Oxford gears up for World Water Week

As delegates prepare to descend on Stockholm, we preview Oxford’s involvement in the annual global water gathering.

Next week (28 August – 2 September) Stockholm will host World Water Week. The week-long forum is a major date in the water conference calendar, drawing participants from across the globe to discuss some of the critical water issues facing humanity. Attendees are diverse, including stakeholders from civil society, government, business, and academia. This year, a number of Oxford University’s staff and alumni will travel to Stockholm, to participate in events taking place over the week.

A full programme for WWW, which this year explores the theme of Water for Sustainable Growth, can be accessed here. Below is a brief summary of Oxford’s involvement in WWW outlining staff and alumni participation. All times are local (CET).

Monday, Aug 29
Prof Jim Hall sets the scene from 14:05 as part of the Water as a driver for sustainable growth seminar in FH 202 (14:00-15:30).

In the second part of the same session (16:00-17:30), Dr Katrina Charles will deliver a talk entitled Water-related economic drag: sector-level analysis in Ethiopia from 16:40.

Kevin Wheeler will deliver a talk entitled Possibilities and technical challenges of coordinated hydropower reservoir management in the Eastern Nile Basin as part of the Nile Basin: land and energy investments and changing hydropolitical landscapes session in NL 357 from 16:00 – 17:30.

Tue, Aug 30
Alice Chautard is co-organising a seminar in collaboration with the Water Research Commission, We Effect, ICIMOD, the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management. The seminar, entitled Ecosystem degradation and livelihoods: moving from vicious to virtuous cycles will take place in NL 357 between 11:00-12:30.

Dr Rob Hope and Dr Alex Money, of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, will participate in the Financing water infrastructure for sustainable growth sessions in FH300. Dr Hope will talk about Performance-based finance for drinking water security in Africa at 11:50, while Dr Money will address Bridging the gap from 14:00.

Wed, Aug 31

IWRA will host a launch event for the Special Issue of Water International titled “The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: Legal, Political and Scientific Challenges” at the SIWI booth from 17:00 – 18:00. Kevin Wheeler will also talk at this.

Thurs Sept 1
Dr Dustin Garrick will moderate the Building resilience for water scarcity and drought session, convened by the Australian Water Partnership and US Water Partnership. The session will take place at the FH Little Theatre from 14:00-15:30. Online registration is available here.

Alumni participation

A number of alumni from Oxford’s Water Science Policy and Management (WSPM) MSc will also be in attendance:

Sunday, Aug 28
Daniel Shemie (WSPM 2008/2009), Strategy Director of Water Funds at the Nature Conservancy will present a case study on Investing in watershed health through PPP in the Nairobi/Tana Valley at 14:15 as part of the Forests, water and sustainable growth of cities session from 14:00-15:30 in the NL Auditorium/Aulan

Tuesday, Aug 30
Jennifer Möller-Gulland (WSPM 2009/2010) is involved in the How water scarcity is altering the global economy and stranding billions of investor dollars session convened by Circle of Blue and Stockholm International Water Institute. This event will be streamed online at 15.00 CET.

Thursday, Sept 1
Hannah Leckie (WSPM 2013/2014), Policy Analyst at the OECD, will present a Policy perspective at 14:58 as part of the Addressing emerging pollutants to achieve SDGs session in FH Congress Hall A from 14:00-15:30.

Robin Rotman (WSPM 2004/2005), will be in attendance as an Editor for the Global Water Forum.

The event provides a great opportunity for Oxford staff and alumni to reconnect both on a professional and personal level. There are plans for a staff/alumni get-together on the evening of August 30. Those wishing to attend can find further information on the WSPM Facebook page or contact Katrina Charles directly.

If you are planning to attend WWW, have an Oxford connection, and would like to let the Oxford Water Network know what you’re up to, you can tweet to @oxfordwater.

Oxford mathematicians in Indian arsenic collaboration

The GCRF funds research partnership between Oxford’s Mathematical Institute and India’s IIT Kharagpur to model novel soil-based filter.

The Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta is a global hotspot for arsenic groundwater contamination. Naturally occurring arsenic concentrates in water drawn from deep tube wells, creating a major public health issue in West Bengal and Bangladesh, described as the “largest mass poisoning of a population in history”.

Researchers at the Department of Chemical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur, led by Prof Sirshendu De, recently developed a novel technology that uses the soil bed to filter arsenic. This product has already been piloted in three communities in India, serving more than 5000 people.

