SatFlood: Providing early-warning of flash flood events in Kenya

New cross-departmental collaboration receives internal GCRF (Global Challenges Research Fund) funding.

The effects of even small flash floods in developing countries can be disastrous. In Lodwar, the capital of the Kenya’s Turkana County – the country’s poorest region – flash floods frequently take lives and cause major disruption. Floodwaters can divide the city, isolating large swathes of the population from safe drinking water, food, medical aid, and access to places of work and study.

The unpredictability of flash floods, coupled with poor communication, and the lack of a financial means to build stocks of supplies, makes it near impossible for the people of Lodwar to be well prepared for flood disasters.

A new research collaboration, funded by University of Oxford’s internal Global Challenges Research (GCRF) money, with support from the Oxford-led water security programme REACH, aims to help tackle this challenge.

In Feb 2019, Dr Simon Proud of Oxford University’s Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics, and Dr Marina Korzenevica of the University’s School of Geography and the Environment, will launch SatFlood. The project will initiate a pilot study in Lodwar to assess the potential of a flash flood early-warning system based on satellite data coupled to a simple hydrological model to predict when floods may occur and provide warnings to those likely to be affected, enabling people to move to safety, return home from work and collect basic supplies, in advance of a flood.

The project aims to create a warning system appropriate to the social context of the heterogeneous local communities who have limited access to technology. A major part of this study will be to understand the social, not just technological, side of warning provision in order to explore and to discuss the optimum strategy to allow socially inclusive warnings that reach the most vulnerable people.

It is hoped that the project will provide the basis to develop and implement an operational flash flood early-warning system for East Africa in the long-term.

Fluorescence as a measure of microbial contamination risk in groundwater

Research from Oxford and the British Geological Survey advances a new water quality monitoring approach.

Globally, a quarter of people lack access to water that is free from microbial contamination. In some countries that proportion is much higher. Consuming water that contains pathogens has serious health consequences, especially for children. Groundwater, which accounts for a third of global water supply, usually has better microbial quality compared to surface water, but it can be vulnerable to pollution and must be monitored to confirm when it is safe to drink.

Sampling for individual pathogens is costly and slow, so microbial water quality monitoring is usually designed around risk indicators, with Escherichia coli being the preferred choice. The presence of an indicator like E. coli tells us whether pathogens of faecal origin are likely to be present in the water. Although E. coli sampling is less onerous than measuring pathogen presence directly, it can still be prohibitively costly and time consuming – especially in low resource settings. Furthermore, pathogens (viruses in particular) may still be present in groundwater systems when E. coli is absent.

Motivated by the limitations of relying exclusively on E. coli, a research team from the University of Oxford (Saskia Nowicki, Katrina Charles, and Patrick Thomson) and the British Geological Survey (Dan Lapworth and Jade Ward) examined the potential for improving microbial risk assessments by using a complementary parameter, tryptophan-like fluorescence (TLF). Faecally contaminated water has high TLF intensity, which can be measured immediately in-situ without laboratory processing or expensive consumables.

The research was conducted in rural Kwale County, Kenya. In brief, the team found that TLF cannot be used as a proxy for E. coli on an individual sample basis, but it can add value to groundwater risk assessments by improving prioritisation of sampling and by increasing understanding of spatiotemporal variability. In addition to the low cost of sampling, precision is a key benefit of including TLF in monitoring: unlike bacteriological methods, in-situ fluorimetry has negligible method-induced variability. Factors like turbidity, changing temperature, and humic organic content can interfere with TLF measurement, but such interference is minimal in typical groundwaters. Nevertheless, potential interferences should be considered before including TLF in sampling programmes.

Further details:
Nowicki, S., Lapworth, D.J., Ward, J.S.T., Thomson, P., Charles, K., 2019. Tryptophan-like fluorescence as a measure of microbial contamination risk in groundwater. Sci. Total Environ. 646.

