Rising to the water challenge

Since its inception in 2011, the Oxford Water Network (OWN) has helped cement Oxford University’s reputation as a global centre for excellence in water research and teaching. Now in its 6th year, OWN looks to build on this success and take the network to the next level.

A glance at today’s headlines provides a stark reminder of the many water-related problems we face: drought in East Africa; floods in Peru and Colombia; conflict around the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates; concerns regarding drinking water safety in the US. These stories highlight the often complex and multi-dimensional nature of the water security challenges facing decision makers globally: it is problems such as these that prompted the creation of the Oxford Water Network (OWN) in 2011.

OWN is an initiative that seeks to leverage the University of Oxford’s diverse research expertise to tackle the growing threat of water insecurity worldwide. OWN comprises an immediate network of over 130 Oxford University research and support staff, spread across the natural, social and engineering sciences. Beyond the University, OWN maintains links with external partners drawn from the academic, policy, civil society and business communities.

Since its creation, OWN has helped its members secure a number of major funding awards. Notable examples include REACH – a global research programme seeking to improve water security for poor people in Asia and Africa; MaRIUS – a project exploring the management of droughts and water scarcity in the UK; and Gro for GooD – a project seeking to develop a groundwater risk management approach to support development in Kenya.

OWN events provide a forum to share ideas and build the relationships necessary to realise interdisciplinary collaboration. We host seminar series, workshops and conferences. In 2012 and 2015, OWN convened two, agenda-setting, international water security conferences, which brought together leading thinkers and practitioners from government, enterprise, civil society and academia to advance and debate a risk-based analysis of water security. The first of these events gave rise to a themed issue on water security in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

As OWN embarks on its next chapter, we are taking time to consider how we can build on our success to date. As part of this process, we are seeking to initiate a period of consultation with our members to better understand how we can support their research, improve its impact, and ultimately harness the full potential of the network to address the many water challenges we face.

If you have any thoughts as to how we can take OWN to the next level, contact me at alastair.strickland@ouce.ox.ac.uk. You can find out more about the Oxford Water Network at www.water.ox.ac.uk or by subscribing to our monthly newsletter.

Farm to tap? Resilient cities and rural livelihoods in a water stressed world

Dr Dustin Garrick, Co-director of the Smith School’s Water Programme, discusses the impact of water stress on urban-rural tensions at World Bank Water Week.

The World Bank Group’s Water Global Practice held its annual Water Week at the University of Maryland from March 13-16, bringing together over 500 participants from the Bank and beyond, to promote dialogue and learning around the theme of Delivering a Water-Secure World for All.

The event hosted a number of technical sessions around the Bank’s five practice areas – 1)Water Supply and Sanitation and Water Quality; 2) Water Security and Water Resource Management; 3) Water in Agriculture; 4) Water, Poverty, and the Economy; and 5) Hydropower and Dams – in addition to a series of plenaries.

This year, Dr Dustin Garrick, Lecturer in Environmental Management at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment (SSEE), and Co-Director of the SSEE’s Water Programme, represented Oxford University in a plenary exploring water scarcity and climate change. World Bank Chief Economist for Climate Change, Marianne Fay, chaired the session which included representatives from Columbia University, Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

Dr Garrick’s presentation, entitled ‘Farm to tap?  Resilient cities and rural livelihoods in a water stressed world’, explored how water stress and severe drought have placed cities under pressure, threatening the engines of growth and strategic national interests. Dr Garrick began his presentation by framing the water resource allocation challenges facing cities competing with agriculture for scarce water supplies to enhance resilience to climate shocks.

After a summary of the hotpots and dynamics of rural-urban competition for water globally, Dr Garrick surveyed the rapid innovations in allocation policy, infrastructure governance and digital water solutions to measure and manage water risk. These experiences from fast growing cities and rural towns of Africa and Latin America illustrate the challenges and opportunities for innovation to sustain growth, reduce inequality and enhance freshwater resilience.

Dr Garrick’s participation in World Bank Water Week marks a continuation of Oxford University’s long-standing relationship with the World Bank. Recent notable collaborations include the high-level panel hosted by the Oxford Water Network at the Martin School in January.

Making water policy work

Ten ideas to improve and reinvigorate UK water policy post-Brexit.

UK water management is characterised by a complex, multi-tiered system of governance, comprising a plethora of institutions and interest groups; these extend from the EU and UK governments, down to grassroots organisations, with numerous stakeholders in between.