While the spread of single contaminants through porous media is well-known, transport, when multiple contaminants interact through a composite soil bed, is poorly understood. In these pilot areas, pesticides, fertilisers, and heavy metals are all present in the environment and it is unclear how their interaction impacts the effectiveness of the filter.

To develop a better understanding of these processes, IIT Kharagpur has enlisted the help of Oxford mathematicians Ian Griffiths and Sourav Mondal. The Oxford team will employ mathematical modelling techniques to gain insight into the action of the new filter and assess how this emerging technology can realise its full potential to remove contaminants from the soil and groundwater.

The project, which received funding from the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council’s (EPSRC) Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) on July 20, will commence at the beginning of August and run for 7 months. During this time, the Oxford team will work to derive a series of predictive mathematical theories based on asymptotic and computational techniques to understand the chemical transport and fluid dynamics processes taking place within the filter. The models will be combined with experiments and field data gathered by IIT Kharagpur to improve the prediction of how these chemicals spread.

The researchers hope that this collaboration will instigate future UK–India research and development co-operation and boost science and technological endeavours aimed at providing solutions to environmental problems, particularly those faced by low-income countries.

The REACH Programme’s first Partnership Funding round recently awarded Catalyst Grants to two arsenic-related projects in Bangladesh: 1) Arsenic Precision Innovative Rapid Easy-to-use Test (AsPIRE Test) and 2) Co-occurrence of heavy metal and antibiotic resistance in microorganisms due to arsenic contamination in water insecure areas of Bangladesh. Further detail of these, and the other REACH Catalyst Grants, can be found here.

Grants catalyse 12 new water security projects


Oxford’s REACH programme announces the funding awards from its first Partnership Funding round.

Over £550,000 has been awarded through our Partnership Funding to 12 projects in the first call for Catalyst Grants. The one-year projects span eleven countries in Africa and South Asia, and will work at the interface of water security and poverty reduction research and practice.

Rosanna Bartlett, REACH Partnership Funding Manager, said: ‘I’m delighted to announce these new projects which will advance REACH’s goal to improve water security for five million poor people. They have been chosen both for their novel science ideas and potential to deliver significant and sustainable impact.’

Dr Rob Hope, REACH Director, said: ‘Our understanding of water security moves beyond siloed and traditional approaches which separate drinking water services from water resources. We’re pleased to see many of these projects addressing these under-researched linkages, which will unlock opportunities for both human development and economic growth.’

There will be at least one more call for Catalyst Grants (£10,000-50,000), as well as a call for Major Grants (up to £500,000) during the course of the REACH programme. These will be announced on the Partnership Funding page.


Sensor technology for rapidly assessing water quality risks for vulnerable users (TRIGR)
British Geological Survey, University of Malawi – The Polytechnic, WaterAid, Chelsea Technologies Group

Co-occurrence of heavy metal and antibiotic resistance in microorganisms due to arsenic contamination in water insecure areas of Bangladesh
International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b), Swiss Federal Research Institute for Aquatic Science and Technology (EAWAG), Oregon State University, Emory University

Enhancing the Delta Dynamic Integrated Emulator Model and concepts to support REACH goals
University of Southampton, Institute of Water and Flood Management (IWFM) at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET)

Arsenic Precision Innovative Rapid Easy-to-use Test (AsPIRE Test)
The Bio Nano Centre Limited, University of Dhaka

Livelihoods from Enhanced water Access for the Poor in Slums (LEAPS)
Loughborough University, National Water and Sewerage Corporation

Understanding women’s water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) vulnerability
Burkina Faso
Stockholm Environment Institute, CEFAME

Water security risk science: local monitoring for participatory resource management (AMGRAF-WSRS)
Newcastle University, International Water Management Institute

Pastoralist women and water: understanding the ways in which women’s disempowerment contributes to water security risks
Centre for Humanitarian Change (CHC), Northern Rangelands Trust

Target Towns Research Action Programme (RAPTT)
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia (CIDRZ), Oxford University, University of Leeds, Georgia Institute of Technology

Safer water H20 access through Improved monitoring information to Expand supply and Local Demand at water kiosks in Goma, DRC (SHIELD)
Democratic Republic of Congo
SeeSaw, Humanitarian Assistance for Development NGO

Establishing a water quality monitoring network in mid-western Nepal
Eawag, HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation

Water law reform to improve water security for vulnerable people in Africa (SELARE)
Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Zimbabwe, South Africa
Pegasys Institute, International Water Management Institute (IWMI)

Read more about the projects.