Lead author, Saskia Nowicki is a DPhil scholar supported by the UK Commonwealth Scholarship Commission and the University of Oxford. This research was also supported with funding from the UK Natural Environment Research Council, the UK Economic and Social Research Council and the UK Department for International Development for the UPGro programme on ‘Groundwater Risk Management for Growth and Development’.

Providing early warnings of rainy season onset in East Africa

New research by Oxford University’s Dr Dave MacLeod explores ECMWF’s (European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts) long-lead forecasts for East Africa.

The timing of the onset of the rains is crucial for a successful harvest. Sowing must be completed before the rains and an unusually early season puts pressure on planting activities. On the other hand, already-planted seeds are compromised if the rains are delayed. Early warning of onset allows farmers to better plan their activities and manage risks.

For a long time farmers in Africa have listed early warning of anomalous onset and cessation of the rains as a key need, and national weather centers are beginning to provide this information in their seasonal outlooks. However, the ability of these outlooks to predict this kind of information is entirely unknown. Without this assessment it is difficult to trust these forecasts.

To help build this trust, the ability of seasonal climate forecasts to predict onset and cessation has been assessed and described in a new paper authored by Oxford University’s Dr Dave MacLeod, recently published in Weather and Climate Extremes.

The results are positive, with analysis showing that these kind of forecasts do indeed provide informative early warning of the timing of the rains for East Africa. But there are some regions where the forecasts work better than others, and the two seasons of east Africa have quite different predictability characteristics. This has important implications for when users can rely on the operational forecasts provided.

The work has been carried out as part of the project ForPAc: Toward Forecast-based Preparedness Action. Here, researchers from the Universities of Oxford and elsewhere in the UK are collaborating with scientists and humanitarian actors in Kenya to explore the potential for utilizing forecasts from day to season ahead, in order to mitigate risks from flood and drought hazards.

Governance of water scarcity and droughts in the UK

Oxford legal scholars shed light on UK drought management.

A new report by Dr Kevin Grecksch and Dr Bettina Lange of Oxford’s Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, explores how environmental science knowledges inform the use of regulatory tools for managing drought and water scarcity in England and Wales.

The research, conducted as part of the NERC-funded MaRIUS (Managing Risks, Impacts and Uncertainties of Drought and Water Scarcity) project, is the result of the analysis of 50 qualitative semi-structured interviews with water resource managers drawn from a wide range of stakeholders including regulatory agencies, water companies, consultancies, agriculture and industry.

The report identifies a broad range of regulatory tools and environmental science knowledges currently in use, and presents a novel typology summarising their key characteristics.

It also outlines key policy issues and themes around drought and water scarcity management in England and Wales, such as the value of generating hydroecological data to aid drought management; the importance of using local expert knowledges; and the need to align various statutory and voluntary drought and water resource planning processes, to achieve a more integrated and systematic drought governance.

The report also highlights the value of flexibility in the choice of drought regulatory tools, coupled with greater clarity of what droughts need to be planned for.

Finally, the report illustrates how the highly contested nature of environmental science knowledges can inform the mobilisation of regulatory tools, citing the recent example of a review of agricultural abstraction licences at the Catfield Fen wetland nature reserve.

Further information:
Grecksch, K. and Lange, B. 2018. Governance of water scarcity and droughts. Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of Oxford, UK.

Categorising virtual water transfers through China’s electric power sector

New research led by ECI DPhil student, Xiawei Liao explores the interconnections between electricity generation and water consumption in China.

Hydro and thermoelectric power plants account for almost all of China’s electricity power generation2. Both processes lead to the loss of large volumes of water: hydropower, via reservoir evaporation; thermoelectric plants, via cooling processes.

Much has been done to quantify such inter-sector impacts and dependencies 3, 4. However, few appreciate that while electricity can be transmitted across geographical boundaries, water can also be redistributed through virtual water transfers embodied in the transmitted electricity.

Existing studies quantifying sub-national virtual water fluxes within China’s electric power system have adopted a production-based approach, which failed to address the inter-sector contributions among the final electricity users5,6.