Recent events, such as the 2016 Brexit vote, which threatens many existing water-related regulatory and institutional arrangements, raise questions about the efficacy and resilience of the current governance system.

A team of academics, comprising the Environmental Change Institute’s Prof John Boardman, and led by Oxford alumna Dr Lisa Robins (MSc Environmental Change & Management ‘94-95) of the Australia National University, explore these issues in an article recently published in Environmental Science and Policy. The paper – Making water policy work in the United Kingdom: A case study of practical approaches to strengthening complex, multi-tiered systems of water governance – examines UK water governance in the face of emerging challenges, outlining 10 ideas to realise transformative change in the UK’s water resource planning and management post-Brexit.

These are:

  1. Put in place a system-wide water policy;
  2. Fully embrace community-led nested river basin planning and management;
  3. Properly fund river basin planning and management;
  4. Re-focus the policy framing;
  5. Use best-available data and information;
  6. Create conversational spaces and become a more water-literate society;
  7. Mobilise people;
  8. Support and sustain core community networks;
  9. Underpin river basin plans with regulatory provisions and effective monitoring and enforcement;
  10. Address systemic institutional amnesia.

To find out more about the research and its recommendations click here.

Natural measures can help protect against flooding, but they won’t save communities from the likes of Storm Desmond

Dr Simon Dadson, Associate Professor in Physical Geography at Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment, explores his recent research reviewing the scientific evidence around natural flood management in the UK.

Flooding devastates communities and takes billions of pounds out of the UK economy. In 2015 Storm Desmond broke all the records with 341mm of rainfall in 24 hours in the wettest Lake District December since records began in 1788. The Association of British Insurers has estimated that Desmond cost £1.3 billion, but when you add on the uninsured losses and costs to the public purse for repairing critical infrastructure like flood defences, roads, bridges and railways, the total bill reaches more than £5 billion.

Historical evidence suggests that whilst the Cumbria floods are record-breaking compared with living memory, they are not completely unprecedented: periods of severe flooding hit the UK in 1947 and 1929, the latter half of the 19th century was particularly flood-rich, and geological evidence shows there were even bigger floods in the 17th century. Meteorologists say the spate of floods since the mid-1990s is down to an unusually warm North Atlantic bringing an intermittent stream of strong storms across the UK; and while the blame for the recent floods can’t be pinned for certain on global warming, climate change looks likely to increase flood risk in the future, with more intense summer storms and wetter winters in the uplands of the west.

Faced with the prospect of severe flooding continuing, governments and flood-hit communities are searching for solutions. Natural flood management – restoring the landscape to reverse or mitigate the impacts of agriculture and urbanisation – has hit the headlines regularly in recent years as a possible answer. Its advocates point to benefits for wildlife, biodiversity and landscapes; and the fact that it can be much more cost effective to manage flood risk at source than to deal with the aftermath of flooding when it occurs. But for policymakers, natural flood management presents a complex and delicate balancing act between the needs of different groups, including the public, farmers and landowners. Added to that is the more fundamental issue that its effectiveness at both small and large scales has been unclear.

An 18-month, comprehensive review of the scientific evidence on natural flood management, commissioned by the Oxford Martin School and aimed at helping to navigate these murky waters, has just published its results.

Carried out by experts from across the country, it found that the evidence for natural flood management is strongest when targeted at local problems with minor flooding. A good example of this is the community-led Pontbren Farmers Project in which tree ‘shelterbelts’ have been planted in carefully-chosen places on the hillsides. The local benefits to the farmers themselves are very clear, during small storms at least: the presence of trees (and the absence of livestock) increases the rate at which water soaks into the soil. The shelterbelts also stop soil silting up rivers and limit the spread of agricultural pollution downstream. But in spells of very wet weather the power of the trees to prevent flooding diminishes, leading to only a 2-11% reduction in flood flows. This reduction is not to be sniffed at, and of course there are the added benefits for biodiversity, soil conservation and the landscape. But ultimately it does not make for a reliable defence against the worst floods.

Another conundrum is that, in studies up to now, the collective effects of small-scale measures don’t seem to add up to a significant flood risk reduction over all. In one of the biggest studies of natural flood management, in the Hodder River catchment in Lancashire, the local water utility company tried initiatives such as reducing sheep numbers on farmland, and whilst a local impact was detectable, these measures had little effect in the main river. The project scientists later established that the maximum flood level was heavily influenced by several critical zones in the river basin, offering hope that these measures can be targeted in the future.