This post was first published on the REACH website.

Macronutrient Cycles Programme draws to a close

The Royal Society hosts the finale of the £10.55 million Oxford-led research collaboration.

The Macronutrient Cycles Programme held its final workshop in June, drawing to a close the successful 5-year collaboration, led by Oxford University’s Professor Paul Whitehead and Dr Jill Crossman. The £10.55 million programme, funded by NERC, DEFRA and the Scottish Government, drew together expertise from 11 universities and 4 research institutes, to help better understand macronutrient cycles.

Over 110 researchers and stakeholders gathered at the Royal Society of London to hear the results of the research and implications for policy makers and catchment management stakeholders. The event featured an extensive stakeholder session including representation from DEFRA, the Environment Agency, Welsh Government, Scottish Government, River Trusts and Dr Ruth Kelman—Head of NERC’s freshwater sciences.

Macronutrient Cycles
Macronutrients – nitrogen (N), carbon (C) and phosphorus (P) – play pivotal role in the biogeochemical systems which sustain life. However, human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, food production and sewage discharges, have drastically altered macronutrient cycles, with significant implications for ecosystems and human health. Nitrogen and phosphorus cycles have accelerated globally by around 100% and 400% respectively on average.

Macronutrient Cycles Programme (MCP) sought to better understand these cycles, in particular to quantify the magnitude of nitrogen and phosphorus fluxes, their spatial and temporal variation, and how transformations occur through the catchment, in the context of a changing climate and perturbed carbon cycle. The term “catchment” was defined to address the exchange between the terrestrial, aquatic, atmospheric and estuarine systems. The programme sought not only to explore how these inter-related cycles limit ecosystems functions, but also and to examine what nutrient enrichment means for non-nutrient contaminants such as pathogens, and their impact up human health and biodiversity.

To realise this ambition the MCP funded the development of two innovative technologies, in addition to the following 4 projects:

1. LTLS: Analysis and simulation of the long-term/large-scale interactions of C, N and P in UK land, freshwater and atmosphere.
2. Turf2Surf: The multi-scale response of water quality, biodiversity and C sequestration to coupled macronutrient cycling from source to sea.
3. Quantifying annual cycles of macronutrient fluxes and net effect of transformations in an estuary: their responses to stochastic storm-driven events.
4. The role of lateral exchange in modulating the seaward flux of C, N, P.

Key Achievements

The research has contributed to long-term monitoring, providing great insight into how macronutrient sources have changed over the last 200 years. Data generated by the programme has helped improve modelling and aided the development of new models within the programme. These include a Bayesian model to further our understanding of seasonal variability and of how total fluxes of macronutrients respond to changes in river flow; a national scale model by developed to track the total leakage of phosphorus from water pipes; and two new catchment-scale models to address the effects of non-nutrient contaminants (pathogens and particulate organic pollutants).

In addition to modelling advances, the MCP supported the development of 2 innovative pieces of technology: a new ‘lab on a chip’ system for continuously monitoring nutrients in rivers and estuaries, and “Skyline 3D” a prototype system to remotely monitor greenhouse gases using a fly by wire remote gas collection system.

The MCP represents a major contribution to the current state of scientific knowledge of macronutrient cycles, which significant implications for environmental management. In total, the programme generated over 85 papers, and two special issue journals, with a third currently in press and expected to be published in the coming months.

Workshop presentations from the event will be available shortly on the Macronutrient Cycle Programme homepage. For further information about the programme contact Paul Whitehead – paul.whitehead@ouce.ox.ac.uk.

Sand dunes as giant rain gauges in the desert?

Reconstructing past precipitation fluctuations in dryland regions is challenging because of the nature of evidence left behind. Pore moisture within sand dunes provides a novel archive of palaeomoisture availability that has yet to be fully utilised. A recent review paper, led by Dr Abi Stone, outlines the status and future of this archive. Written with the late Mike Edmunds, the paper celebrates Mike’s great contribution to this area. Here, Abi reflects on their collaboration.


Rain gauge in the Kalahari. Picture by Abi Stone.

Understanding palaeoclimatic conditions in dryland regions is a key goal for climate science, particularly the responses of these environmentally sensitive regions at resolutions of decades to millennia. This allows the geosciences community to understand the nature of the response of drylands to factors that force the climate system, which enables better predictions of future dryland environmental change and variability. Arid and semi-arid regions make up around a third of the earth’s surface, are home to up to 2.1 billion people, and are areas particularly sensitive to future changes in precipitation and temperature.