New research, led by Xiawei Liao, a doctoral student at the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute (ECI), proposes a new framework based on Multi-Regional Input-Output (MRIO) model. The paper, recently published in Applied Energy, uses the MRIO model to map the water flows in China’s electric power sector, linking physical water consumed in the generation of electricity, to virtual water embodied in electricity consumption.

The water embodiments are characterised as 1) virtual water embodied in the final consumption (VWEF) i.e. electricity consumption by final demand, including urban and rural household consumption, the public sector etc. and 2) virtual water in electricity used by industries (VWEI).

The researchers applied this framework to 30 provinces in China. They found that China’s thermoelectric and hydroelectric power production consumed 3.8 and 14.6 billion m³ of water respectively in 2010 (see Fig. 1), 60.2% of this driven by the intermediate electricity demands of industry (VWEI).

Figure 1. Water fluxes from physical water consumption to virtual water embodiments in China’s power sector (million m³). Dark Grey – Physical Water; Light Grey – Virtual Water. The width of the fluxes are proportionate to the volume of water.

Nearly half (47.5%) of water consumed in China’s power sector (8.77 billion m3 in 2010) was used for inter-provincial trading purposes, i.e. driven by electricity demands from other provinces.

Many coastal provinces in eastern China, e.g. Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu and Shanghai, are facing varying levels of demand-driven water scarcity due to extensive population growth and advanced development. Importing virtual water through the power sector helps alleviate physical water scarcity.

However, in China’s northern and north-western provinces, water scarcity is aggravated by virtual water outflows. This area is home to significant coal mining and coal-fired power generation. Much of the power generated in the region’s thermoelectric power plants is exported to other parts of China (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Provincial water scarcity in China and their net virtual water transfers through the power sector.

China initiated its West-to-East Power Transmission Project (WEPT) in the Tenth Five-year Plan (2000-2005)1 to stimulate economic development in Western China, while, alleviating resource pressure in the east. Despite concerns about water scarcity, coal-fired electricity transmissions from water-stressed provinces in the north and northwest through the WEPT Northern corridor to the capital region, Jing-jin-ji (Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei) Metropolitan Region, are encouraged in China’s 13th Five-Year Electricity Planning2.

The study warns that, without holistic planning, electric power provision to China’s electricity-importing regions, could threaten water resources in other parts of the country, and ultimately the sustainability to power generation in these exporting provinces. Increased electricity imports could inadvertently expose these net importing regions, which tend to have higher levels of population density, urbanisation and industrialisation, to increased water risk.

Liao, X., Zhao, X., Hall, J. W., & Guan, D. (2018) Categorising virtual water transfers through China’s electric power sector. Applied Energy. Vol. 226, 252–260.


  1. National People’s Congress. 2001. The Tenth Five-Year Plan. Beijing, China.
  2. National Development and Reform Commission. 2016. ‘Electric Power Development 13th Five-Year Plan’. Beijing, China.
  3. Liao, X., Jim W. Hall and Nick Eyre. 2016. ‘Water use in China’s thermoelectric power sector’, Global Environmental Change, 41: 142-52.
  4. Zhang, C., L. Zhong, X. Fu, J. Wang, and Z. Wu. 2016. ‘Revealing Water Stress by the Thermal Power Industry in China Based on a High Spatial Resolution Water Withdrawal and Consumption Inventory’, Environ Sci Technol, 50: 1642-52.
  5. Zhang, Chao, L. Zhong, S. Liang, Kelly T. Sanders, J. Wang and M. Xu. 2017. ‘Virtual scarce water embodied in inter-provincial electricity transmission in China’, Applied Energy, 187: 438-448.
  6. Zhu, Xiaojie, R. Guo, B. Chen, J. Zhang, T. Hayat and A. Alsaedi. 2015. ‘Embodiment of virtual water of power generation in the electric power system in China’, Applied Energy, 151: 345-54.

