REACH building water security through the cloud

Oxford’s REACH Programme using Microsoft’s cloud-based solutions to analyse smart pump data in rural Africa.

Microsoft Research recently profiled the research of the Oxford-led REACH programme, a 7-year collaboration funded by DFID to improve water security in rural Africa and Asia. REACH researchers used a Microsoft cloud-based system to gather and analyse data collected from smart hand pumps in rural Kenya. Sensors integrated within the hand pump measure movement and vibration from usage. This information is sent to the cloud via SMS where it is subject to further analysis providing insight into groundwater depth and pump performance.

For more information on how Microsoft’s cloud-based tools are helping REACH scale up its research visit the blog post here.

‘Lo Riu Es Vida/The River is Life.’

Tweets from the WSPM MSc’s Ebro fieldtrip.

Last month, our Water Science, Policy and Management (WSPM) MSc students swapped the rarefied Oxford air for that of the Pyrenees, as they decamped to Spain for the annual Ebro field trip. A highlight of the WSPM year, the trip gives students an opportunity to consolidate their learning in advance of final exams, applying their theoretical knowledge to the real-world context of Spain’s Ebro river basin. WSPMers will be familiar with Michael Rouse’s favourite quote – “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world” (John le Carre). This maxim is particularly relevant to water management where on-the-ground complexity can undo even the best theory. The Ebro fieldtrip offers students a chance to get out from behind the desk and experience the interface between science, policy and practice. The 2016 trip proved to be a (literally) immersive experience: photos of white-water rafting on the frigid Gallego River can be found below among a selection of tweets posted by staff and students as they descended the course of the river, from the Pyrenees to the Ebro Delta. Read more…

Building resilient infrastructure in China

ECI research helps boost China’s climate resilience by identifying infrastructure hotspots.

China’s economic miracle has been underpinned by significant infrastructure development. While infrastructure networks foster growth, a greater reliance on these networks increases the economic impact resulting from a systems failure. Of particular concern are climate impacts, such as floods and drought, which are known to occur periodically in China. New research from Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute (ECI) has mapped the key hot-spots where climate impacts pose the greatest economic risk. These include the large urban centres of Beijing, Tianjin, Jiangsu, Shanghai and Zhejian, where infrastructure is highly concentrated, and failure can have significant knock-on effects, not only to the local economy, but also further afield due to China’s pivotal role in the global supply chain. The Oxford research is the first national-level study to consider the exposure and vulnerability of China’s infrastructure systemically, and offers great scope to improve the resilience of China’s infrastructure, a national priority identified within China’s National Climate Change Adaptation Plan.

Further detail on the study can be found a blog written by ECI DPhil student, Xi Hu, for the World Economic Forum.

A review of the Routledge Handbook of Ecosystem Services

Paul Whitehead, Professor of Water Science and Director of the NERC Macronutrient Cycles Programme, shares his thoughts on the new Routledge Handbook of Ecosystem Services, edited by Potschin, Haines-Young, Fish and Turner.

This handbook is a comprehensive guide to the current state of ecosystem services science and understanding. It is excellent to see a comprehensive coverage of this new and expanding field of ecosystem services. The expansion in this area of research has been impressive from a few papers in 2007 to over 18,000 today. Trying to see the ‘wood for the trees’ so to speak in this area has been difficult, with such a wealth of literature to catch up on. This handbook does an excellent job of integrating all the new ideas, concepts and approaches into one collection of short papers by the key experts in the field. There are very philosophical approaches about original concepts and new thinking, plus a call for a new approach to economics based on ecosystems valuation and accounting. There is also advice on the practical issues and difficulties of valuation and assessment, with illustrations using GIS, modelling and alternative costing approaches.

In my experience, the difficulty of applying such a methodology in a public arena, was bought home to me in the Kennet River Public Enquiry, where the argument was the trade-off between water abstraction in a classic chalk stream versus degradation to the river in terms of low flows, enhanced pollution and ecosystem degradation. In that 10 week public enquiry, the ecosystem valuation methods were largely discounted by the Enquiry Public Inspector (appointed by DEFRA) because of the methodology used for valuation of the ecosystem benefits. The rather vague methodology for valuation was up against the hard £6 million costs of replacing the abstraction by a 30 mile pipe and pumping system for Swindon. This was easier for the Public Inspector to grasp than the ecosystem valuation method used. This is really at the crux of the acceptance in the public domain. So for ecosystem services methodology to be accepted the techniques still seem to need additional development and the concepts need further acceptance by public inspectors, environmental managers and government at a range of levels.