However, reconstructing past rainfall trends and fluctuations in drylands is not an easy task. The negative moisture balance means that many of the pieces of evidence for precipitation (climatic proxies) used in other environments are not well preserved in drylands. For example, pollen does not survive in dry sediments and degrades on exposure to air. In addition, there are few records from calcium-carbonate deposits in caves (speleothems) found in more humid areas, such as those in China, that have notably produced impressive time-series of palaeoprecipitation and monsoon dynamics (in excess of 50,000 years).

This is because drylands often lack sufficient levels of precipitation for the speleothems to grow continuously. The distinctively dryland climate proxies of sand dunes and lake shorelines, such as those I cut my teeth on as a researcher during my DPhil, have their own shortfalls as palaeomoisture indicators. Their accumulation is mediated by a number of factors, of which changing moisture availability is just one.

Mike Edmunds was one of the pioneering researchers in the 1970s who discovered that the solute concentrations within the pore moisture of sediments above the water table (the unsaturated zone, USZ) were inversely correlated to rainfall amount. This work, based in Cyprus was followed by research in Senegal in the 1990s. By 2002, Mike had set out the potential of the unsaturated zone as a climate archive with Scott Tyler from the University of Nevada, Reno.

It was on a coach in 2013 driving around the chalk aquifer sites of Dorset, helping Mike to co-ordinate the introductory field-trip for Oxford’s Water Science, Policy and Management MSc class, that we got chatting about the current state of research into palaeoclimate using the USZ. After talking about our data from the Kalahari, I asked Mike if he thought it would be useful to write a review of the latest progress. He agreed in his usual enthusiastic manner and we started to plan the scope of the paper there and then.

We chose the journal Earth Science Reviews in order to try to bring this technique to the attention of the geoscience communities interested in palaeoclimatic reconstruction, but who may not spend so much time with their heads in the hydrogeological literature. Throughout the process of reviewing the literature and drafting the paper, I looked forward to my meetings with Mike, most often over coffee in my office of the time, at St John’s College. This looked out over St Giles and Mike was always a fan of watching the Oxford world go by. It was a contrast to the tranquillity of his own study which overlooked a wonderful garden at his home in Appleton, which he shared with Kathy.


Mike’s schematic, started in propelling pencil and meticulously completed in ink pen.

The main message of the paper is that yes, sand dunes do act as giant rain gauges in the desert. The length of that record depends on how big your sand dune is and how quickly the rainfall is trickling through it. Almost 40 studies worldwide have now used this approach to find out something about past climate. The schematic figure gives a summary explanation of how an USZ hydrostratigraphy accumulates. Mike revised an earlier conceptual diagram, sketching it using his trademark propelling pencil. Hydrostratigraphy is a fancy way of saying that the signal in the water in different layers of sand with increasing depth below the surface stores information about what climate was like when that water was near the surface in the past (and before it started soaking down through the sand)



Schematic with summary explanation.

I was in Namibia in May 2016 when the proofs of the final paper arrived for me to check. This was to collect more of the bright red-orange dune sand from the Kalahari above the Stampriet Artesian Basin, and investigate more about the nitrate Mike and I had uncovered a few years before. I had to explain the delay in checking the proofs. The reply had some tragicomedy attach to it, with the Global Journals Production Company (for Elsevier) asking if they could send the proofs to my co-author, rather than wait for my return. If only! I can only guess that they also found it hard to believe that he was gone.



Sampling sand dunes in the Kalahari desert. Picture by Abi Stone.

In the paper we draw global examples together to highlight that hydrostratigraphies are useful for three timescales (duration and resolution):
(i) centennial-length, decadal resolution: records of past rainfall and moisture availability and useful to identify how land-use change modifies rates of water infiltration, such as in irrigated parts of the Thar Desert, India.
(ii) millennial-length, decadal resolution: most notably in the Badain Jaran Desert in China, where the record spans 2,000 years, demonstrating the same climatic shifts recorded in tree-rings and even written historical documents from former Chinese dynasties.
(iii) multi-millennial length, low-resolution records, such as in Nevada in the United States, where the shift from wetter to arid conditions occurred before the start of the Holocene (~11,700 years ago).

You can read more in Stone, A. E. C., Edmunds, W. M. (2016) Unsaturated zone hydrostratigraphies: a novel archive of past climates in dryland continental regions. Earth Science Reviews 157, 121-144.