Jakarta’s seawall megaproject and the politicisation of land subsidence 

New research led by Oxford Geography DPhil student, Thanti Octavianti, offers analysis of ‘disaster capitalism’ in the context of Jakarta’s flood policy.

“Jakarta slums seen from the sea”  Source: Przemek Pietrak. Flickr CC BY 2.0.

Jakarta is one of the fastest sinking cities in the world: parts of the city are subsiding at an average rate of 15 cm per year. To prevent the city from sinking further, the Government of Indonesia, in collaboration with the Government of the Netherlands, launched the National Capital Integrated Coastal Development (NCICD) plan. This USD 40 billion project, designed by a consortium of Dutch firms, consists of a 32-km offshore seawall plus 5100-ha of land reclamation. The privately led reclamation is justified to fund a significant portion of the seawall.

A new paper, published in Water Alternatives, as part of Thanti Octavianti’s doctoral research at Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment, examines the (ab)use of the land subsidence crisis to justify Jakarta’s seawall megaproject.

Informed by the concept of ‘critical juncture’ – an analytical approach focusing on the limited time period in which actors’ decisions have a higher probability of affecting a particular outcome – this research seeks to analyse how the framing of the sinking crisis by political actors can sustain the policy preference for the seawall, despite the many criticisms the project has received.
Drawing data from newspaper discourse, interviews, and policy documents, the paper reveals that the problematisation of land subsidence, vis-à-vis the sinking crisis, was used as a discursive tool to help justify the ambitious NCICD plan. This study analyses the decisive period, or ‘critical juncture’, that occurred when the project was subject to a 6-month evaluation, following a corruption scandal in 2016. The research considers both (i) the development of the crisis discourse in the mass media and (ii) the interaction of political agencies.

Problematisation of land subsidence as a crisis

Historical analysis of newspaper articles on land subsidence from 1 January 2007 to 31 July 2017 suggests that the issue was present infrequently prior to a major flood in 2013 (Figure 1). Subsidence gained the highest interest during 2016 when the critical juncture occurred. Further analysis of these subsidence-related articles reveals a strong association between land subsidence and the sinking threat followed by NCICD and reclamation topics (Figure 2).

Figure 1. Number of newspaper articles containing land subsidence increased substantially after the 2013 major flood (it reached its peak in 2016 when the project was evaluated).

Figure 2. Distribution of topics associated with land subsidence per year (2007-July 2017). Problematisation of subsidence as a crisis is the highest followed by the NCICD and reclamation topics.

Interaction of political agencies
The research identifies that at least five stakeholders play an important role in the policymaking process of NCICD: the Indonesian government, foreign experts, private sectors, NGO activists, and academics.

The interaction of stakeholders involved and their main narratives about NCICD, measured by the frequency of newspaper articles, can be divided into three stages: pre-, during, and post-critical juncture (Figure 3). Policymakers had been constantly promoting NCICD to solve the sinking crisis in the three stages. The promotion of Dutch expertise in the project was notable in the pre-critical juncture. However, the social and environmental impacts of NCICD voiced by NGOs and some concerned academics gained more prominence during and after the juncture, weakening the discourse on the excellence of the Dutch. This shows that the constrained environment was relaxed during the evaluation period thus creating an opportunity for critics to actively voice their concerns, challenging the advocates’ narratives and swaying public opinion. Property developers’ narratives were quite dominant before the critical juncture, promoting the aspiration of Jakarta as a world-class city. However, during the juncture, their main narrative changed, emphasizing the difficulty of cancelLing the project due to its legal status. The narrative shift indicates that developers were negotiating the fate of the reclamation with policymakers.

Figure 3. Three stages (pre, during, and post-critical juncture) of political interaction in the NCICD policymaking process. Note: Each stakeholder promoted one main narrative as shown inside the pentagon. The changing of dominance of the narratives in the three stages is depicted with the weighs of arrows: light, medium, and bold.

