Advancing African climate science

REACH postdoc, Dr Ellen Dyer, leads a new phase of African climate research.

Earlier this month, Dr Ellen Dyer, Postdoctoral Researcher in African Hydrology and Climate, affiliated with the Oxford-led REACH programme, embarked on a new phase of research which will work to strengthen linkages between climate and water research across the REACH programme and the Future Climate for Africa (FCFA) programme. Both research programmes focus on developing new evidence for use in decision-making on water and climate in Africa.

Since 2016, Ellen has led the development of East African climate science for the REACH programme. She has worked to advance an understanding of contemporary East African rainfall and temperature, comparing observations against how climate models recreate critical aspects of climate, particularly seasonality and variability. Her research employed a process-based analysis of regional teleconnections and atmospheric circulation patterns; these processes play a crucial role in shaping the climate of the region.

Her research aims to reduce uncertainty in future projections, but also shed light on why East African climate will change in the future [Rowell et al., 2015].

Dr Ellen Dyer

The East African long rains are a particular weakness of global climate models. Ellen is working on understanding the sub-seasonal dynamics of the long rains to develop better climate metrics and understand why so few coupled climate models can simulate climatological rain rates, or trends in this season.

In her new role, in addition to working work align the East African climate research of REACH and FCFA, Ellen will develop metrics for climate-induced risk tailored to user needs for the REACH observatories in Africa.

This work combines analysis of the frequency of large-scale climate extremes, with the investigation of the impact on different users and sectors. For example, the prolonged occurrence of below average rainfall, or warm temperatures, may cause more damage than an isolated extreme event. Creating meaningful metrics requires understanding the regional climate and the socioeconomic landscape in question.

The research will initially focus on climate-risk mapping in Ethiopia’s Awash basin, as part of the REACH Sustaining Growth through Water Security Observatory.

WASH affordability consultation

Oxford academics among experts convened by a group of international bodies to explore global monitoring of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) affordability.

Affordability is a normative criteria of the human rights to drinking-water and sanitation, as well as being of fundamental importance in achieving the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) WASH targets 6.1 and 6.2. However, until now, no global consensus has been formed around how WASH affordability should be defined and measured. Moreover, there remain significant data challenges to presenting WASH affordability at both national and global levels.

WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) and the UN-Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water (GLAAS), UNICEF and WHO recently established an Expert Consultative Group to explore global monitoring of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) affordability.

Two Oxford academics will contribute to the initiative: Dr Rob Hope, Director of the Water Programme at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment and REACH Director, and Michael Rouse CBE, Distinguished Research Associate at the School of Geography and Environment. Together they bring a wealth of experience to the consultation which comprises a number international experts drawn from the private sector, international organisations, such as the World Bank and OECD, and a global network of academics. The REACH programme, through its partnership with UNICEF, aims to support the work both methodological and empirically.

The objectives of the initiative to which the Expert Consultative Group will contribute are:

  1. To generate clarity and consensus around an understanding of what affordability of WASH services means, so that it can be defined and measured. This includes examining how other sectors have addressed affordability, such as health, education and social protection.
  2. To determine how WASH affordability can be measured with the current data sets available, and assess whether it can be presented at national, regional and global levels.
  3. To propose how to incrementally improve national and global monitoring of WASH affordability through improving the quality and availability of national data sets on WASH expenditure, policy responses, as well as willingness and ability to pay for WASH services.
  4. To identify ways in which analysis of WASH affordability can inform practical actions to make services more affordable, especially for poor and vulnerable populations.

While objective number 4 extends beyond the scope of global monitoring per se, it is important to ensure monitoring is linked to policy responses, and is an issue UNICEF and WHO are interested to explore in its entirety, together with partners.

The Expert Consultative Group, began its work earlier this month and aim to report before the end of the year.

Can service water models level the playing field for rural water supplies?

Dr Tim Foster presents findings from his doctoral research undertaken at the University of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment.

Gathering at the well. CreditTim Foster.

Having just published the fourth installment in a series of papers examining rural supply sustainability on the south coast of Kenya, it is timely to reflect upon some of the common threads that emerge from these related but discrete studies. Throughout our investigations we have examined rural water sustainability – and the determinants thereof – from all sorts of angles, including repair time, household financial contributions, revenue collection longevity, water source preferences, and – most recently – operational lifespan.

The research has focused on Kwale County, which has provided a unique setting for understanding the drivers and dynamics of rural water supply sustainability. The region played host to the first large scale deployment of the Afridev handpump, a now ubiquitous technology in many African and Asian countries. The handpump installation programme, which ran for 12 years between 1983 and 1995, has since been held up as a ‘gold standard’ of rural water programming. As a result, a number of relatively rare data sources were available, including a consolidated set of installation records, water committee financial records dating back to the 1980’s, and a glimpse into the divergent operational outcomes over the course of three decades.

