Exploring the challenge of valuing water

Student rapporteurs provide a thematic breakdown of Valuing Water for Sustainable Development.

On 7 November 2017, Oxford’s Smith School for Enterprise and the Environment and the Environmental Change Institute, in collaboration with the Oxford Water Network, hosted a high-level forum, bringing together academics and representatives from a variety of international organisations, including the OECD and the World Bank, to explore how valuing water can contribute to sustainable development. This forum built on related discussions within the United Nations/World Bank High-Level Panel on Water and its Valuing Water Initiative, and the OECD Roundtable on Financing Water.

Students from the Oxford MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management participated throughout the Forum and its side events. Here they capture some of the major themes from the Forum.

What were the key themes?

Theme 1: Water is often undervalued. But the solution is not simply to increase the price of water for end-users.

As the title of the conference suggests, the overall theme reflected a concern that society struggles to value water across its diverse social, environmental and that this impedes achievement of the SDGs. Dr Tushaar Shah from the International Water Management Institute shared an example from India that succinctly and creatively illustrates this problem and the diversity of solutions available. He explained that in various regions of India the government has heavily subsidized solar irrigation pumps for farmers, incentivising farmers to pump large quantities of groundwater. This is, in turn, depleted groundwater. So, what to do? Dr Shah has suggested an innovative solution: the government should buy back the energy captured by the farmer’s solar panels, so that in effect, energy now becomes the farmers’ cash crop.

James Dalton, Director of the IUCN Global Water Programme brought a reminder that undervaluing water leads to the overall failure to value ecosystems and the benefits they provide to society. He shared an example from Fiji, where water quality degradation in coastal regions destroyed the coral reef ecosystems. Only after this loss did society recognize the value of the coral ecosystem and the community suffered economic consequences. IUCN has produced guidelines that assist in valuing ecosystems before any intervention takes place in order to help guide proactive valuation of water flows for ecosystems benefits.

There is also a gap in the global financial system’s capacity to value water. Ambika Jindal, Vice President of Sustainable Finance at ING shared that traditional banks currently do not know how much of their portfolio is exposed to water risk. Valuing water from a financial perspective would mean translating water risk into credit risk, and this would trigger the analysis of banks’ portfolios from a water risk point of view. This is changing. In the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Risks Landscape report, water crises are prominently featured in its Global Risk Interconnections Map. In turn, as banks increase their understanding of the value of water to sectors of the economy that are capable of generating significant revenues, this will unlock financing.

Theme 2: The SDGs have created a sense of urgency to increase investment in water infrastructure.

Summarizing the urgency, Sophie Trémolet from the World Bank shared that the investment needed to reach the SDG’s target for the water sector is estimated at $114 billion on an annual basis, which is roughly triple the current level of investment, citing the work of Dr Guy Hutton presented earlier in the Forum. With that in mind, she suggested that the World Bank and development sector, more broadly, need to be more strategic about the use of “concessional finance.” In other words, loans and grants from donors need to be more catalytic, and could be used to secure private finance.

Dr Alex Money from the from Oxford’s Smith School for Enterprise and the Environment went on to share a framework for “blended finance” that matches public and private financial instruments with “baskets” of water infrastructure projects that have diverse financial and social returns. This model has the potential to mitigate risk and increase investment in projects that have greater social impact. However, as he put it, “stuff conceptualized is never the same as stuff done.”

In response, Dr Rob Hope also from Oxford’s Smith School, shared cases from Bangladesh and Kenya. In these country contexts, research conducted as part of the REACH Programme has focused on identifying the local financing available for water infrastructure and operations and maintenance costs. In Kenya, his research team consistently finds the need for subsidy, and so they created of an innovative water services trust fund. This fund provides financing for service providers on a performance basis. As he succinctly put it, “It’s as much about investing in institutions as it is about infrastructure”.

Theme 3: Water scarcity and shocks are creating pressure for reallocation and markets.

Water markets were a major topic at this forum to facilitate decentralized and voluntary water-use trade-offs, especially in times of drought. Dr Dustin Garrick from Oxford Smith School made the case that water markets should not be confused with a “free market” approach to water resources, since “the solution to market failure is not going to be free markets, but well-governed and regulated markets.” Although the global experiences with formal water markets are still limited, informal reallocation and markets are more prevalent than currently recognised and evidence is patchy.

Dr Garrick and colleagues from the World Bank and Water for Food Institute of University of Nebrasak launched a Water Markets Partnership to measure, map and compare global experiences with formal and informal water markets. A first step will involve a global synthesis report and continued development of an Oxford-led water reallocation database to track the extent, design and performance of water reallocation and markets globally. The water markets partnership aims to take an interdisciplinary approach, leveraging the understanding of hydrology and climate science to improve water allocation in river basins.

One of the objectives of the Water Markets Partnership is to understand the objectives, governance structures and institutions that work well in markets, and those which do not work as well. Several presenters noted the need for this analysis since there are significant challenges of ensuring compliance and creating transparency in water markets Dr Nicholas Brozović from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln highlighted the way that these issues are more pronounced in markets for groundwater allocation. Often, the infrastructure is geographically diffuse, privately owned, and abstractions are difficult to verify. He proposed that one way to do address these issues would be to separate the market’s regulatory function (compliance) from the financial function (negotiations, price and transfer of funds). These two functions can be separated, for instance, through the creation of a clearinghouse for water transactions.