So do these issues mean natural flood management won’t be able to fulfil the promise many hope it holds? Reviewing the evidence shows it’s certainly not a silver bullet, and won’t protect against the effects of the worst storms, but the news isn’t all bad.

It’s likely to be best put into service where there’s a combination of risk of minor floods, and where there will be benefits for wildlife and the landscape. Natural measures can be implemented alongside traditional flood risk management too: in Pickering in North Yorkshire, the community has come together to provide protection against a one-in-25 year flood, although the jury is still out on how much of this is down to woodland measures in the uplands versus an engineered offline storage reservoir downstream.

There are more than 170 natural flood management schemes in operation in the UK: each put in place to tackle a pressing local flood problem, and often driven by the enthusiasm of community groups and responsible land managers. What we need now is proper monitoring and evaluation of these schemes, and the Environment Agency should fund them where they work and where they give value for money.

This post was first published by the Oxford Martin School.

Natural measures to prevent floods valuable but not ‘a silver bullet’, say researchers

Oxford Martin restatement finds claims that natural flood management will alleviate the worst floods are not supported by scientific evidence.

Natural measures to manage flooding from rivers can play a valuable role in flood prevention, but a lack of monitoring means their true potential remains unclear, researchers say.

Such measures, including river restoration and tree planting, aim to restore processes that have been affected by human activities such as farming, land management and house-building.

Natural flood management is an area of increasing interest for policy makers, but its implementation can present a complex balancing act between the needs of different groups, including the public, farmers and land owners. Mixed messages about the efficacy and scalability of natural flood management measures add to the uncertainty surrounding their benefits.

Now a team of experts, led by Dr Simon Dadson of the University of Oxford, has compiled the evidence on natural flood management, in order to better inform policy decisions and show where crucial gaps in knowledge lie. Published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A, the restatement clarifies the scientific evidence available from a variety of sources, ranging from field data to model projections and expert opinion.

Dr Dadson said: “Flooding is an extremely costly natural hazard in the UK, and we expect it to increase in the future as climate change leads to more extremes in our weather. The period between 1960 and 1990 was relatively flood-poor compared with what we’ve seen since and with what we are likely to see in the future.

“What we’ve found is that when it comes to natural flood management, there are some interventions for which there is very strong evidence, but these tend to be in small-scale river catchments. One of the main problems decision-makers face is that differences between catchments make it difficult to transfer evidence from one location to the other – and we don’t yet know whether the effects in small catchments can be extrapolated to larger ones.”

The authors say natural measures have proved useful at preventing flooding after minor rainstorms, and can be a worthwhile component of a larger package of flood prevention measures. For measures such as tree planting that aim to change the way rainfall runs off the land, the evidence of the impact on flooding is mixed. Meanwhile, measures to restore natural floodplains by “making room for the river”, for example by removing flood walls and other obstacles, have been shown to reduce flood water levels.

“There are always going to be some extreme floods, like we saw after Storm Desmond, that are simply overwhelming”. said Dr Dadson. “Natural flood management can help if implemented well in carefully chosen locations, and it can bring important benefits to landscapes and wildlife, but it’s not a silver bullet for the problem of flooding.”

The restatement calls for increased monitoring and measurement of flood management impacts, with evidence gathered within a comprehensive framework.

“Our message to Defra and the Environment Agency is that they need to establish more systematic large-scale surveys and monitoring programmes, and feed natural flood management into planning at the catchment scale” added Dr Dadson. “It’s also really important that catchment-based schemes that have been instigated by communities and local wildlife or river trusts are monitored and evaluated so that the right lessons can be learned for the future.”