Oxford University and the British Geological Survey will host the first W. Mike Edmunds Memorial Lecture at Christ Church on 3 November 2016. For further details visit the online booking page.

What can conservation strategies learn from the ecosystem services approach?

New research, co-authored by the Environmental Change Institute’s Dr Pam Berry, considers the extent to which ecosystem services have been implemented in conservation strategies in two of Spain’s national parks.

Photo: Sierra Nevada. Photo by Berta Martín-López.

A new paper shows the extent to which the ecosystem services approach has been applied in the conservation strategies of two important protected areas in Spain, the Doñana wetlands and the Sierra Nevada mountains. A series of workshops, face-to-face surveys with local stakeholders and a review of management plans revealed that the two national parks provide multiple ecosystem services, and that some of the most important services are declining and need further attention to ensure their sustained delivery. However, although management plans take some account of provisioning services such as crop and livestock production and cultural services such as eco-tourism, the regulating services such as maintenance of climate, soil, air and water quality are rarely mentioned. The work also revealed that environmental managers and researchers have different perceptions and priorities regarding ecosystem services management compared with ecosystem service users. Recognising that different stakeholders have different perceptions of ecosystem services can be an important step towards their co-management.

The study suggests that these challenges can be tackled by understanding protected areas not as isolated ‘islands’ aimed only at conservation but as interconnected social-ecological systems, in which both nature and humans depend on each other. Dr Pam Berry, one of the authors, says the study shows that “we need much greater effort to assess the connection between protected areas and human well-being, as this can help to reduce environmental conflicts in protected areas, strengthen social support for their management and increase the well-being of local people.”

Read the full paper online.



Photo: Flamingos in Doñana Wetlands. Photo by Berta Martín-López.

This article first appeared on the Environmental Change Institute website.

When is river restoration rewilding?

What might rewilding ‘do’ for degraded freshwater ecosystems that widespread and established restoration projects aren’t doing already? Oxford University’s Dr Paul Jepson, author of the new policy brief on rewilding, responds to this question.


Rewilding the River Waal at Millingerwaard. Image: Twan Teunissen/ARK Nature

Back in May, I presented a policy brief authored by Frans Schepers of Rewilding Europe and myself to a Rewilding Dorset meeting organised by Adrian Newton and Arjan Gosal of the University of Bournemouth. The county of Dorset is located on the South coast of Britain and a system of smallish chalk rivers flow into the natural harbour of Poole. The meeting brought together local conservation groups to ask: could we do rewilding and would we want to?

Our brief outlines seven emerging rewilding principles. One of these is the principle of “moving up a scale of wildness within the constraints of what is possible”. I like this principle because it is inclusive. From the perspective of ecological function, many of our landscapes are in poor shape and this principle invites everyone to engage with rewilding, not just for those living or working in wilder landscapes.

At the meeting, Fiona Bowles presented the ecological restoration work of the Poole Harbour Catchment Initiative (PHCI) and outlined some of the obstacles they face in the efforts to restore river dynamics: the noise of a weir being legally designated as ‘heritage’ was one of the most absurd! At the end of her presentation, she commented that based on what she’d heard the PHCI was already doing rewilding.

This suggestion troubled me. The work Fiona described was great but it hadn’t struck me as rewilding. On the one hand, it flagged the prospect of the ‘move up a wildness scale’ principle being adopted to rebrand business-as-usual. On the other hand, I am aware that restoration is writ large in the Water Framework Directive and that concepts of living rivers, ‘renaturation’ of small rivers, wetland restoration and practices of restoring fish migration, removing dikes etc. were influential in the rise of rewilding ideas. There are loads of such initiatives along the Rhine, Meuse, Danube, Oder, Elbe, Loire, Allier. Could it be that river managers have been rewilding for years but their work isn’t recognised as such?


Rewilding Millingerwaard. Image: Twan Teunissen/ARK Nature

I mentioned these ponderings to Freshwater Blog editor Rob St John who confirmed that river managers are always trying to improve degraded freshwater conditions but rarely, if ever, refer to this as rewilding. The question he put to me was: what does rewilding do (or imagine) that river restoration doesn’t?

In this blog, I will attempt an answer. I am conscious that my knowledge of aquatic biology, freshwater conservation, and river management is limited so this is a preliminary answer and offered up in the spirit of promoting discussion and reflection. My hope is that it might lead to a collective view on the extent to which restoration, as guided by the WFD, equates to rewilding.