When well-functioning, water reallocation and markets have the potential to play a significant role in managing water risks, a capacity that has broader implications than just the allocation of water uses at the basin level. Kathleen Dominique from the OECD asked the question, can better water allocation systems enable innovations in financing for water, and vice versa? She explained that water reallocation and markets create a whole system of rules, rights, entitlements, regulations that help decide when and how access to water is allocated, mitigating risks among different water users. In this way, improved allocation regimes could help make the risks of water-related investments more explicit and better monitored, changing the investment climate for water resources.

In essence, the presenters identified ways that water markets can improve the local valuation of water, but also reduce the risk for investment in water resources. This brings the role of markets back to the overarching theme of the forum, valuing water for sustainable development.

This post was written by Adrienne Lane, with contributions from Silvia Cardascia, Sagar Dhakal, and Esteban Boj Garcia: current students of Oxford University’s Water Science, Policy and Management MSc programme.

Valuing water for sustainable development: a student perspective

Students from Oxford University’s Water Science, Policy and Management MSc share their experience of Valuing Water for Sustainable Development, a one-day forum hosted by Oxford University on 7 November.

All 28 Master’s students from the Water Science, Policy and Management course attended the high-level forum on Valuing Water for Sustainable Development, where we got to experience the closest thing in academia to feeling star-struck. The lineup of presenters included many of the authors on our course reading lists.

So, did we get the magic number for the true value of water? Unfortunately, no. Throughout our course, and at this forum also, it has been reiterated that water’s value is not synonymous with any given price that water-users pay. The value of water includes the social, environmental, and economic benefits it provides to society in its multiple uses. The forum presenters made the case that taking this holistic approach to valuing water is what will improve water resources management and help achieve the SDGs.

Dr Michael Hanneman has been a formative contributor to the field of environmental economics. He shared a pragmatic perspective on this topic. He noted that there are at least two key moments in policy-making when you have to explicitly value water. First, there’s the process of developing a benefit-cost analysis for a given policy or project, which should take into account both efficiency and equity considerations. Second, there’s the moment when society actually makes users pay for water by setting a price.

He explained that the process of setting prices is typically difficult, and this is especially true if the goal is to set a price that accounts for the full cost of water delivery and services. In theory, water prices could be based on an assessment at the municipal level of the infrastructure costs, the operations and maintenance costs, and the depreciation costs. This might sound straightforward, but water is an essential good: it is essential to life, and pricing water for full cost-recovery always brings up social equity issues.

In addition, Dr Hanneman noted that water utilities are more capital intensive than other utilities (i.e. gas, electricity, telecommunication) and water projects have to be financed upfront. That means that today’s water users have to pay for infrastructure that is going to serve three or four generations into the future. Therefore, distribution of water infrastructure costs and benefits across time also brings up questions of intergenerational equity.

To make things even more complicated, Dr Giulio Boccaletti from the Nature Conservancy reminded us that water management is not all about capital investments in cement and pipes. Achieving the SDGs requires an understanding of the connection between ecosystems and infrastructure. Across the globe, innovative schemes incentivise watersheds upstream to deliver water downstream, blending ecosystem-infrastructure management.

At the end of the day, what is an MSc student to think about valuing water and the prospect for achieving the SDGs? Well, we have a lot more to learn. The Oxford MSc student contingent definitely felt privileged to participate in the forum and extend our learning beyond the classroom.

This post was written by Adrienne Lane, with contributions from Silvia Cardascia, Sagar Dhakal, and Esteban Boj Garcia: current students of Oxford University’s Water Science, Policy and Management (WSPM) MSc programme. 

A second WSPM student blog exploring themes emerging from the forum can be found here. 


The legacy of a water pioneer

W. Mike Edmunds was a giant of his field: his influence continues to endure.

On 2 November, the Oxford Water Network, in collaboration with the British Geological Survey, hosted the 2nd W. Mike Edmunds Memorial Lecture at Christ Church. Mike was an eminent hydrogeologist and dearly missed faculty member of Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment.

Speaker, Dr Abi Stone, who began her career in hydrogeology as a postdoc under Mike, drew from their past collaboration. Dr Stone outlined how pore moisture within sand dunes can be used to provide a record of past climate in drylands. You can find out more about this research in a blog Dr Stone wrote for this website last year.

Last week, the Hydrogeology Journal published a profile of Mike’s professional life entitled ‘Professor W Mike Edmunds: a pioneer in applied hydrogeochemistry and champion of international collaboration’. This article captures the impressive breadth and impact of Mike’s career, touching upon his trace element geochemistry, arid zone hydrology/palaeohydrology, and work translating science into policy.

Mike left behind a remarkable body of work, with research undertaken across the globe. His son Paul recently began the process of mapping this research. This effort has now grown into Reswhere.org, an open collaboration platform to georeference environmental research. The website will launch soon and Paul is seeking feedback on the initiative. Following the lecture, he gave a brief overview of the Reswhere.org and invited those present to contribute.

He’d like to extend this invitation to the broader Oxford Water Network. If you are able to help, get in touch with Paul directly.

Below is short message from Paul:

We are currently auto-georeferencing and uploading links to openly available online abstracts/full articles/papers, via Google Scholar, Microsoft Academic Research, ResearchGate etc.

However, we realise that there will be vast amounts of information not searchable, or even available online, but perhaps sitting in silos which are less accessible.

We are now keen to develop partnerships with research institutions and relevant public bodies and individuals who could help to feed back into the application.

To register interest please get in touch – I would love to hear from you.

At this time we would be keen to:

  • Receive any general feedback / suggestions for the project.
  • Receive any links to existing groundwater / water resource research databases, either online / offline which could benefit from being mapped.
  • We would also like to include project databases in the long-term so also happy to receive feedback on this.
  • Hear from any students & researchers who may be interested on working on the project.