Having examined the public discourse around the land subsidence issue and analysed political interactions during the project’s evaluation period, or the critical juncture, the paper concludes that the project’s proponents convincingly used the sinking crisis to justify the seawall plan. In addition to the powerful discourse built by the proponents of the NCICD, the preference towards the seawall policy was attributable to other factors, such as the project’s fit with the city’s infrastructural approach in the management of flood risks and the lack of policy alternatives offered by the project’s critics.

It seems that the NCICD is here to stay until a crisis, be it political or natural, generates another critical juncture. Future junctures, if unable to introduce a policy change, will at least accumulate learning and contribute to shaping a new policy context for the management of flood risk in Jakarta.

Much of the attention given to the NCICD, however, should not distract from urgent need to address the subsidence problem. Land subsidence is purported to be caused by overexploitation of deep groundwater due to insufficient water services. While the relative contribution of other factors, namely natural consolidation of alluvial soil and tectonic activities, are not yet known, we argue that providing 100% piped water supply is a no-regret policy that should help slow down subsidence.

It is important to investigate the cause of subsidence and simultaneously provide piped water supply to Jakarta’s population. Without serious policy instruments to stop subsidence immediately, it may be too costly, or worse, too late, to fix the problem.

If you would like to learn more about this issue, please refer to the journal article: Octavianti, T. and Charles, K. 2018. Disaster capitalism? Examining the politicisation of land subsidence crisis in pushing Jakarta’s seawall megaproject. Water Alternatives 11(2): 394-420

A cultural theory of drinking water risks, values and institutional change

New research by Oxford DPhil applies cultural theory of risk to waterpoint management in rural Kenya.

On May 24, Johanna Koehler, a doctoral student at Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment, had the honour of presenting her DPhil work at this year’s Mary Douglas Seminar at University College London’s Department of Anthropology.

This annual seminar brings together the scholars from across the world working on cultural theory and provides the opportunity to discuss four pieces of research in depth over the course of two days. This event is held in memory of Dame Mary Douglas (1921-2007), an innovative social theorist particularly remembered for her contributions to the anthropological analysis of cosmology, consumption and the analysis of risk perception.

This year’s seminar explored “How can rival institutions cohabit? Plurality and settlement in social relations, policy making and the state”.

Johanna presented parts of her doctoral research which applied Mary Douglas’ cultural theory of risk to waterpoint management in rural Kenya, the findings of which can be found in a paper co-published with Steve Rayner, Jacob Katuva, Patrick Thomson and Rob Hope in the May issue of Global Environmental Change.

The following is a brief based on this research.

A cultural theory of drinking water risks, values and institutional change

Rural water sustainability is a global challenge as policy often separates communities from the state and markets. This study explores institutional relationships combining government, communities and the market in a pluralist arrangement. Testing this approach in rural Kenya, results indicate pluralism may produce more sustainable outcomes and create value in operational and financial performance.

Key Contributions
Global progress towards the goal of universal, safely managed drinking water services will be shaped by the dynamic relationship between water risks, values and institutions. The contribution of this work is a theoretical and empirical case to consider pluralist institutional arrangements that enable risks and responsibilities to be re-conceptualised and re-allocated between the state, market and communities to create value for rural water users. Risks are reduced through networking different management cultures at scale in a pluralist arrangement in the form of a professional maintenance service provider. This research draws on Mary Douglas’ cultural theory of risk, which argues that there are four cultures along the grid (social regulation) and group (collective representation) axes (Fig. 1).

These apply to waterpoint management as follows:

  • Community-managed waterpoints are most common in the rural water sector – promoted since the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade, 1981-1990.
  • The individualist culture includes privately owned waterpoints, whose owners sometimes engage in entrepreneurial activities. It also comprises self-supply approaches.
  • The bureaucratic culture is composed of waterpoints managed by schools, clinics and religious institutions.
  • The fatalist culture includes user groups around waterpoints with a long-term management failure, whose members have turned to alternative sources.

Individually, each culture often struggles to establish a reliable and cost-effective maintenance arrangement. A key insight is that pooling individual waterpoint risks at scale in a pluralist maintenance service provider can allow the local waterpoints to retain their management structure.

