systems Estates Manager for British Aerospace, said: ‘Microbial Solutions reactor solves a number of problems at once: it can save costs and also helps us meet our environmental obligations. We have a site of special scientific interest near our Brough plant, and we have to be very careful when transporting, treating, or disposing of waste. Being able to remove the toxins from metal working fluids so effectively is a huge benefit. We’re very pleased the trial has worked so well and look forward to continuing our excellent working relationship with the Microbial Solutions team.’

Original research funded by the Natural Environment Research Council

Visit the Microbial Solutions website

This is one of the Oxford University research impact case studies

Developing a new tool to manage groundwater risks in Africa

Oxford University is embarking on a four-year research project to improve the management of groundwater in rural Africa for economic growth and human development.

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Groundwater drilling in Kwale County from a shared aquifer used by communities, mining and agriculture.

Dr Rob Hope at the Smith School of Environment and Enterprise leads the £1.9 million project ‘GRo for GooD’ (Groundwater Risk Management for Growth and Development) which will provide new evidence on the status of groundwater and help institutions better manage this important resource.

Groundwater is a critical source of drinking water for rural populations in Africa, but is poorly understood. Groundwater systems face increasing pressures from explosive urban growth, expansion of irrigated agriculture, industrial pollution, mining, rural neglect, and environmental risks. As demand for groundwater intensifies, there is a high risk that the poorest communities will lose out. The GRo for GooD project seeks to answer the question: ‘how groundwater can be sustainably managed for the benefit of the economy and the rural poor?’

Researchers will design a new Groundwater Risk Management Tool to help governments and groundwater users understand the complex interactions and trade-offs between economic activities, demands for water, and poverty outcomes. The tool will be tested in Kwale County, Kenya, but will be adaptable for other countries and contexts.

GRo for GooD follows on from a successful catalyst project which generated a wide range of data on groundwater level and quality, water use, and indicators of health and welfare, in order to gain a better understanding of poverty and groundwater governance in Kwale County.

The Groundwater Risk Management Tool will take inputs from multiple sources across different disciplines, including epidemiological data, poverty metrics, and data on groundwater levels generated from a novel distributed system for monitoring shallow groundwater that is being developed by the research team.

The project sees Oxford University partnering with the University of Nairobi, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology and Rural Focus Ltd., all in Kenya, as well as with Universitat Politècnica de Cataluñya in Spain.

Within Oxford University, expertise is drawn from multiple departments: Rob Hope, Caitlin McElroy and Patrick Thomson from the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment; Katrina Charles and David Bradley from School of Geography and the Environment, and David Clifton from the Department of Engineering. In addition, DPhil candidates Johanna Koehler, Jacob Katuva and Farah Colchester are supporting critical elements of the project.

GRo for GooD is part of the seven-year UpGro programme (Unlocking the Potential of Groundwater for the Poor), jointly funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Report shows how water insecurity is a drag on the global economy

A new report shows floods, droughts and a lack of investment in providing good quality, reliable water supplies is dragging down the global economy. The report, published today and entitled ‘Securing Water, Sustaining Growth’, was written by an international Task Force chaired by Claudia Sadoff and co-chaired by Professors Jim Hall and David Grey from the University of Oxford.

cover with borderThe Task Force was established by the Global Water Partnership (GWP) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The report and new scientific analysis examines not only water’s destructive force but also how it contributes to human health and prosperity. It was launched at the start of the Seventh World Water Forum in South Korea, the international summit at which the world’s water challenges are addressed.

The report draws on research led by the University of Oxford and feeds into a policy statement released by GWP and OECD calling on governments to invest in strengthening the world’s institutional capacity to manage water security, with much improved information systems and better water infrastructure. It urges that special attention be paid to social risks, with a focus on vulnerable segments of society.

According to the report, South Asia has the largest concentration of water-related risks. East and Southeast Asia face rapidly increasing flood risk, although the United States has the greatest exposure to flood risk. Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region where the risks of inadequate water supply and sanitation are rising. North Africa has the greatest percentage of population at risk of water scarcity.

The international Task Force is comprised of leading academics, researchers and practitioners from around the world.

Claudia Sadoff, Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Environmental Change Institute, said: ‘Both our empirical and theoretical analyses demonstrate the importance of investment in water security for development and the importance of development for investment in water security.’

‘Effective ways of achieving water security involve combinations of investments in information, institutions and infrastructure’, says Professor Hall, report co-author and Director of the Environmental Change Institute. ‘Not all investments have been beneficial or cost-effective. Investment must be designed to be robust to uncertainties and to support adaptive management as risks, opportunities, and social preferences change. All of this will require refined analytic tools, innovation, and continuous monitoring, assessment, and adaptation.’

Report co-author and Visiting Professor at the School of Geography and the Environment, David Grey said: ‘Our analysis shows that the countries that depend on agriculture for their economies are often the worst affected by floods or water scarcity. Some countries will need to think about how they can diversify from an agriculturally focussed economy to one less dependent on water. They will also focus on how better use can be made of the limited water supplies available to them.’