I hope to be able to share the first version of the website by the end of December so please register your interest by sending me an email and I will update you as soon as its available.

Best regards,

Paul Edmunds


News from a scientific frontier: the complexity of field-to-river connectivity in the Rother catchment

Researchers from the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute explore the dynamics of soil erosion and river sedimentation in a catchment in South East England.

Picture this: the River Rother flowing eastward through the High Weald on its way to the English Channel. An archetypal lowland scene in the English South Downs National Park, with a peaceful river winding sedately through a mosaic of woodland, farmsteads and villages, all set against a backdrop of green rolling hills.

Rother Catchment. SMART (Sediment and Mitigation Actions for the River Rother) project.

But things are not actually as tranquil and well-ordered as they might seem. The beauty of the view belies the poor ecological condition along much of the river. High sediment load is smothering the riverbed gravels. This is thought to be exacerbating pollution and degradation of the riverine ecosystem, threatening the ‘good ecological status’ required by the European Water Framework Directive, and increasing the costs of producing drinking water: a particular concern of Southern Water.

There is much debate as to the proportion of sediment generated by erosion from arable fields, versus that caused by natural erosion of the bed and banks of the river. In part, this is because it is far from easy to determine the routes by which runoff and sediment leaves eroding fields and reaches the river. The connectivity of runoff and sediment flows is difficult to map and even more difficult to capture in a quantitative model. This is a highly complex research frontier1 – one where science struggles to advance.

Ephemeral gully, Rotherbridge, Feb 2014. SMART (Sediment and Mitigation Actions for the River Rother) project.

For a number of years, the Environmental Change Institute’s Professor John Boardman, and a team of collaborators, have been working on field-to-river connectivity in the Rother catchment. For news from this scientific frontier, come along to a lunchtime seminar hosted by Oxford Water Network at the School of Geography and the Environment. Professor Boardman will present alongside ECI collaborator, Dr Dave Favis-Mortlock, at 1 pm on Monday November 13 in the Gilbert Room.

1. ‘There are three great frontiers in science: the very big, the very small, and the very complex.’ Rees, M. (2002) Our Cosmic Habitat. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, pp180.


About the researchers

Professor John Boardman
Emeritus Professor

John Boardman is a geomorphologist educated at the Universities of Keele (BA and DSc) and London (BSc and PhD). John retired from ECI in September 2008 and from his positions as Deputy Director of the ECI, Director of the MSc in Environmental Change and Management. He is now an Emeritus Professor at the ECI and continues working on land degradation issues, particularly in the Karoo, South Africa. He has published over 160 papers mainly on land degradation and has edited several books: Soils and Quaternary Landscape Evolution (Wiley 1985), Periglacial Processes and Landforms in Britain and Ireland (CUP 1987), Soil Erosion on Agricultural Land (Wiley 1990), Modelling Soil Erosion by Water (Springer 1998) and Soil Erosion in Europe (Wiley 2006). John continues to work on soil erosion in southern England and also on land degradation in South Africa.

Dr David Favis-Mortlock
Honorary Research Associate

Dave Favis-Mortlock is a geomorphological modeller whose research is focused on soil erosion by water and (more recently) long-term coastal change. Particular interests include self-organization of complex systems, modelling the impacts of changing climate and land use, and model evaluation.

He obtained an undergraduate degree in Environmental Sciences from Lancaster University. Then following a period in commercial computing and as a musician, he began doctoral research at the University of Brighton, co-publishing the first studies on the impacts of future climate change on erosion. In 1992, Dave moved to Oxford to begin work as a researcher at what was then called the Environmental Change Unit. Following ten years as a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, in 2011 he returned to the Environmental Change Institute. Dave is also a jazz violinist.

Using satellite data to respond to environmental disasters

The challenge of providing a rapid response to environmental disasters as varied as flooding, drought, illegal logging and oil spills is the focus of two new projects in which the University of Oxford is a key partner. Dr Steven Reece, data processing and machine learning lead at Oxford’s Department of Engineering Science explains how the project will work in action and the role that machine learning technology will play in it.

Preparing for a potential environmental threat is highly challenging and when it comes to identifying hazards, some data can be more useful than others.

Compared to other forms, satellite data, can quickly recognise small changes on the surface of the earth or sea that may be indicators of a larger problem in the making. For example, a new ‘hole’ appearing in a forest can provide evidence of illegal logging, or a slight colour change in crops may show the early effects of drought. Combining data from these images with other sources has the potential to create powerful information for governments and other actors.

Satellite imagery is very useful for quickly generating independent data from a wide variety of events on the earth as they unfold. The difficulty is how to organise and process this vast quantity of data and to combine it with other insights from the earth’s surface so that it can be used to inform decision-makers in the most effective way. There may also be gaps in the data, or some of it may be unreliable, and this is where machine learning technology can be really useful.

Machine learning is having a positive impact on many walks of life, supporting evidence-based decision making across a wide range of different application domains, and truly ground breaking data-centred solutions to key societal problems.

The Oxford University Department of Engineering Science are world leaders in the field. Our machine learning solutions, include tools that are capable of automating and processing large quantities of data from satellite images. This specialist knowledge will be key to a new international collaboration that will use machine learning enabled satellite imagery to make a real difference to people’s lives; improving emergency response to environmental disasters in Malaysia, Ethiopia and Kenya.