Fig. 1. Reframing cultural theory for waterpoint management (Koehler et al., 2018)

Policy Recommendations

  1. Performance-based contracts link communities with a maintenance service provider operating at scale and reducing downtimes to less than three days. Mobile monitoring and payments can increase accountability in rural water services.
  2. Water legislation for rural water services should take pluralist arrangements into account, which support market approaches in addition to community management and ensure local government support and coordination of rural water sector activities.
  3. Pluralist arrangements provide the potential to link informal rural water institutions with formal water regulation. Since fatalists may be excluded from the pluralist arrangement, oversight and social protection schemes are important to ensure no one is left behind.

Fig. 2. A pluralist institutional network to recognise cooperative management cultures (Koehler et al., 2018)

The cultural theory framework is empirically tested drawing on a longitudinal study of 3,500 households in coastal Kenya, an area that typifies the challenges faced across Africa in providing rural communities with safely managed water.

If you would like to learn more or cite this research, please refer to the journal article:

Koehler, J., Rayner, S., Katuva, J., Thomson, P. and Hope, R. (2018). A cultural theory of drinking water risks, values and institutional change. Global Environmental Change 50, 268-277.

Contact: Johanna Koehler, University of Oxford,

The corresponding author is a DPhil scholar supported by the Oxford University Clarendon Fund. This research was also supported with funding from the UK Economic and Social Research Council for the ‘Mobile payment systems to reduce rural water risks in Africa’ project, the UK Natural Environment Research Council, the UK Economic and Social Research Council and the UK Department for International Development for the UPGro programme on ‘Groundwater Risk Management for Growth and Development’ and the UK Department for International Development for the ‘REACH: Improving water security for the poor’ programme.

Tackling arsenic contamination in India through mathematical modelling and engineering.

Oxford mathematicians collaboration with IIT Kharagpur seeks to address one of the world’s most pressing water quality challenges.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element found in the rocks and earth’s crust, and is among one of the most hazardous contaminants in drinking water sources. Arsenic is embedded in geological sources and enters into the water supply as the rocks are eroded by the flow of water from rivers and rainwater. Further, use of manure containing phosphate, and other agricultural activities break down different rocks and release arsenic into natural water. Consequently, if not properly managed, the level of arsenic contamination will continue to rise because of human activity and agricultural growth. At present, more than 200 million people and over 70 countries in the world are affected by arsenic contamination. The WHO has declared 10μg/L as the safe limit of arsenic in drinking water in 2000.

To address this issue it is necessary to have a water-purification technology that: (i) meets the safe drinking water criteria; (ii) requires minimal energy; (iii) offers high throughput; (iv) is easy to scale up to cater for large populations; and (v) generates minimal waste. A novel strategy that achieves all five of these criteria has recently been discovered, using readily available laterite soil. Laterite is iron-rich and is able to remove arsenic through adsorption. Raw laterite can be treated chemically to enhance the surface area and increase adsorption capacity by several factors. Refining the granular laterite to produce laterite dust increases the surface area and improves adsorption capacity even further. Filters that use this laterite soil are currently providing potable water to more than 5000 people.

However, as with any other adsorption technique, such filters have a certain lifespan, beyond which the filter media becomes saturated with contaminant and the filtrate no longer meets the safe limit for drinking water. For example, a household Brita water filter should be replaced after around two months. Thus, for the design and successful implementation of an adsorption technology, it is vital to be able to predict the long-term behaviour of the filter. Such performance is influenced by the operating configuration, specifically, the input rate of the contaminated water, the mass of the adsorbent and the contaminant concentration level. To understand and predict this warrants the need of a suitable mathematical model to understand and characterise the operation and to predict the adsorption behaviour and filtration performance. Researchers Dr Ian Griffiths, at the University of Oxford’s Mathematical Institute, Dr Raka Mondal (formerly Oxford), Dr Sourav Mondal (formerly Oxford, now IIT Kharagpur) and Professor Sirshendu De (IIT Kharagpur) recently teamed up to tackle this challenge.