Millingerwaard in the Netherlands sets a benchmark in my mind for what constitutes river rewilding. I visited the area a number of times with my students as part of rewilding study tours. For me, it was an eye-opener in terms of conservation ambition and vision and a river restoration project radically different from anything I had seen previously.

One difference was the link between river restoration and high-level policy, in this case, flood protection and climate adaptation. The River Waal was experiencing higher peaks flows and needed more space. The rewilding solution was to remove the summer dykes, peel off the unnatural clay layer to restore the old river morphology, reintroduce beavers and two big grazers (Konik ponies and Galloway cattle) and let the area go. However, this necessitates the removal of the huge volume of clay that had built up behind the summer dykes.


Construction work at Millingerwaard. Image: Twan Teunissen/ARK Nature

The Millingerwaard solution was to do a deal with a brick company and allow the pace of restoration to be determined by the market and capacity of the factory. For me, this connection between ecology and wider policy – climate change, flood management, new nature-based economies and so forth – is part of what makes restoration rewilding. In the Netherlands, now every brick that is being produced and sold is contributing to river rewilding, as it became a common policy that clay extraction in river floodplains is only allowed if it contributes to both river restoration and flood protection.

Johan Bekhuis, of Ark Nature Foundation, hosted our visits and introduced us to river restoration rewilding style. One of his stories has stuck with me, perhaps because it epitomizes the ‘restore the dynamics and species will rebound’ ethos of rewilding. Johan told how the black poplar (Populus nigra) was super-rare in the Netherlands until they started excavating the old river meanders which led to an abundance of black poplar seedlings appearing.

They realized that by restoring the river braids they were also restoring warm lapping water conditions and these were the conditions poplar seeds – carried down from Germany – needed to germinate. The same principle applied for other plant and insect species that had become extinct in the Netherlands but were present in the upper catchment and suddenly found a habitat to settle and re-establish.


New habitats at Millingerwaard. Image: Twan Teunissen/ARK Nature

This story illustrates another key distinction – restoration becomes rewilding when river engineering interventions are designed to restore dynamic process rather than pre-specified conditions and outcomes. From this perspective rewilding is easy to distinguish from restoration in retrospect because it will have generated unexpected outcomes that extend knowledge or unsettled images of what a river is. For instance, until I visited Millingerwaard, I thought European rivers had banks and that beaches and dunes were confined to the coast! This pleasant, unsettling realization  that river landscapes could be better than what we have  captures the hopeful ethos of rewilding.

It perhaps also expresses the rewilding challenge for river engineers: designing dynamic restoration projects that produced the unexpected and accepting that outcomes may not always be desirable. In practice, this probably means engineering designs that create the ‘rough’ starting conditions for the river and its dynamics to then shape the landscape, rather than being too technical and specific on designs that deliver certain habitats, species, and/or conditions.

Another difference from the river restoration projects I knew and had been involved in was the relaxed – and in many ways radical – attitude to recreation in the restoration area. Millingerwaard is located on a circular cycle route serving the city if Nijmegen and the project facilitated a community wilderness café, a beautiful tea garden, and other successful enterprises to encourage visitors.


Cyclists in the river meadows at Millingerwaard. Image: Twan Teunissen/ARK Nature

Unlike many reserves in Europe, there are no signs specifying routes and rules of behavior. People are free to do what they want and this seems to be working out just fine. Perhaps because most people worry about getting lost, or wet feet trails quickly formed and were followed by the majority. In addition, because clay extraction and recreation commenced simultaneously the footpath routes are emerging in interaction with people and commerce. I was one of the ones who ‘went in’ and it was a wonderful primordial nature experience. I saw beavers, but got scratched and muddy, and felt the fear when I encountered a herd of wilded cattle occupying the high ground I needed to traverse.

George Monbiot termed such experiences “rewilding the self” and argued that as our societies become ever more regulated and efficient citizens need and seek out opportunities to reclaim our authenticity as human beings. The rise in popularity of wild swimming can be understood as a manifestation of this sense of entrapment. Such ideas capture two additional factors that for me characterize river rewilding – an effort to interact with trends in society and culture and to create (or recreate) opportunities for citizens to choose how they wish to engage with landscapes and nature. Within reason of course!