UK Space Agency funded projects led by the Satellite Applications Catapult and Airbus Defence and Space will provide a more-timely, accurate and detailed understanding of an environmental crisis than is currently available. The data gathered will be used as a starting point to create information for key decision makers in countries affected by environmental disasters, so that they are able to intervene as early as possible to protect local people and the planet.

Both projects: Earth and Sea Observation System (Malaysia) and Earth Observation for Flood and Drought Resilience in Ethiopia and Kenya, are supported through the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme and have attracted a total investment of £21 million.

The objectives of the work are directly relevant to many of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals:

In Malaysia we will be working with government agencies to tackle flooding, oil pollution and illegal logging, all of which pose serious social and economic threats to Malaysian people. Monsoon flooding is a major annual issue, and the project aims to enable evacuation plans and flood defences to be activated much faster. It will also generate data that will help the authorities to quickly identify and track oil leaks from shipping which are causing irreparable damage to Malaysia’s mangrove swamps, and to locate areas where illegal logging is taking place.

In Ethiopia and Kenya the focus will be on creating an improved understanding of flood and drought risk, thus helping to build local people’s resilience to these natural disasters and alleviate poverty. The intention is to use the same data to provide an emergency response where needed and to help develop longer-term strategies and solutions to drought and flood. In Kenya the project will also be generating tools to support the micro-insurance market, which is of key importance to farmers who have little or no access to insurance, by providing independent data about crop damage to verify farmers’ claims.
Our software can reconcile inconsistent data, filter out unreliable sources, and integrate information derived from other sources such as social media. It is even able to interpolate what may lie in the data ‘black spots’ between known observations, thus ‘filling in the gaps’ in the overall picture.

In collaboration with several other partners with different types of expertise, we will be bringing our specialist knowledge to bear on the real-world problems identified in Malaysia, Ethiopia and Kenya, and working out how they can be applied most effectively in these different contexts. In the drought-response work in Ethiopia and Kenya, for example, our engineers will be working with colleagues from the School of Geography and the Environment who specialise in hydrology. We will work together with partners from industry, to investigate how to use machine learning to integrate data from satellite imagery of crops with information of both surface and subterranean water resources. Combining views from above and below in this way is more powerful than looking at each one individually, and will create a much more accurate early warning of drought.

We hope that the lessons learned from this work will be used to better understand environmental threats in other areas of the world, and prevent their impact in the future.

This post originally appeared on the Oxford Science Blog.

Blended finance for water infrastructure: hope or hype?

Dr Alex Money of Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment explains why more catalytic innovation is needed to achieve transformative impact.

Water treatment plant, Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Photo: Stef Smits/IRC

What is blended finance?
Blended finance is a somewhat amorphous concept. A simple definition is: a combination of different sources of finance that enable the building and maintenance of water infrastructure. The rationale of blending is that different types of funders are willing to bear different levels of risk for a given return. For example, there may be plenty of money available from long-term, cautious investors in the private sector and pension funds, for projects that are considered low risk. However, water infrastructure in developing countries often carries political, economic and technical risks that can make the projects unattractive to cautious investors. Equally, there may be money available from development finance institutions and foundations that are prepared to finance higher-risk projects, but are constrained by having limited access to capital. Infrastructure often requires lots of finance. The construction of, for example, water treatment plants means that most of the cash is needed upfront, while the income to repay that investment (in the form of water and sewerage rates, for example) is achieved over the whole lifetime of the plant, which may be twenty years or even longer.

In short, water infrastructure in the developing world needs access to significant upfront capital, from providers that can tolerate elevated political, market and technical risks. The current imbalance between supply and demand is reflected in the ‘infrastructure gap’ – that is, the difference between what is currently spent on infrastructure per year, and the amount needed in order to meet current and future demand – estimated at around US$ 1 trillion per year.

Blended finance, it is proposed, makes it possible to close the infrastructure gap by unlocking more capital through managing the risk and return attributes of projects. Blending small amounts of risk-tolerant capital (that will bear the ‘first loss’ on projects that run into difficulties) with larger amounts of long-term capital (that will supply upfront funding with an extended payback period), broadens the range of projects that can be funded:

Fig. 1. Blended finance. Source: author

Why the hype?
Following the announcement of the Sustainable Development Goals, there has been more attention on the strategic use of development finance to mobilise additional commercial finance towards achieving the SDGs. In 2016, a High-Level Meeting of the OECD announced that it would develop an “inclusive, targeted, results-oriented work programme” on blended finance. The programme’s mandate is to collate evidence and lessons learned; develop best practices for deployment; and to deliver policy guidance and principles. The OECD’s Blended Finance Principles are to be published as a key research output in 2017.

Is there hope?
It is undoubtedly the case that investments in water infrastructure could be better optimised across financial actors in the public, private and third sector. This optimisation would accelerate progress towards the SDGs, with the potential to improve the quality of life for millions of people. Inasmuch as the Blended Finance Principles and similar initiatives will help to identify suitable projects, the prospects are hopeful.

However, I believe that further catalytic innovation is necessary before blended finance can have a transformative impact on water infrastructure financing. To that end, a research group that I lead is currently working on the design of a digital intermediation platform to connect infrastructure projects to multiple sources of finance (development bank, institutional investor, private wealth etc.), using a validation layer. This layer would pre-qualify projects using on-the-ground personnel and assets, increasing their risk-adjusted return. The platform embeds a typology of investors (recognising differences in risk appetite) along with a typology of water infrastructure (recognising differences in return characteristics), and links to our broader work with the World Water Council and others. It’s an early-stage research project, but we’re pleased with the traction that we’ve already been available to gain. If you’re interested in learning more, just drop me an email and we will add you to our distribution list.