Another consequence of the long-running handpump installation programme is that the institutional starting point for operation and maintenance appears to have been relatively consistent. This has allowed for a distillation of how environmental and geographic factors impinge upon operational outcomes. And despite the relatively small area in which more than 500 handpumps in Kwale are situated, our results have consistently showed groundwater characteristics and settlement patterns play an important role in shaping the long term prospects of community water supplies.

Starting with the most recent analysis of handpump lifespans, we found the likelihood of premature failure was higher for water points that supplied water with elevated electrical conductivity (a measure of salinity), pumped water from greater depths, and were underlain by unconsolidated sands. The association with salinity probably reflects a user satisfaction issue – the propensity to pay for ongoing maintenance of a handpump is likely to be diminished when the water tastes salty. This is supported by our earlier findings that palatability was a significant determinant of whether or not a household would pay their monthly fees as well as their decisions about which water source to use. By contrast, the relationships with depth and geology signify differences in the maintenance requirements and the associated financial burden of keeping the handpump in working condition.

Location of the water point also matters. The closer a community was to spare part suppliers, the lower the risk of failure. This could be directly linked to the transaction costs of obtaining spares – or simply be due to other socio-economic confounders. In earlier studies, the proximity of a water point to user households was also found to be a key driver of household contribution rates and water source choices.

These findings show us that there are a variety of environmental and geographic challenges to keeping water supply systems working, and communities are each dealt a different hand. Some factors – such as salinity – may undermine the willingness of users to their sustain system; others – such as groundwater depth or distance to spare parts – may make it more difficult or expensive to do so. It is thus little wonder that rural water supply outcomes are mixed, even if the quality of implementation is high.

How then can service delivery models level the playing field? Clearly, little can be done to change hydrogeological or demographic characteristics. However, their impact could be mitigated. One option is for a centralised approach to maintenance and repairs, whereby a tariff structure allows communities with troublesome hydrogeology to pay the same amount for a maintenance service as those communities enjoying more benign conditions (all else being equal). Such a scheme has been running for more than two decades in Turkana, a region in Northern Kenya that presents extremely challenging conditions for rural water supply operation and maintenance. Other variations on this theme are currently being trialled in Kitui County and in Kwale itself. While we await the results from these initiatives, early evidence suggests they can address the issues relating to more difficult operating conditions, but overcoming inherent differences in willingness to pay is more problematic.

Ultimately, the case of Kwale shows that under favourable conditions, handpump supplies can last more than 25 years. The trick then is how to achieve similar longevity for communities that encounter more troublesome operating environments. Solving this conundrum will be essential if the global target of safe water for all is to be met.

Water-food-energy nexus. Credit: Tim Foster.

About the author
Tim Foster is a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures. His current research investigates the role of entrepreneurs and enterprise in rural water service delivery in Asia and Africa. He received his doctorate from the University of Oxford for research conducted at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment under the supervision of Dr Rob Hope, Director of the Smith School’s Water Programme.

RowZambezi 2018

Rowers take on the Kafue River for clean water causes.

Credit: RowZambezi

This summer, 3 boat crews including Oxford alumi will attempt to row 900km of the Kafue River. This 14-day sculling expedition along the Zambezi’s third largest tributary has never been attempted before and will push the team to their limits. It aims to raise awareness of the Kafue basin, and funds to support water causes.

The team includes Olympic rowers from the Zambezi River Basin nations of Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, as well as Olympic medallists from South Africa (Sizwe Ndlovu) and the UK (Zoë de Toledo). It also includes rowers from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and prominent celebrities, such as Clare Balding (patron) and TV Star Jodie Kidd.

The sport of rowing is dependent on water, and most of the rowing world has easy access to good water. However, 1.1 billion lack this. With climate change, growing global population, and the human impacts causing increased water problems, WWF predicts that by 2025 two-thirds of the world’s population may face water scarcity.

Zambia is at the acute end of this imminent crisis. The Zambezi basin – including the mighty Kafue River – has been brought into sharp focus, to the point where the WWF and FISA (the International Rowing Federation) have created the Kafue River & Rowing Centre (KRRC). The KRRC’s purpose is to be a centre of global excellence, to facilitate the sharing of freshwater research and data, free from corporate and political interference, restriction, or bias. Sited on the Kafue River, the RowZambezi crew will end their journey at the site purchased for the centre, and are the main fundraising partner, helping the KRRC raise the $1.25m required for its build.

The KRRC’s mission is to help Zambia, Africa and the world meet the freshwater challenges we are now beginning to face, and expect to come more acutely in the future. Alongside the KRRC, RowZambezi is supporting Village Water, a results-focussed charity, delivering wells in villages and schools in rural Zambia.

The team includes a number of research scientists keen to explore opportunities to gather data for conservation or water-based research, during the expedition. Potential work could include water quality testing, or field observations in areas of interest e.g. animal population density, or settlement numbers.

If you do have any ideas as to how RowZambezi could help your research contact Dr Alex Woods (Oxford-based surgeon and D.Phil in Zoology). To find out more about the expedition, and to sponsor a boat, visit

Day zero

The Oxford Water Network reflects on the past year and looks towards 2018.