So when is river restoration rewilding? I suggest it is when restoration focuses on restoring abiotic dynamics, restores trophic flows (e.g. fish migration) and levels (e.g riverine herbivores), embraces uncertainty, re-connects the river with wider policy and societal trends and unsettles. Or maybe it’s just a feeling – when those involved with a restoration project feel they are pushing the boundaries and re-imaging the possible.

This post originally appeared on the Fresh Water Blog. 

Understanding and managing river ecosystems through optimisation

Increased awareness of the ecological value of rivers has created a number of challenges to the development of robust, adaptable and socially acceptable river management strategies. New Oxford-led research explores the use of optimisation methods to assist in the management of riverine ecosystems.

Widespread degradation of the world’s river systems due to over-extraction, infrastructure development and pollution has resulted in significant economic and social cost 1,2,3,4. However, balancing the trade-offs between the vital services water provides for communities and the maintenance of ecosystem integrity, continues to present a complex management challenge involving multiple stakeholders and often conflicting objectives.

New research, led by Emily Barbour of Oxford University and the Australian National University (ANU), explores the use of optimisation methods to assist in the management of riverine ecosystems, synthesising literature from ecology, optimisation and decision science. Optimisation is a method which is being increasingly used in different areas of water management to assist in identifying effective management strategies. Through efficient exploration of different management decisions, optimisation can provide a powerful means to better understand system behaviour as well as to identify future research needs. It also allows trade-offs between multiple objectives to be examined, enabling more transparent communication between decision makers and stakeholders. 5,6,

However, representing ecosystems in an optimisation framework poses a number of challenges given ecological objectives can be difficult to define and model, and the concept of optimality is highly subjective. Identifying ecological objectives not only requires an understanding of ecosystem structure and function, it also involves identifying social perceptions of what constitutes a ‘preferred’ environmental outcome in systems that are highly modified7.


Photo: Spokane Falls by Orin Blomberg. Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0


Whilst there have been substantial advances in understanding flow-ecology dynamics, significant uncertainties remain given ecosystems include multiple species which respond to external drivers and complex internal interactions over different spatial and temporal scales8. These complexities limit our capacity to represent riverine ecosystems in mathematical models for evaluating management alternatives 9, as well as to develop effective monitoring systems to evaluate outcomes.

A review of existing research has identified that previous applications of optimisation for the ecological management of river systems generally have limited consideration of the impact of problem definition on modelling results, and more importantly on actual management outcomes. This can result in unintended consequences where the resulting interventions are in reality ineffective or deleterious.

The research advocates for increased evaluation of optimisation outcomes in terms of the assumptions made to identify likely actual outcomes. In particular, greater consideration is needed in the definition of ecological objectives and management alternatives, and the conceptualisation of the system in a modelling framework. In doing so, the application of optimisation can provide greater insight into system behaviour, gaps in current knowledge and data, and facilitate communication between the science community, decision makers and stakeholders5. This can lead to more transparent and informed management of our critical water resources and ecosystems.


  1. Poff, N. L., Allan, J. D., Bain, M. B., Karr, J. R., Prestegaard, K. L., Richter, B. D., Sparks, R. E. & Stromberg, J. C. 1997. The natural flow regime. Bioscience, 47, 769-784.
  2. Bunn, S. & Arthington, A. 2002. Basic principles and ecological consequences of altered flow regimes for aquatic biodiversity. Environmental Management, 30, 492 – 507.
  3. Bernhardt, E. S., Palmer, M. A., Allan, J. D., Alexander, G., Barnas, K., Brooks, S., Carr, J., Clayton, S., Dahm, C., Follstad-Shah, J., Galat, D., Gloss, S., Goodwin, P., Hart, D., Hassett, B., Jenkinson, R., Katz, S., Kondolf, G. M., Lake, P. S., Lave, R., Meyer, J. L., O’donnell, T. K., Pagano, L., Powell, B. & Sudduth, E. 2005. Synthesizing U.S. River Restoration Efforts. Science, 308, 636-637.
  4. Poff, N. L. & Matthews, J. H. 2013. Environmental flows in the Anthropocence: past progress and future prospects. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 5, 667-675.
  5. Liebman, J. C. 1976. Some simple-minded observations on role of optimization in public systems decision-making. Interfaces, 6, 102-108.
  6. Brill Jr, E. D. 1979. The use of optimization models in public-sector planning. Management Science, 25, 413-422.
  7. Steedman, R. J. 1994. Ecosystem health as a management goal. Journal of the North American Benthological Society, 13, 605-610.
  8. Holling, C. S. 1973. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 4, 1-23.
  9. Metrick, A. & Weitzman, M. L. 1998. Conflicts and Choices in Biodiversity Preservation. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 12, 21-34.