Contact: Alex Money  – alex.money@smithschool.ox.ac.uk

This article was originally posted on the IRC website.

Dams on Myanmar’s Irrawaddy river could fuel more conflicts in the country

Dr Julian Kirchherr outlines the threat dam building poses to peace in Myanmar, drawing from his doctoral research undertaken at Oxford University’s School of Geography and Environment.

Dam projects on the Irrawady in Myanmar could not only devastate livelihoods but add more conflicts to an already sensitive region. Saw John Bright, Author provided

Myanmar makes many headlines these days. While most of the focus has been on the Rohingya issue, the country is also heading towards an important economic and livelihood crisis. Myanmar was once called “Asia’s rice bowl”, and that label stuck for much of the 20th century. While the country is keen to reclaim this title, it’s doubtful this ambition will be realised soon.

At the centre of this looming livelihood crisis is large dams. In September 2011, now six years ago, Myanmar’s then-president Thein Sein surprised his countryfolk and international observers by suspending the construction of the Myitsone Dam project in northern Myanmar, the largest of seven dam projects to be built on the Irrawaddy River.

The project had, from its commencement in 2009, been extremely unpopular in the country because of its vast negative impacts on livelihoods, disrupting fisheries and local agriculture.

Even though Myanmar’s political system was extremely restrictive at this time, a major campaign had emerged against it, led by local communities and NGOs.

The Myitsone Dam’s suspension is widely considered as the main symbol of Myanmar’s political change from autocracy to democracy.

When I carried out field research in Myanmar last year a Burmese environmental activist told me:

This was the first time since the 1962 Burmese coup d’état that the country’s political leadership took public opinion into account

Originally, the Myitsone Dam project was supposed to be completed this year. Although a decision on its fate was supposed to be made last year by Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, it remains suspended until today. Many fear, though, that construction may resume soon. The impacts on livelihoods would be devastating.

Protests against dams in Myanmar in 2015.
Kyaw Nyi Soe, Author provided

Myanmar Damocles projects

The main purpose of the dams to be built on the Irrawaddy River is hydropower production. Myanmar’s hydropower potential stands at 108 GW – the largest potential of any country in Southeast Asia. But only 52% of households have access to electricity.

The country needs to harness its vast hydropower resources to change this, particularly since Myanmar’s renewable energy potential beyond hydropower is relatively limited. For instance, Myanmar has 3,400 km2 of land with wind speeds greater than six meters per second, the minimum needed for modern wind turbines. This equates to only 0.5% of the country’s total area. Hence, wind power will not be able to satisfy Myanmar’s rapidly growing energy needs. Myanmar is developing renewable alternatives to generate energy as it has only modest fossil fuel potential.

The planned projects on the Irrawaddy River have a combined capacity of more than 15 GW. For those to be resettled by them, they are so-called “Damocles projects”. This term reflects the constant threat hanging over villagers in the communities which are close to the dams: the fear of resettlement. Many of the (to be displaced) communities are Kachin, a Christian minority in Myanmar that has lived on these lands for hundreds of years already.

Such projects create tangible negative impacts on communities even if not implemented. For instance, communities invest much less in homes and businesses due to a fear of being resettled soon, while stress levels for resettlees are particularly high. Advocacy work against a dam project can also heavily consume people’s time and resources.

But the projects’ social impacts exceed far beyond resettlees. Almost 40 million people live in the Irrawaddy River Basin. This equates to two-thirds of Myanmar’s total population.

The rivers to be dammed are important source of livelihoods for local inhabitants.

Many of these rely on fisheries for sustenance and/or a large part of their food. However, large dams act as barriers in a river system, blocking the movement of migratory fish species. So migratory fish downstream can be reduced by as much as 20% due to large dam construction, according to some estimates, while measures to address dams’ negative impacts on fisheries such as fish ladders can only partially mitigate this effect.

Many point out that large dams boost agricultural productivity which can offset the negative impacts on fisheries. Indeed, flooding can be regulated via dams which can improve agricultural productivity by several percentage points, according to some studies.

However, large dams can also block the flow of nutrients which, in turn, can reduce agricultural yield. Myanmar still is a predominantly agricultural economy, with around two-thirds of the population employed in agriculture and almost 40% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) generated in the agricultural sector. Reduced agricultural productivity would thus be devastating for the country.

Conflict zones

Myanmar’s best potential hydropower sites are all in conflict areas.

Ethnic conflict between the Kachin in northern Myanmar and the Burmese military -with the Kachin demanding more self-determination from the national government since the early 1960 already – was reportedly exacerbated in 2010 once work on the Myitsone Dam had started.

The Kachin and the Burmese military then clashed in 2011 ending a 17-year ceasefire agreement. Some international observers have attributed this to the Myitsone Dam construction.

Such conflicts can further threaten food security since they displace thousands of people who then struggle to rebuild their livelihoods. While international attention is focused on Myanmar’s evolving Rakhine state crisis with the Rohingya, a less noticed military conflict is also waging in northern Kachin state.

Air strikes by the Burmese government have gradually intensified since 2016 because the Burmese government wants to eliminate the Kachin resistance in an effort to unite Myanmar. Kachin State has not witnessed such a violent armed combat for at least 20 years. Any dam constructed in Kachin State these days – which would be an initiative led by the national government – would further fuel this conflict. It’s been estimated this ongoing conflict has led to the displacement of 100,000 civilians.

Impacts of dams

Large dams will have profound impacts on livelihoods of those living in the Irrawaddy River Basin.