  • Download the full paper, A restatement of the natural science evidence concerning catchment-based ‘natural’ flood management in the United Kingdom
  • Read Dr Dadson’s thoughts about the research in his opinion piece published on the Oxford Martin School website.
  • Hear Dr Dadson discuss the research on BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme.
  • Dr Simon Dadson is Associate Professor in Physical Geography at Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment. His co-authors are Jim Hall and Anna Murgatroyd, University of Oxford; Edmund Penning-Rowsell, University of Oxford and Middlesex University London; Mike Acreman and Nick Reynard, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Wallingford; Paul Bates, University of Bristol; Keith Beven and Louise Heathwaite, Lancaster University; Joseph Holden, University of Leeds; Ian P. Holman, Cranfield University; Stuart N. Lane, University of Lausanne; Enda O’Connell, Newcastle University; David Sear, University of Southampton; Colin Thorne, University of Nottingham; and Rob Wilby, Loughborough University.
  • Oxford Martin Restatements review the natural science evidence base underlying areas of current policy concern and controversy. Written in policy neutral terms and designed to be read by an informed but not technically specialist audience, restatements are produced by a writing team reflecting the breadth of opinion on the topic in the science community and involve wide consultation with interested stakeholders. The final version of the restatement is peer-reviewed prior to publication. For more information visit http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/policy/restatements/

A version of this post was first published by the Oxford Martin School


Agricultural productivity as a tool for Jordanian water security

Oxford research supporting water security in the Jordan Basin.

Jordan is one of the most water scarce countries per capita in the world. This situation has been compounded by the arrival of up to 1.5 million refugees displaced by the conflict in Syria, placing additional demands on water resources for human and economic uses.

Over the past 20 years, Jordan has made considerable progress in enhancing agricultural water productivity, which has allowed new water resources to be directed at higher economic returns in the non-agricultural sector. Food imports have also helped reduce pressure on the agricultural sector (and with it national water resources) to meet growing population food needs.

Despite Jordan’s impressive past achievements, best practice in agricultural water productivity elsewhere in near region demonstrates potential for further improvements in water productivity within Jordan’s agricultural sector. Such savings would allow new planned water resources to be more intensely directed at the industrial and service economy.

For the past year, with funding from the British Council’s Institutional Links program, Oxford University has been coordinating research partnerships in the region, to understand past trends in water resource use and to highlight the volumetric gains that could be achieved if regional best practice on agricultural water productivity were to be implemented in Jordan.

Focusing initially on national statistics for crop production and water use analysed by Oxford, the research has also involved farm-level interviews conducted by regional partners, which have broadly verified the trends of aggregate national data, as well as identifying different trends in agricultural knowledge and support in the region.

The results from the project ‘Delivering Food and Water Security for a Middle East in Flux (DeFWS) will be published in a working paper due out later this month. You can preview the headline findings in a recent Jordan Times article.

Pay as you drink

Oxford University DPhil student, Johanna Koelher, talks to the Economist about sustaining rural water services in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Access to a safe and secure water supply is an elusive dream for many in the developing world: in rural Sub-Saharan Africa this is particularly the case. Water infrastructure is often unreliable and poorly maintained, and few have access to a piped water supply. One of the key barriers to addressing this shortfall is a lack of effective financing mechanisms to sustain service provision.

In an Economist article exploring innovations in water financing in Sub-Saharan Africa, Johanna Koehler, DPhil student at Oxford University’s Smith School, shared her experience of Oxford’s water research in rural Kenya. This work, led by Dr Rob Hope, has given rise to FundiFix, a social enterprise which leverages Kenya’s sophisticated mobile payment system and Oxford’s remote pump monitoring, to create a performance-based rural handpump maintenance business.

You can learn more about the FundiFix model here. For an overview of the Oxford University’s smart handpump research click here.


Handpump vibrations could help secure water for millions of people in Africa

Innovative Oxford research demonstrates the potential of ‘smart’ handpumps to achieve low-cost, large-scale groundwater monitoring.

200 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa rely on handpumps to access water. Photo: Tim Foster/REACH

Shallow groundwater levels can be estimated by monitoring the up-and-down movement of handpumps, Oxford University researchers have discovered. The research has been published in the journal Environmental Modelling & Software, and featured on the BBC Science & Environment.

The research uses machine learning methods to analyse the data from low-cost sensors fitted to the handpump handles in Kenya. The vibrations produced by the handpumps vary according to the depth of the underground aquifer where the water is being drawn from.

Africa’s shallow aquifers supply water for around 200 million rural Africans lifted by one million handpumps. If this innovation was scaled up, these handpumps could be transformed into a distributed monitoring network, providing vital information on groundwater availability and how it changes over time. This in turn could enable action to prevent water supplies drying up and help manage a resource that is under increasing pressure.