Together, they derived a mathematical model that characterises arsenic removal and circumvents the need for time-consuming experiments. The model couples fluid flow in a porous medium with the convective, diffusive and adsorption dynamics of the arsenic within the water as it passes through the filter medium. Using asymptotic analysis, they reduced the model to a system that may be described by a single dimensionless parameter, which they termed the filter rating, that encapsulates the entire filter behaviour. The resulting model was validated using laboratory-scale experiments conducted at IIK Kharagpur with contaminated water from the community before being used to make predictions on the lifetime of this filter in a specified role, such as on a domestic or community scale.

In October 2017 the results of the work were presented at a workshop in IIT Kharagpur to government officials and UNICEF representatives. 40 community scale filters are now planned to be deployed in 2018. The ultimate outcome of the model analysis is the generation of a performance–lifetime relationship for field implementation that provides a protocol for ensuring the sustainable operation of such filters.

The results of this work led to an MPLS Impact Award for the contribution made to the development of a maintenance protocol for water filters, enabling cost-effective deployment in India. The researchers are now developing their ideas for the removal of other contaminants from water with an ultimate objective of providing potable water for the world.

Policy perceptions and responsibility for the water service mandate across Kenya’s 47 county governments

DPhil student Johanna Koehler explores how Kenya’s devolution process has affected water service delivery.

Improving water services is a well-rehearsed political instrument to win public support against a backdrop of a wide range of hydro-political realities in Africa.

A new article, published in Geoforum as part of Johanna Koehler’s doctoral research, presents novel insights from Kenya’s devolution and water service reform, drawing on perceptions from all 47 devolved county water ministries.

The research asked all mandated policymakers of the first devolved county governments, following the introduction of Kenya’s 2010 Constitution, this question:

“Are you responsible for universal, safe, sufficient, affordable & equitable water services?”

The question elicited a broad range of responses, shaped by a host of political, socioclimatic and spatial factors, which influence the extent to which county policymakers assume responsibility for the water service mandate.

The paper seeks to unpack specific factors that influence decision-makers’ perception of their responsibility for water service delivery in their counties. Leveraging public choice theory, the research develops and tests a sociopolitical risk model, integrating information on election margin, climate risk, urbanisation, poverty levels, water budget and citizen satisfaction, to explain variations in the policymakers’ perceptions regarding their responsibilities.

Fig. 1 | Sociopolitical risk model (Koehler, 2018)

The study reveals that county water ministries recognise increased political responsibility for the poor outside current provision areas across water quantity, quality, accessibility and non-discrimination criteria. Affordability is the most contested criterion, with only a limited number of counties accepting responsibility. High socioclimatic risks and narrow election margins are likely to boost the devolved duty-bearers’ perception of responsibility for improved water service delivery. These variable factors demonstrate the interdependence of spatial and political dimensions during Kenya’s devolution process and promote the conclusion that independent and strong regulation is critical to realising the human right to water for the great majority of Kenyans living in rural areas and facing unpredictable climate risks.

Fig. 2 | Map of Kenya showing Election Margin 2013 and Water Responsibility Index (Koehler, 2018)

The research highlights a number of key implications from Kenya that ought to be considered when formulating and implementing future policy, and which may also be relevant to other countries in sub-Saharan Africa undergoing institutional transformations in the form of decentralisation:

First, the allocation of adequate financial resources appears to be the strongest limiting factor for the recognition of responsibilities and their translation into actual water service delivery. Major investments are being made in new infrastructure development for water services. However, without a higher priority on monitoring and maintenance provision, the sustainability of this infrastructure is questionable and SDG (Sustainable Development Goal) 6.1 is unlikely to be met in the long term.

Second, the wide variance in the decision-makers’ perceived responsibility for the water service mandate needs to be addressed across the human rights criteria so that regional disparities do not grow and transformative development is sustained, especially in rural, marginalised areas. This highlights the importance of spatial concepts of central–lregional, interregional and urban-rural relations for political decision-making and the crucial role of regulation at the national level for universal coverage.