Hence, harnessing Myanmar’s hydropower resources will require careful managing of trade-offs by policy-makers – which includes thorough assessments of likely impacts and the creation of alternative livelihoods for those negatively affected by large dams. Myanmar has many regulations in place already – most notably its Environmental Impact Assessment Procedures, adopted in early 2016 – to deal with these trade-offs.

The ConversationThese are (largely) sound on paper. However, few of them are implemented and until today little information is shared by the government regarding dam development in Myanmar. If the country’s political leadership wants to achieve sustainable development for Myanmar, this will need to change immediately.

Julian Kirchherr, Assistant Professor (Sustainable Business and Innovation Studies), Utrecht University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Acid drainage: the global environmental crisis you’ve never heard of

Dr Stephen Tuffnell, Associate Professor of Modern History, at the University of Oxford, describes the environmental damage caused by acid mine drainage in an article for the Conversation.

Red river waterfall, “Rio Tinto”. alredosaz / shutterstock

Romania’s prime minister, Mihai Tudose, recently raised the prospect of reopening the country’s huge Roșia Montană goldfield. The area had been mined from Roman times until the last state-run operation closed in 2006. An application by a previous government to make the area a UNESCO world heritage site has now been withdrawn, paving the way for new development.

Roșia Montană is nestled in the Carpathian mountains and, with 314 tonnes of gold, has Europe’s largest known deposits. A short-term mining bonanza promises employment for thousands of labourers and hundreds of millions of Romanian Leu in investment in the EU’s fastest-growing economy. But is the boom really worth it? After all, gold mining has historically resulted in long-term, chronic environmental problems. Roșia Montană is big, but the threats posed by acid mine drainage are bigger.

The problem is, if completed, the so-called Roșia Montană project would use “cyanide amalgamation” to extract the gold from its ore body. This is the same cyanide used to poison people, fish and elephants. It has a toxic past in Roșia Montană, too: back in the 1970s, a copper mine in the area needed somewhere to store its cyanide-contaminated waste and the nearby village of Geamana was evacuated and flooded. It has been submerged under toxic waters ever since.

Geamana is one of Romania’s greatest ecological disasters, surpassed only in 2000 when a gold mine in Baia Mare in the north of the country spilled an estimated 100 tonnes of cyanide into a river. The latter incident was described as Europe’s worst environmental disaster since Chernobyl. No wonder that when the government first mooted the resumption of mining in 2013, it led to weeks of protests – protests which now threaten to erupt again.

Gold’s dirty secret
Cyanidation was the breakthrough gold mining technology of the 1890s, when it enabled Anglo mining conglomerates to make colossal profits from low grade ores. Simply put: cyanidation involves mixing finely crushed ores (referred to as “sands” or, when water-based, “slimes”) in a weak cyanide solution (usually calcium cyanide). This solution is then mixed in large tanks and the gold separated from its ore body.

The process increases yields of gold but produces immense quantities of highly-toxic waste that releases acid and metals into the environment. Around 90% of all gold extracted worldwide uses this method.

The waste from cyanidation is a fine rock solution that is left in open air ponds while the concentration of acid is reduced to legal limits. The risk here is from dam failure or breakages in the lining of waste ponds, which can lead to catastrophic spills or leakage through the porous land surface into the water table.

In nearly all metal mines, and some coal mines, acid drainage occurs because of the oxidation of iron ore found alongside precious mineral deposits. Uncovered by the mining process, the iron reacts with the air and releases sulphuric acid into the water. This process can last centuries. Spills from cyanidation waste are more short-lived, but more highly toxic than acid mine drainage occurring through iron oxidation.

The ratio of waste to metal recovered in gold mining is vastly disproportionate: the Fimiston Super Pit, near the West Australian town of Kalgoorlie, and until recently the largest open cut mine in the world, has returned approximately 1,640 tonnes of gold since operations began there in 1989. But that’s only a small portion of the 15m tonnes of rock extracted per year. A typical gold wedding ring will generate about 30 tonnes of waste.

The river runs yellow
Cyanidation poses catastrophic ecological risks because cyanide leaks so easily into groundwater. Historical parallels suggest the Romanian proposal will most likely leave a toxic legacy.

In 2015, as the US Environmental Protection Agency attempted to drain polluted water from the Gold King Mine, Colorado, which was closed in 1920, more than 3m gallons were accidentally spilled into the Animas River. The polluted plume turned the entire river a deep mustard yellow. Water acidity levels increased 100-fold, and in some places a thousand times over levels considered safe for wildlife.

The spill only posed no threat to fish in the Animas because ongoing pollution had already killed them. But the plume drained into the San Juan, a larger and cleaner river that flows into the spectacular Glen Canyon and, eventually, the Grand Canyon. There, the pollution threatened rare birds and endangered fish like the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker.

The Animas River as normal, on the day of the Gold King Mine spill. Barbara K Powers / shutterstock

The Animas River a day later. Barbara K Powers / shutterstock

EPA chief Scott Pruitt returned to the site at the beginning of August this year vowing to complete the clean-up after the agency had “walked away” from the problem. At a water treatment plant installed on the site, 500 gallons of mercury and arsenic-laced water a minute flow from the Gold King Mine. The clean-up could take a decade and has already cost the EPA US$29m. The EPA has estimated that the cost of cleaning up just 156 mines in the US could be between US$7billion and US$24 billion. Clean-up on most sites will take decades – those with acid drainage will require water treatment in perpetuity.