Read the report
Read the GWP news release
Water insecurity costs global economy billions a year, Bloomberg, 13 April 2015
Water insecurity costing global economy billions, Japan Times, 25 April 2015

 

Climate extremes: moving from physics to solutions

Professor Paul Whitehead joined over 35 scientists in the Swiss mountains to discuss how to assess and adapt to extreme climate events.

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Delegates at the climate extremes workshop, Riederalp, Switzerland

The most significant impacts of climate change are likely to be due to the increasing intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, such as droughts, floods, heat waves and wind storms. The costs of damage caused by these events could be extremely high.

The University of Geneva organised the workshop in Riederalp, Switzerland on 24-28 March 2015, bringing together a wide range of expertise on the science of climate extremes. The scope of the workshop also moved beyond physical science to consider impacts and adaptation policies for reducing climate-related risks and the costs of extreme events to vulnerable societies.

Paul Whitehead, Professor of Water Science at the School of Geography and the Environment, presented his research on modelling the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna river systems in India and Bangladesh, which together form one of the largest river basins in the world, providing water to over 650 million people.

The Oxford University research, which forms part of the ESPA Deltas project, assesses how future climate change and socio-economic change in the river basin will impact the flow of water and nutrients into the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Megha Delta. The results show that climate change could have significant impacts on river flows, both increasing wet season flows and leading to more frequent droughts. Socio-economic changes could impact flows during droughts, when irrigation will further reduce water availability. The modelling work also explores how management and policy interventions can reduce these impacts.

Participants at the workshop shared case studies of a variety of extreme events, from glacier lake dam bursts in the Himalayas, to heat waves in Moscow, wind gust events in Switzerland, and extreme snow storms in Austria.

An important outcome from the workshop will be a policy document for the 21st Conference of Parties (COP) in Paris in December 2015. The meeting’s discussions will also be presented to the EU Science Managers to inform them of this key area of research, which is largely missing in the major EU Horizon 2020 research programme.

Visit the climate extremes workshop webpage

Read more about the ESPA Deltas project

View Paul Whitehead’s powerpoint presentation on modelling climate change and socio-economic pathways in the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers

Academic publications on modelling the the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, in the Journal Environmental Science: Processes and Impacts:

A new era of cooperation on the Nile River

Kevin Wheeler, DPhil candidate at the Environmental Change Institute, presented his work on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam at Chatham House of the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

The workshop, held on 25 March 2015, brought together experts to discuss infrastructure developments in the Horn of Africa and whether governments are working with local communities to balance the costs and benefits of these projects.

Kevin’s talk ‘The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and regional energy security’ was particularly timely given the well-publicised ‘Declaration of Principles’ signed between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia last week over future management of the Nile. Now the attention of the region is shifting to how the new Ethiopian dam might be operated and how this might positively or negatively affect the downstream countries of Sudan and Ethiopia.

Kevin presented potential strategies of filling and operating the dam, which is located on the Blue Nile River, and how this new infrastructure might meet the needs and development objectives of these countries. His DPhil research explores the costs and benefits of various degrees of coordinated management of Nile reservoirs, and how these potential agreements might be affected by climate change.

Researchers discuss natural hazards and uncertainty at Oxford workshop

A workshop on Decision Analysis for Natural Hazards was held at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University on 10-11 March 2015.

Professor Jim Hall, Director of the Environmental Change Institute, chaired the two-day series of seminars, tutorials and discussion on decision support methods for natural hazards, including floods, droughts and earthquakes, and their consequences in the UK and globally.

Natural hazards decisions are typically made on the basis of data with significant uncertainty and much of the workshop explored decision techniques for unquantifiable or ‘deep’ uncertainty. Professor Yakov Ben-Haim of Technion – Israel Institute of Technology illustrated this concept with examples from other fields such as economics and biology, as well as from natural hazards such as the North Sea flood in 1953 and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan. Professor Ben-Haim demonstrated the Info-Gap methodology which identifies robust responses across possible future states.

Professor Hall gave examples of environmental challenges that have been practically addressed with decision analysis methods in infrastructure planning for flood prevention. A series of short presentations by participants outlined the broad range of cases in which decisions are made under uncertain conditions, such as landslide prediction, wind storm insurance and water resource management.

Professor Ben-Haim led the group with some practical exercises using Info-Gap to identify robust solutions in the context of uncertainty. Participants then developed their own analyses of relevant decision problems with help from Professors Hall and Ben-Haim, with several ideas for further research collaboration emerging.

The workshop was supported by the Natural Environment Research Council funded programme CREDIBLE (Consortium on Risk in the Environment: Diagnostics, Integration, Benchmarking, Learning and Elicitation), which researches new approaches to natural hazard modelling. Within the consortium, Oxford University researchers Jim Hall, Mike Simpson, Neil Massey and Edoardo Borgomeo focus on decision analysis, drought and water scarcity.