Also, the field does not seem to really know how to translate the knowledge on ecological, soil and riverine processes into quantities and hence to valuation. For example, rivers do a great deal of ecosystem restoration via natural processes. So bacteria clean up rivers by converting organic matter to carbon dioxide, reaeration in rivers raises oxygen levels thereby preventing low oxygen levels and fish kills. There are also enhanced denitrification in rivers thereby reducing nitrates which damage ecology, biodiversity and can cause human health problems.

All of these process can be modelled and quantified although putting a value on them is difficult. So it seems to me that the science and valuation has further to go, especially making better use of the process based knowledge. Nevertheless this handbook is excellent in bringing together a really important and increasingly influential field and first handbook to address this complex and innovative area of research.

More information on the Routledge Handbook of Ecosystem Services can be found here.

Water Resources, Water Quality and Future Challenges

Summary of OWN/CIWEM joint seminar.

The Oxford Water Network (OWN), and the South Central Branch of CIWEM (Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management) recently hosted a seminar entitled Water Resources, Water Quality and Future Challenges, presenting the work of three leading experts: environmental scientists Liz Coulson, and Andy Gill from Atkins, and Henry Leveson-Gower, a Policy Adviser from Defra.

The following article presents a summary of each talks, podcasts of which can be found on the ECI YouTube channel here.

Chemical Investigation Programme
Liz Coulson leads Severn Trent’s work on the Chemical Investigation Programme (Phase 2), a nationwide collaborative featuring 11 wastewater companies, and regulators. CIP2 builds on earlier phase (2009 to 2012) which sought to better understand the occurrence, behaviour and management of trace contaminants in water course. This comprised a massive sampling programme, testing 45 regulated substances, at 162 wastewater treatments plants, as well as effectiveness to existing treatment processes at their removal. This research, in combination with 9 catchments studies, helped better understand the sources of these substances, their behaviour through the environment and how they are managed. CIP 1 provided insight into the likelihood of compliance under the Environmental and Quality Standards Directive (EQSD) of the European Water Framework Directive (WFD) which sets standards for a number of chemicals which must be met if water bodies are to achieve “good status” – both ecological and chemical.

This list of substances regulated under the EQSD is not exhaustive and subject to periodic revision as science advances. CIP 2 will expand sampling to include 75 substances, both those already regulated and those expected to become regulated in the near future. This process includes the monitoring effluent from 600 treatment works, measurements upstream and downstream from wastewater treatment plants, and 5 catchment studies. Unlike CIP1, which focussed on traditional treatment technology, CIP 2 will pilot up to 10 novel treatment technologies. In all, the research will take over 60,000 samples, resulting in over 3million determinants – an unprecedented dataset, in terms for volume of sample, and range of substances sampled. This data will provide insight into the current risks of non-compliance, and enable companies to invest in solutions today, to address expected future changes to policies and regulations. To this end, Atkins is currently developing a decision support tool which will use this data which will generate an optimal set of measure to address non-compliance. The project runs from 2015 until 2020.

Ecological impact of abstraction
Andy Gill (Atkins) presented a systemic review of literature concerning the artificial alteration of flow regimes, commissioned by the Environment Agency and conducted in collaboration with CEH and Amec Foster Wheeler. The review sought to gain insight into how abstraction, impoundment and discharge, affects river biota, and assess the extent to which existing standards are appropriate today. If regulations are too conservative they risk imposing excessive and unnecessary restrictions on water users; if too lenient, they risk detrimental impact to the environment.

Atkins’ review targeted grey literature only i.e. non-academic reports. Around half of the studies included in this review reported that artificial flow alterations had a negative impact on riverine ecology, while a third reported no impact. Results were typically less conclusive in ephemeral and intermittent reaches. Groundwater abstraction was found to have a greater effect on flow than surface water abstraction, a notable finding given that the opposite is generally assumed to be the case. The research also found that very few pristine catchments remain in the UK, with 96% reporting some pressure.

The study concluded that existing environmental flow indicators are broadly in agreement with trends observed in unpublished literature, but adds that those site-specific investigations are required to understand localised responses and variance to abstraction impact. The findings are particularly relevant to the implementation of environmental flow indicators (EFI) and water abstraction reform in England and Wales.

Abstraction reform
Henry Leveson-Gower, who leads UK’s water abstraction reform at DEFRA (Department of Environment and Rural Affairs), spoke of the key developments in emerging from the UK’s recent consultation on water abstraction reform with a particular focus on the water resilience outside of the public water supply.