A global crisis
Acid drainage is a little-known global crisis. The UN has even labelled it the second biggest problem facing the world after global warming. In the US, an estimated 22,000km of streams and 180,000 acres of freshwater reservoirs are affected by acid mine drainage. Rivers and lakes in Arizona, Patagonia, Guangdong (China), Ontario, Papua New Guinea, and at Rio Tinto in Spain, to name just a few, have all been polluted by acid mine drainage. In South Africa, the problem is chronic.

These threats are prescient. Brazil recently announced a huge reserve in the Amazon rainforest has been earmarked for mining, including gold. In New Zealand, local activists fear the Karangahake Gorge is now under threat after a large, high-quality gold seam was found in the region. Around the Yellowstone National Park, mining companies are positively salivating at the possibility that Obama-era restrictions will be lifted, granting access to 3,000 tonnes of proven in-ground gold reserves. In Peru, marines have been dispatched to wage war against illegal mining on the River Santiago in the northern Amazon, which has done enormous damage to the region’s bio-diversity and placed the livelihoods of 70,000 indigenous Awajúns and Wampís at risk.

Multinationals hold out the promise of sustainable development through mining. But without careful forethought we’ll find ourselves dealing with chronic pollution for centuries.

Stephen Tuffnell, Associate Professor of Modern US History, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Documenting climate change along Nepal’s Gandaki River, from peaks to plains.

An Oxford University and ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development) team embarks on an expedition to Nepal’s Gandaki Basin to explore ways in which climatic changes are contributing to vulnerability in the mountains, hills and floodplains of Nepal.

Photo by H2O filmmaker Ross Harrison, from film Facing the Mountain, produced in 2016.

A team from Oxford University recently travelled to Nepal to join the Himalayas to Ocean (H20) expedition. This initiative, a partnership between Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute and the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) , will see the project team follow the course of the Gandaki river, documenting the impacts of climate change along the way. The journey will start in the mountains of Mid-Western Nepal in Mustang, before heading downstream to the hills of Gulmi, and finally, the floodplains of Nawalparasi. The project will complement research on the ground by communicating change in novel, engaging ways, using creative audio-visual approaches that blend photography, video, and sound to capture stories from those at the frontline of climate change. It aims to raise awareness about the varied and complex ways in which climatic changes are already affecting communities and are contributing to their vulnerability.

The Hindu Kush-Himalayas serve as freshwater towers, feeding the ten largest river systems in Asia and the rich cultural and ecological systems riparian to them. It is estimated that the Himalayas support drinking water, irrigation, energy, industry and sanitation needs to 1.3 billion people living in the mountains and downstream1. In Nepal in particular, water is a plentiful resource, with major sources found in glaciers, rivers, rainfall, lakes and ponds. Agriculture is a major water intensive source of livelihood; 81% of the working population engage in agricultural occupations2.

In past decades, however, the Hindu Kush Himalayan system has come under increasing threat due to growing pressures posed by population increase, urbanisation and poor planning. Compounding these factors is anthropogenic climate change. The Hindu Kush Himalayas are estimated to be warming three times faster than the global average, contributing to glacial retreat3. By 2050, parts of the Himalayas could see a 4-5C warming. However, the impacts of climate change in the Himalayas extend far beyond the melting of iconic glaciers. A growing body of research, led by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) among others, has indeed shown shifts in the hydrological cycle, with monsoon rain becoming more erratic, and extreme rainfall events becoming less frequent but more intense in nature. Such changes in hydrological patterns are likely to contribute to an increase in natural disasters such as floods, landslides, droughts, springs drying up, fires and storms.

As a relatively small landlocked country with a complex topography, unstable terrain, and irregular climate, Nepal is already one of the world’s most disaster prone countries. The expected increase in natural catastrophes under climate change scenarios will incur a growing burden on communities across Nepal, in particular in rural and impoverished areas where people’s capacity to adapt will be severely limited. In August 2017, Nepal recorded its worst rainfall in 15 years, which led to catastrophic floods in the south part of the country, killing over 150 people and displacing over 21,000 families, leaving them without adequate water access and sanitation. Although the links with climate change are unclear at this stage, these floods events follow an increasing trend of record precipitation, record temperatures and increasing frequency of natural disasters.

In response to these challenges, individuals, communities and organisations are coming up with innovative ways to minimise exposure to those hazard, and cope, adapt or build resilience to them. A recent publication by ICIMOD finds that communities in the Gandaki Basin have been using traditional knowledge, practices, and technologies already for quite some time to cope with adverse climatic stresses4. These include, for instance, the use of different soil and water conservation methods such as drip irrigation and technologies to retain soil moisture, and changing cropping patterns and crop composition. However, being largely reactive, these ‘autonomous’ mechanisms are being challenged due to the scale and intensity of climatic changes. As such, planned adaptation has become an important climate and development strategy in Nepal and across South Asia. Some examples of planned adaptation measures include, climate-smart farming, improved irrigation, soil and nutrient management technologies, and improved access to climate resilient seeds and technologies. Planned adaptation also means strengthening community-based institutions including insurance systems, and improved climate information services. The H2O team will explore these issues further during their expedition.

The expedition team is composed of students and professionals working on issues of environmental change and water security from the School of Geography and the Environment (Alice Chautard, Yolanda Clatworthy, Justin Falcone); professional filmmaker Ross Harrison, who has already produced a short film on change and resilience in the Himalayas; sound engineer Nicholas O’Brien; and humanitarian story-teller Sushma Bhatta from Nepal.

You can find more about the expedition on the H2website, or by following the team on Twitter, and Facebook.