Microplastics in rivers: a new mathematical model

Environmental plastics are a growing ecological concern. A new model, developed in collaboration with researchers at Oxford University, has advanced the understanding of how microplastics move through rivers.

In March, the UK Government’s Environmental Audit Committee launched an inquiry into the environmental impact of microplastics; earlier in December, the US Government passed legislation outlawing the use of plastic microbeads in toiletries by July 2017. These developments reflect growing concerns of the environmental impact of microplastics, the result of an increasing body of evidence highlighting various detrimental ecological impacts.

Plastic production currently exceeds 300 million tons per year and is steadily increasing. Microplastics are tiny fragments of plastic smaller than a few millimeters, such as microbeads used in exfoliators and injection moulding, or plastic debris resulting from the fragmentation of larger plastic objects. A fraction of these products is released directly into the sea, with the impact on the marine environment estimated to be around $13 billion per year.


Microplastics. Image: MPCA Photos. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

While the effect of microplastics on the marine ecosystems are well documented, little is known about the release and retention of microplastics in rivers. Households, industry, transport and poorly managed landfills generate a large volume of microplastic debris, which travel from these sources to river networks where they are partly transported to the sea and partly retained by the riverbed. A fraction of the microplastics released into the sewage network by households and industry is processed at wastewater treatment plants and retained within sewage sludge. This sludge is in turn used as agricultural fertiliser, releasing microplastics into the soil.

Researchers at Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment, Dr. Gianbattista Bussi and Prof. Paul Whitehead, helped advance the first theoretical assessment of the transport and diffusion of microplastics through a river network, as part of a NIVA (Norwegian Institute for Water Research)-led research collaboration.

The framework is based on the assumption that microplastics can be treated conceptually like sediment i.e. the mathematical equations governing the movement of microplastic particles are conceptually similar to those used for the assessment of sediment transport by water. The study adapted equations from an existing hydrological and sediment model, the INCA (Integrated Catchment Model) model, developed by Prof. Paul Whitehead, to assess the transport and depositions of microplastics in the River Thames (UK). In the absence of quantitative information on microplastics transport from the Thames, the study was conceived to provide a purely theoretical, nevertheless rigorous, assessment of microplastics transport across the pedosphere and hydrosphere.

The findings, published in Environmental Science: Processes and Impacts, a journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry, show that soils have a great potential to accumulate microplastics released by sewage sludge application. Furthermore, sediments of river sections experiencing low stream power are possible hotspots for the accumulation of plastics. On the other hand, particles smaller than 0.2 mm are predicted to be poorly retained in the catchment, regardless of their density, and will eventually be conveyed to the marine environment.

While research on microplastics in river environments is still at the very early stages, this study represents a novel approach that can be used to assess the potential of river catchments to retain microplastics. Given that the only realistic mitigation measures to curb the release of microplastics to the sea are those focusing on managing emissions and transport processes on land, it is hoped that this study will drive the efforts of researchers and catchment managers towards an integrated assessment of the presence of microplastics in rivers.

Myanmar’s mega-dams

New Oxford research explores the dynamic between dam builders and campaigners in Myanmar.

Researchers at the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment recently completed the first academic study on the politics of mega-dam construction in Myanmar. Scholars investigating large dam developments in Asia usually focus on dam campaigners, rather than the target of their campaigns ‒ the dam developers. Yet the perspective of dam developers is crucial to comprehensively understand the dynamics of social and environmental activism in Asia, as well as its implications for the region’s energy landscape.

The new study analyses the interplay of anti-dam activists and Chinese dam developers in Myanmar via two case studies: the Myitsone Dam and the Mong Ton Dam. The research is based on interaction with both activists and dam developers and includes data from some of the first scholarly interviews carried out with Chinese dam developers.

The authors present evidence of change from both sides: domestic activists have professionalized in recent years and now employ tactics comparable to those of activists in Europe and the United States; Chinese dam developers now attempt to engage with civil society, albeit with limited success in the two cases studied. Yet, even with these changes, conflict over dam development persists and Myanmar may soon face severe limitations to development options for improving water and energy security. The authors also discuss the case of Bhutan to illustrate the potential for developing Myanmar’s hydropower resources.

The new study, which was published in the International Journal of Water Resources Development, can be accessed here.