Henry highlighted the highly developed, collaborative catchment management systems found in Spain, which arose over centuries in response to water scarcity. Given that some predict the UK climate will be similar to that currently found in Spain in 100 years, adopting a more sophisticated and collaborative approach to water management should be a priority. UK abstraction reform aims to transition the country from a more individual system to a more integrated on which 1) allows more flexible and fairer responses to short term changes in flows; 2) provides adequate certainty for long-term investment and growth whilst also protecting the environment; and 3) is able to respond to future pressures such as climate change and population growth.

A key aspect of this is the issuance of new permits expected in the early 2020s, tied to a set of “catchment rules”. These rules set specific environmental objectives, such as flow thresholds, which can limit abstraction when it poses significant environmental risk, as well as establishing a framework to utilise water trading. This process aims to create a more holistic and responsive approach to abstraction management, ensuring abstraction management is better aligned with catchment management in the UK.

Henry offered an example as to how such regulation can help support the private sector. In South East of England the fruit and vegetable sector has grown markedly in recent years; in Kent alone, the sector’s water usage has doubled over the last 5 years. Much of this growth has been driven by trickle irrigation, which is currently exempt from abstraction licensing, a situation set to change in the near future. New irrigation licenses, expected to come into force around 2021, will be based on a maximum volume of water used between 2012-2016. This will pose constraints of long-term water use and the growth of the sector.

The new catchment management regime aims to address this bottleneck by facilitating water trading, establishing a mechanism for “pre-approved” trades which can been implemented instantaneously when the need exists. One example is a new water reuse plant on the River Medway mooted in Southern Water’s Water Resource Management plan, which could become operational by 2022. This plant would free up water in other parts of the Southern Water system to be used for irrigation, and supply 10% of the current irrigation, and will have enough excess capacity to meet irrigation needs for a number of years. Beyond this, Henry believes that putting in place the necessary institutional and infrastructure systems to facilitate water trade for irrigators, establishes a business case for reuse, which will attract the private sector investment for future reuse schemes outside of the OFWAT system, enabling the long term expansion of irrigated agriculture in the region.

“We have potentially have a set of people who want to be regulated and who are willing to be paid to be regulated because regulation actually provides a facility which enables them to get water,” explained Henry, “That changes what we mean by regulation and what regulation does […] regulation is no longer an evil, something to avoid and to try and minimize: regulation actually becomes a service a benefit to ensure you can get water when you need it and to manage your risks.”

Henry concluded that abstraction reform aims to help enable businesses better manage their water risks in the context of a changing climate, while protecting the environment.

You can find out more about CIWEM here
The activities of the local CWIEM branch can be seen here:

Oxford University publishes new findings on urban water payment behaviours in Dar es Salaam

To celebrate World Water Day, Oxford University has published a new report based on the largest known dataset of urban water payment behaviour to promote sustainable finance in Africa.

Based on over 500,000 utility payment records and a survey exceeding 1,000 water users in Dar es Salaam, the report finds:

  • Utility customers value and actively use multiple payment alternatives (water office, point of sale, electronic/mobile), which increase payment frequency and volume;
  • Water offices dominate payment transactions (92%) but electronic and point of sale alternatives complement rather than substitute to improve payment behaviour;
  • People paying at multiple alternatives out-perform all alternatives by frequency of payments (7.6 per year) and average annual revenue ($120);
  • Greater distance to water offices increased electronic payments reducing social costs (travel time, queuing);
  • Socio-economic characteristics (household size, education, employment, gender) did not influence payment behaviours;
  • Limitations arose from a lack of data on metered usage, water quality and reliability: these data would improve understanding of variation in payment behaviours.

You can find out more about the project on Aaron Krolikowski’s blog or read the full report here.

Contact: Aaron Krolikowski –

Smart handpump impacts recognised by UK research council

The UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) recent Impact Report highlights the role of Oxford’s innovative smart water pump research in helping secure rural water supply in Kenya.

The UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) recently highlighted the significant contribution of Oxford University’s research to securing African rural water supply in their annual Impact Report. Oxford’s innovative smart water pump research is included among a selection of case studies demonstrating the societal and economic impact of the ESRC’s research funding. This not the first time Oxford’s smart handpump research has received recognition: last year Patrick Thomson’s poster, documenting the work, received the award for “Best Poster Presentation” at World Water Week.