  1. Karki, M (2012) Sustainable mountain development 1999, 2012 and beyond: Rio +20 assessment report for the Hindu Kush Himalayas. Kathmandu: ICIMOD
  2. FAO (n.d.) Nepal at a glance. 
  3. Xu, J; Grumbine, R; Shrestha, A; Eriksson, M; Yang, X et al. (2009) The melting Himalayas: cascading effects of climate change on water, biodiversity, and livelihoods. Conservation Biology 23: 520–530,
  4. B.R., Pandit, A. (2016). Classication of adaptation measures in criteria for evaluation: Case studies in the Gandaki River Basin. HI-AWARE Working Paper 6. Kathmandu: HI-AWARE


A version of this post was originally published on the Himalayas to Ocean blog.

Challenges and Opportunities to achieve ‘safely managed’ drinking water in rural Bangladesh

Researchers from the Oxford-led REACH programme outline findings from a recent water audit of 10 Bangladeshi villages and implications for water policy.

Photo Credit: Rob Hope/REACH

The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) global baseline data for Bangladesh reflects the significant progress and scale of the challenges ahead to achieve ‘safely managed’ drinking water for all by 2030. Over half the population (55%) has safely managed water (on premises, on demand, free from contamination) in 2015 (WHO/UNICEF, 2017). Despite increasing ‘improved access’ to 98% by 2015 to meet the MDG, the SDGs reveal a similar share of the population with ‘safely managed’ water as in 1990. This in the context of doubling the population, which is now estimated at over 168 million people, two thirds of which are living in rural areas. The SDGs reflect the need for new thinking and models which build on the progress of infrastructure investments but examine the institutional arrangements to ensure drinking water is safe, reliable and affordable for all.

Since independence in 1971, the Government of Bangladesh reported impressive results achieving nearly universal access to improved drinking water sources for both rural and urban populations. The national average increased from 65% coverage in 1990 to nearly 98% in 2015 (WHO/UNICEF, 2017). This achievement is particularly striking when considering the scale of infrastructure required to keep up with the growing demand: the population has doubled since 1974, increasing by 70 million people (BBS, 2011).

Achieving access to improved drinking water infrastructure therefore required significant investment in new and expanded infrastructure networks. In 2015 an estimated 10% of the population was connected to piped water systems through 136 formal, public and regulated piped water infrastructure schemes (DPHE, 2016; WHO/UNICEF 2017). While piped systems are expanding with the government planning up to 180 new small-town systems, the current high levels of improved access are achieved through millions of mostly privately-installed handpumps. To put this into context, a 2009 report by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics estimated 11 million tubewells are installed across the country; 1 million provided by the government and 10 million installed by private owners (BBS, 2009). This number will have increased significantly since this estimate.

However, in Bangladesh, the improved access target has been overshadowed by uncertainties around affordability, reliability and most significantly, water quality and safety. The SDGs formally recognize that although improved access is an important step, addressing other risk factors is critical to achieve safe and reliable drinking water for everyone, every day.

To explore the impact of this growth across these risk factors, a multi-disciplinary team from REACH including University of Oxford, the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b), UNICEF and the Government of Bangladesh’s Department of Public Health and Environment (DPHE) conducted a Water Audit across 10 villages in Chandpur and Comilla Districts. Ten female field staff from the villages went door-to-door to inventory every water point, mapping 3830 tubewells.


Photo Credit: Alex Fischer/REACH

They found a 230% increase in the number of predominantly private tubewells installed since the 2008. This decreased the population-to-infrastructure ratio from 17 people per water point in 2008 to 7 people per water point in 2017; the 2010 national ratio is 14 people per water point. This growth rate raises other questions about how to achieve safe and equitably managed drinking water in the context of increasing number of unregulated private water systems.

Water quality, specifically arsenic-safe tubewells, remains a serious risk in these villages. The recent Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics Multi-Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) estimated over 44% of the population in this district are still exposed to arsenic levels which exceed government standards (WHO/UNICEF, 2017). Our study found that less than 5% of the tubewells were tested for safe water when first installed; and 80% have no red/green marking for arsenic safety. This allows significant uncertainty for consumers, government and service providers striving to make decisions about the safety and use of the water points.

Consumer preferences are also changing with a growing portion of private investment directed towards electric pumps, deep tubewells, and water points built inside walled structures within household premises. The majority of the handpumps, 90% at the time of interview, were functional. Of those, 10% of owners and managers reported their wells have been previously broken (no water flow), but are now functioning again. This reflects the high-rate of reported annual investment to maintenance and repairs.

While these findings are provisional with additional analysis underway, this study reinforces projections of private investment’s role in drinking water supplies and potentially new horizons in public and private models to promote ‘safely managed’ drinking water. The significant rate of private capital investment in new tubewells and the reported high-rates of household-financed annual maintenance, suggest an expanded frontier for potential funding and management models. These new models will need to address the ongoing risks in water safety for newly installed water points, changing preferences, and equity of safe and affordable access. These topics are the subject for the forthcoming phase of analysis.

For more information about the study findings and implications, please read the policy brief.

The study is part of a collaboration between the Department for Public Health and Engineering, UNICEF, icddr,b, BUET and the University of Oxford. It was coordinated by Alex Fischer (University of Oxford), in partnership with Zakir Hossain (icddr,b), Tazrina Ananya (BUET), Syed Adnan (UNICEF) and Firoza Akter (DPHE). The study was supervised by M. Sirajul Islam (icddr,b), Dara Johnston (UNICEF) and Rob Hope (University of Oxford).

A version of this article first appeared on the REACH website.