As a wet Oxford welcomes the start of Hilary term, the ‘city of dreaming spires’ feels far removed from the impending water crisis unfolding in Cape Town. How South Africa’s second most populous metropolitan area came to face the prospect of being the first major city in the world to run out of water, will no doubt be a hot topic of discussion among our Water Science, Policy and Management Master’s students as they enter their second term at Oxford, and one they may want to ponder in depth in advance of their exams in Trinity.

Towards Day Zero – the shrinking of Cape Town’s reservoirs. NASA

It is questions such as these which the Oxford Water Network (OWN) was established to address, harnessing the power of our diverse research community to support better water management in a complex and uncertain world.

Last term, the OWN hosted a series of events would no doubt be of interest to Cape Town’s policy-makers. In Michaelmas, we began a seminar series on hydroclimatic extremes which continues in Hilary. This touched upon forecasting weather driven natural hazards; fluvial geomorphy, flooding and hydrometry; droughts (at both local and continental scales); and will reach its conclusion this Thursday (Feb 1, 2018), when Prof Louise Heathwaite (Lancaster University) and Enda O’Connell (Newcastle University), address the subject of natural flood risk management. Both speakers are leaders in their fields, and co-authors of the Oxford Martin School’s comprehensive review of the scientific evidence on natural flood management published last year, and led by Dr Simon Dadson of Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment.

The highlight of Michaelmas 2017 was Valuing Water for Sustainable Development: a one-day forum held at Corpus Christi, to advance new approaches to water valuation, finance and allocation. The Cape Town crisis affirms more than ever the need to reconsider how we value water, amid growing scarcity (both in terms of quantity and quality), increased hydroclimatic uncertainty in the context of climate change, and ever-increasing demand.

This event, convened by the Smith School’s Dr Dustin Garrick, current academic co-lead of OWN, built on Water, the economy and sustainable development, a high-level panel event hosted by OWN in collaboration with the World Bank, at the Oxford Martin School in January 2017, alongside associated workshops which informed the World Bank’s Uncharted Waters: The New Economics of Water Scarcity and Variability report published in October 2017. This, along with Dr Garrick’s earlier engagement in various international processes including the United Nations/World Bank High-Level Panel on Water, its Valuing Water Initiative, and the OECD Roundtable on Financing Water, provided the groundwork for the Nov 7 forum and associated Science paper led by Oxford authors, published shortly thereafter.

The event also provided a number of students the opportunity to participate in the event, with some acting as rapporteurs. It was a reminder of the strength of our student and alumni networks, and in 2018 we aim to build on this by launching a student Water Society. If you’d like to get involved, drop me an email.

OWN research

The past year has been a busy one for our researchers. You can find a current list of all water-related projects on the Oxford Water Network website, and follow our news via our news pages, associated newsletter, or follow our Twitter feed. Larger Oxford-based water programmes, such as REACH – Improving water security for the poor), MaRIUS (Managing the Risks, Impacts and Uncertainties of Drought and water Scarcity) and ITRC (UK Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium ) also have their own dedicated websites.

For a review of the REACH programme’s activities over the past year, see their recent tweet-based retrospective on Storify. A number of new REACH partnerships emerged during 2017 including a $15M USAID programme on Sustainable WASH Systems led by University of Colorado Boulder’s Prof Karl Linden.

In Nov 2017, the MaRIUS programme held its MaRIUS-live event in London, detail of which can be found here. Earlier in the year the programme received additional funding from NERC’s UK Drought and Water Scarcity Programme, to extend work until March 2019 via ENDOWS (Engaging diverse stakeholders and publics with outputs from the UK Drought and Water Scarcity programme).

In 2017, the ITRC saw the launch of DAFNI (Data and Analytics Facility for National Infrastructure) – a £8 million new national research facility hosted at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Harwell. Recent water-related outputs from ITRC include a briefing for the National Infrastructure Commission on future water availability scenarios for the UK.

Towards 2018
You can find a current listing of forthcoming water events at the Oxford Water Network website. We’ll shortly begin preparations for our Michaelmas 2018 seminar series, so if you have any ideas for themes, or speakers, get in touch.

In Trinity term, OWN will host a knowledge exchange event exploring ‘water sensing’ on April 26, further detail of which will follow in Hilary. This will bring together sensor designers and those working in water, to help identify sensing problems and potential solutions. We are working with Prof Richard Compton (Chemistry) to convene this event. Richard holds the distinction of having more publications and citations than any of our members. Earlier in 2017, we asked network members ‘how can the Oxford Water Network support your research and improve its impact?’ and Richard responded. This invitation is always open and we welcome dialogue from all our members.

Hosting events is just one many ways OWN supports its members. We can also help with communications and knowledge dissemination via a variety of channels, support funding proposals, and generally help connect people across Oxford’s diverse research landscape and beyond.

The water challenges facing the world, such as those currently experienced by Cape Town, demand action from across and between disciplines: OWN is helping facilitate Oxford University’s response to these challenges.