The development of smart handpumps has dramatically reduced response times for those tasked with locating and repairing broken pumps in rural Kenya. It is estimated that as many as one in three pumps are out of service at any given time, with it often taking more a month or more to repair faults. The research uses mobile-enabled transmitters which automatically send SMS text messages to monitor pump performance. This enables a local maintenance company, FundiFix Ltd., to repair pumps within a couple of days. Information flows are informing institutional change in terms of sector coordination and sustainable finance with partners including local government, UNICEF and the private sector. Kenya’s Water Services Regulatory Board has also acknowledged the innovative nature of the approach in its national reporting.

The smart handpump research, is among a number of examples of Oxford’s groundbreaking work on rural water security being showcased by researchers his month at the ESRC-DFID’s Impact Initiative’s Pretoria conference, Lessons from a Decade’s Research on Poverty: Innovation, Engagement and Impact. Further information on the Impact Case Study and the Impact Initiative can be found below:

Updates of our researchers work in Africa can be found on their respective project websites. Below is a selection of recent posts outlining some of the many ways Oxford University’s water research is making an impact:

Gro for GooD

Dr Rob Hope outlines the importance of groundwater for the development of Kenya’s Kwale County as part of the Gro for GooD project (Groundwater Risk Management for Growth and Development).


Following the successful Water Security 2015 conference in December, REACH researchers have had a busy start to the year travelling to Kenya, Ethiopia and Bangladesh to develop research workplans with country partners. Here is a selection of recent items from the REACH website:

         In an article for Kenya’s Daily Nation, Dr Nic Cheeseman and Johanna Koehler draw from REACH’s recent Kenyan Country Diagnostic Report, identifying the drivers of water insecurity. Read more…

         Johanna Koehler and Susie Goodall, report on a recent workshop, run by Kitui County Government and UNICEF Kenya, for the County’s water staff to help develop sustainable water services. Read more…

Materials relating to the Water Security 2015 conference “Improving water security for the poor” are now available online:

       •       News article on the conference ‘Water Security: less talk, more action’

       •       Video and audio of the conference sessions

       •       REACH Country Diagnostic Reports – Kenya, Ethiopia, Bangladesh

       •       Social media summary of the conference on Storify

       •       Conference photos on Flickr

       •       “Securing Water, Sustaining Growth”  GWP/OECD Task Force report 

MISTRAL to advance next generation of infrastructure planning systems

Oxford-led Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (ITRC) receives £5.3 million funding to develop the next generation of infrastructure planning systems.

The Oxford University-led Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (ITRC) has been awarded £5.3million by the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) to continue its research for a further 5 years. Since 2011, ITRC has developed the world’s first family of national-scale system models for analysis and planning of interdependent infrastructure systems, marking a significant advancement in the UK’s long-term, national infrastructure planning capability. ITRC’s next phase, entitled MISTRAL (Multi-scale InfraSTRucture systems AnaLytics), seeks to build upon the success of the past 5-years, advancing a next generation of systems models and analytical techniques, to support infrastructure decision making across scales ‒ from household to global scale.

Water is one of the five key infrastructure components modelled within the ITRC, alongside energy, transport, waste and ITC. A number of Oxford University’s water researchers will play a key role in the MISTRAL programme:

Mike Simpson

Mike is a Water Resources Modeller with the Environmental Change Institute. He developed a custom model of water resources at the UK level. His work includes mapping water resources zones across the UK through a series of 130 aggregate models, which includes the reservoir network, river abstraction and groundwater extraction pathways.  The model is used to inform decisions around infrastructure development across a whole range of different futures.

Iliana Cardenes

Illiana is a Doctoral Student at the Environmental Change Institute and works alongside Thames Water to look at the relationship between energy and water, and how we can improve energy efficiency in our water-use cycle. Using the Thames Valley as a regional case study, Illiana is examining the energy intensity of water usage at different stages of consumption using a system-wide perspective to explore how water uses energy across the system as a whole.

Xi Hu

Xi is a Doctoral Student at the Environmental Change Institute looking at infrastructure from a systems perspective in China. Her work involves conceptualizing the infrastructure system in terms of water, energy, transport, waste and ITC.

MISTRAL launch

The MISTRAL programme will be launched on May 23 at the Institution of Civil Engineers, along with ITRC’s new book The Future of National Infrastructure which establishes a blueprint for long-term infrastructure assessment. Further detail on the book can be found on the ITRC website, and in this recent article which appeared in Infrastructure Intelligence.

More information on the MISTRAL project and the work of ITRC can be found below:

Oxford researchers receive ‘Green Infrastructure’ funding

Two projects benefit from NERC’s £1.2 million Green Infrastructure Innovation Scheme.