The work is an output of Gro for Good, a project of the UPGro Consortium, funded by the UK Department for International Development, the Economic and Social Research Council, and the Natural Environment Research Council. This research is being taken forward by the REACH programme.

More information:

A version of this post originally appeared on the REACH website.




Mars’ watery past

Researchers identify site within Martian crater which likely held water in the not-too-distant past.

The question of the existence of life beyond our planet has intrigued humankind since time immemorial. For many years, Mars has been the focus of the search for extraterrestrial life. The Red Planet is the most similar to Earth and is considered the most habitable planet in the Solar System after our own.

Water, or more specifically liquid water, is vital to life on Earth, and in their quest to discover evidence of biological life on Mars, scientists have adopted a “follow the water” approach, seeking sites which show signs of a watery past or present.

A collaboration between researchers from Trinity College Dublin and Oxford University recently pinpointed an ancient valley within a Martian crater – which shows characteristics of having held water in the not-too-distant past.

Trinity’s Dr Mary Bourke and Professor Heather Viles, Head of Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment, were struck by the similarities between patterns on the Martian surface with those associated with desert flooding on Earth.

“On Earth, desert dunefields are periodically flooded by water in areas of fluctuating groundwater, and where lakes, rivers and coasts are found in proximity. These periodic floods leave tell-tale patterns behind them,” explained Dr Bourke. “You can imagine our excitement when we scanned satellite images of an area on Mars and saw this same patterned calling card, suggesting that water had been present in the relatively recent past.”

These patterns – knowns as ‘arcuate striations’ – had been noted on the surface of migrating sand dunes in the Namib desert in remote sensing images taken from an earlier study. Subsequent fieldwork showed that these striations were the result of geochemically cemented dune salts left by evaporating groundwater. These sediments later become relatively immobile, and are left behind as the dunes migrate downwind.

Example of geochemically cemented crossbed strata in the interdune near Walvis Bay, Namibia. a) Google Earth image of crossbeds upwind of the windward slope of a barchan in Namibia. White arrows highlight particularly prominent examples b) Ground image of crossbeds showing general relief of interdune (<10cm) c) Wall of pit excavated in interdune (location seen in b) shows dipping sediment layers in subsurface are contiguous with protruding layers on the surface. Alternating high and low albedo layers have different salt composition and grainsize. The darker layer forms the more pronounced micro-ridges.

The researchers hypothesize that a similar process occurred on Mars, and that these arcuate striations exposed on the surface between dunes are indicative of fluctuating levels of salty groundwater, during a time when dunes were actively migrating down the valley.

Striations exposed on the surface between dunes indicate fluctuating levels of salty groundwater. a) Exposure of putative crossbeds on windward slope of dunes on Mars b) Interdune strata exposed in planform showing contrasting albedo and crosscutting relationships similar to that exposed in the dune. Subset of false-colour HiRISE image ESP_013319_1685. The Infrared, red and blue bands are displayed as red, green and blue.

The findings, recently published in Geophysical Research Letters, are significant. Not only do they shed light on Mars’ past hydrology, but also offer a geological target for detecting past life forms on the Red Planet, which is vital for selecting sites for future missions to Mars.

Resilient drought and water scarcity management in England and Wales in 2065

MaRIUS programme publishes findings from drought scenario building workshop.

The Oxford-led MaRIUS (Managing the Risks, Impacts and Uncertainties of drought and water Scarcity) programme is working to improve decision-making around drought and water scarcity in England and Wales using a risk-based approach. One element of the research is to explore and review options for drought management practice in England & Wales beyond the existing regulatory framework and to discuss qualitatively the potential effectiveness of and constraints upon these options with stakeholders.

In September 2016, MaRIUS reseacher, Dr Kevin Grecksh from Oxford University’s Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, hosted an explorative scenario building workshop to inform this research. A report from the workshop is now available online.

The workshop brought together more than a dozen researchers and stakeholders, including DEFRA, the Environment Agency, Ofwat and various water companies. Participants discussed influencing factors and drivers of resilient drought and water scarcity management in England and Wales in 2065. These included various aspects, such as society’s expectations on water supply, water regulation policy, economic development, climate change, extreme weather events and many more. The workshop resulted in the development of four scenarios: (1) “rising to the challenge”, (2) “enjoying their luck, (3) “passive acceptance” or (4) “accepting decline”.

To find out more about these scenarios and other MaRIUS research, visit www.mariusdroughtproject.org