Third, it appears that a healthy level of democratic competition in the gubernatorial elections drives the water service agenda and the fulfilment of constitutional obligations. At the start of Kenya’s second term under devolution, with 47 county governments in charge of the provision of services in sectors such as water and health, this study observes that devolved duty-bearers have generally adopted a target-oriented approach towards the implementation of the constitution so as to achieve progressive realisation of the human right to water during the first phase of Kenya’s devolution process. Their perceived responsibility appears to focus on the poor in underserved areas. While inequalities remain, devolution has spurred progress towards target 6.1 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development .

Finally, responsibilities across the human rights criteria are driven by a number of political and socioclimatic factors. Countries do not respond uniformly, especially if they have a devolved system of government. Globally, the question as to whether the targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will be achieved begins with the acknowledgement and uptake of the mandate by duty-bearers, before actual progress can be measured, and depends on each country and its subnational institutions’ sociopolitical and geographical realities.

If you would like to learn more or cite this research, please refer to the journal article: Koehler, J. 2018. Exploring policy perceptions and responsibility of devolved decision-making for water service delivery in Kenya’s 47 county governments. Geoforum 92: 68-80.

Funding acknowledgment
Johanna Koehler is a DPhil scholar in the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment supported by the Oxford University Clarendon Fund. This research was also supported with funding from the UK Natural Environment Research Council, the UK Economic and Social Research Council and the UK Department for International Development for the UPGro programme on ‘Groundwater Risk Management for Growth and Development’, the UK Economic and Social Research Council for the ‘Mobile payment systems to reduce rural water risks in Africa’ project, and the UK Department for International Development for the ‘REACH: Improving water security for the poor’ programme. 


How can water research have more impact?

How the Oxford-led REACH programme is working to achieve impact.

Research impact is increasingly important for academic institutions. Ideas of ‘research for research’s sake’ are fading as impact now counts for 25% of a university’s REF2021 assessment up from 20% in previous rounds.

Oxford University is leading a 7-year, DfID funded water research project called REACH to improve water security for 5 million poor people in Africa and Asia. In a problem-focused, policy-driven project such as this, it is necessary to consider what research impact is and how it can be achieved and measured.

Last week, Dr Catherine Fallon Grasham, a human geographer and postdoctoral researcher for REACH, presented at Making a Difference: an impact conference for the social sciences, held at St Anne’s College in Oxford. Stakeholder engagement emerged as a critical component of achieving research impact. There was also a shared consensus that social science has an image problem. It is too often regarded as a ‘soft science’, less rigorous and relevant than the physical sciences. Social scientists must find more convincing ways of communicating the importance of their research findings.

Research impact takes multiple forms. It is essentially about finding avenues for research to have some influence in shaping the world that we live in. Specifically for REACH, it is about identifying and engaging with decision-makers to ensure that the research is driven by local needs, embedded within existing processes of change and that there is local ownership of resulting interventions.

REACH is designed to build science-practitioner partnerships and works closely with UNICEF across Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Kenya.

“Successful relationships with partners and stakeholders, such as government bodies, private companies and NGOs, have been absolutely crucial for REACH to have impact,” said Dr Grasham.

The Rural Water Supply Network and the International Water Association are also part of the REACH consortium and have strong roles to play in disseminating research findings to their networks.

Water researchers commonly work within interdisciplinary teams and REACH works across the social and physical sciences. Understanding the socio-political processes that shape access to water is critical for finding ways to improve water security which means that there is a lot of space for social science in the project. Dr Grasham went on to say:

“We are all working together towards a common goal of improving water security for 5 million people which makes it easier for us to work across disciplines.”

Next month, Dr Grasham will be travelling to Semera in the Awash river basin, Ethiopia to engage with stakeholders about her social research on the inequality of water access and to identify the most tangible ways that REACH research can have impact.