Two Oxford University research projects are among those to gain from NERC’s recent £1.2 million green infrastructure research investment. Green infrastructure (GI), such as wetlands, verges, parks and gardens, provide many benefits to society and the built environment. However, these benefits are often overlooked by decision-makers, who struggle to quantify the full value of GI, and thus limit the scope for the inclusion of GI options in standard decision making. NERC’s funding aims to help overcome these challenges by supporting a number of innovative projects to help decision makers make better use of GI improve urban life, and create sustainable cities.

The first project, A National Scale Model of Green Infrastructure for Water Resources led by Professor Jim Hall, Director of the Environmental Change Institute (ECI), will explore how GI can be factored into national water resource planning. The project will consider how the benefits of new green infrastructure, such as new wetlands or forests can be evaluated, the robustness of such options in a changing climate, and how GI compares to conventional infrastructure. It builds upon earlier research on modelling water resource systems conducted by the Oxford team, adapting a pre-existing national water resource model to include both green and conventional water infrastructure. The research is expected to have significant implications for water resource management in the UK, helping to improve flood and drought management, against a backdrop of ever increasing pressure on water resources and ecosystems, in a changing climate.

The second project takes a more local focus. Tools for planning and evaluating green infrastructure – Bicester and beyond, led by the ECI’s Pam Berry, considers GI in the context of Bicester, a rapidly growing Oxfordshire market town set to double over the next 20 years under a government eco-towns initiative. This process not only puts pressure on existing GI, but also creates major scope to develop new green GI. Researchers will help develop planning tools to help decision-makers negotiate this process.

Further information on both these projects can be found below.

Project details

Project: Tools for planning and evaluating green infrastructure – Bicester and beyond

Researchers: Pam Berry, Alison Smith, Rob Dunford and Paula Harrison

Contact: For further information about this project please contact Dr Pam Berry or Alison Smith.

Project: A National Scale Model of Green Infrastructure for Water Resources

Researchers: Jim Hall, Mike Simpson, Matt Ives

Contact: For further information about this project please contact Professor Jim Hall or Dr Mike Simpson.

Managing the risk of surface water flooding

Research by the University of Oxford, in conjunction with the London School of Economics, is playing a key role in combating one of Britain’s most persistent natural hazards.

Photo by northallertonman / Shutterstock

Photo by northallertonman / Shutterstock

Recent years have seen torrential rain cause widespread flooding in the south west, the Thames Valley and Cumbria. Few places, it seems, are safe from one of Britain’s most persistent natural hazards, but effective action can make a difference, managing the extent of flooding and reducing its impact. Dr Katie Jenkins, a researcher at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, has been integrally involved in a novel analysis of the implications of surface water flooding for flood insurance, offering significant new insights for improving flood risk management efforts in the UK.

Working on an EU FP7 project called ENHANCE, in collaboration with the LSE, Dr Jenkins has been investigating the economic effect of surface water flood risk, and the role of climate change, on Greater London. In particular, with LSE senior research fellow Dr Swenja Surminski, Dr Jenkins has focused on the role of insurance in risk management. Their work points to better ways of aligning flood insurance and flood risk management efforts – an aspect that is currently missing from the existing and newly proposed flood insurance scheme.

‘Our research investigates the UK flood insurance scheme, which is based on a partnership between the public and private sector,’ explains Dr Jenkins. ‘We assess the relative merits of household and community risk reduction measures, using an agent-based model to factor in perspectives from a number of different stakeholders. The aim is to foster greater resilience to flooding by utilising flood insurance.’

The methodology used by Dr Jenkins and Dr Surminski can be replicated for nationwide studies – and it informed discussion of Flood Re, an innovative insurance scheme to provide affordable flood insurance for the 350,000 to 500,000 homes in the UK considered to be at significant risk of flooding.

‘Flood Re is a not-for-profit approach to insuring high risk households against flooding,’ says Dr Jenkins. ‘It exemplifies how the UK is transitioning towards a new flood insurance arrangement.’ The research undertaken by Dr Jenkins and Dr Surminski has been cited by the Bank of England in a report on the impact of climate change on the insurance sector, triggering extensive stakeholder debate. Furthermore the researchers are currently engaging with Flood Re to advise on how best to utilise Flood Re in the overarching efforts to address flood risk in the UK.

Giorgis Hadzilacos from Willis Re, one of the key specialist advisors regarding the Flood Re scheme, said:’the research by Dr Jenkins has shed light on some of the Flood Re project’s unanswered questions, meaning that insurers are better placed to understand the impact of the scheme and consequences under future climate change.’

Research funded by: European Funding

Related links

Dr Katie Jenkins