Sayers’ work on Nature-Based Solutions in Russia

Recently, Paul Sayers has secured funding to explore the nature-based solutions (NBS) opportunities across Russia. As part of this work, he presented on 12 November at the ‘Nature-based solutions: the IUCN global standards and programmes in Russia’ workshop. Other participants included Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Russian Federation Deborah Bronnert CMG, the Minister for Pacific and the Environment Lord Zac Goldsmith, and experts from IUCN, WWF Russia, UNIDO and UNEP.

To learn more about NBS in Russia, you can view the event here:


Osney Lock: Colouring “management” 

by Will O’Sullivan, WSPM 2020-2021

Our focus was tested on Friday November 5th. My classmates and I stood next to the river Thames under leaves just beginning to turn for autumnThat day, there were reports about the unprecedented national case-count of Covid-19 (as passersby unmistakably gave us “the side-eye” for our large group) and the US presidential election was unfolding in a crawling photo-finish (news of which was blaring out of a nearby radio). In this momentous context, we shut it all out, knuckled down and delveinto the subject of an Archimedes screwdriven hydropower project on west Oxford’s Osney island. My first question was ‘What is unique about this project? 

The idea initially came about in 2002 among some friends iThe Punter, a pub a stone’s throw from the lock. Work began on the hydropower site in 2013 and electricity was first generated two years after thatAll the hydro project’s investors are guaranteed (with some risk) a 4% return. The screw is quiet and the artificial reeds lining the fish pass allow them to rest as they swim freely upstream, a significant benefit for the river’s biodiversity and one that is shared by the Sandford hydro project a half hour’s cycle away. The electricity is sold to the nearby Environment Agency depot, and the excess is used to power households locally. The annual target production of 180 kWh is enough to power 2 million kettles. 

With so many benefits and, for an infrastructure project, a comparatively painless inception (let alone for a project without large corporate backing), the question evolved from what is so unique about the project?’ to why is the project so unique? 

Ali, the project’s manager, pointed to funding and careful management; he specifically mentioned that, without the government grant for sustainable technology funding that recently ceased, this kind of project will be impossible. The prohibitive costs of damming the river and building the concrete base would stymie any similar project before it started. Meanwhile, the community project’s collaboration with the Environment Agency ensured a regular buyer of the energy, as well as a collaborator in finely managing the conditions of the river to ensure the screw turns and the area benefits. Ali has an app on his phone that he can use to check the status of the plant remotely. 


In the title of our Water Science, Policy and Management course, “management” can sometimes seem secondary in what’s already a mouthful. At best, it might be an afterthought to the clear battle-cries of “science” and “policy” and, at worst, a neutral way of what can be disastrous human intervention in environmental projects. 

But for me this excursion to Osney gave colour to the word “management”. 

big factor in the Archimedes’ screw working is the hydraulic head”: the distance between the elevation of the water when it enters and leaves the system. It’s an invisible, ambient factor that is nevertheless crucial in driving the huge, churning screw. (When rains fill nearby aquifers and the pool at the bottom of the screw, the river height belois raised, thereby decreasing the height difference from top to bottom. This has the consequence that, counter-intuitively, the screw doesn’t work as well in winter when the river is most full.) 

Here is a video of the hydraulic head:

I left the site feeling that management is just a name for the invisible human ingenuity and care that lies behind the physical aspects of water (the science) and the technical nous (the policy) in water projects. Much like the hydraulic “head”, it is the invisible force driving the whole system. For this small Archimedes screw and the largest dams in the world, everything depends on that care... 

and also government grants. 

Thanks to Troy and Helenour teachers, and to Ali Lloyd of Osney Lock Hydro, who led us through the hydropower project’s history and context. 

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DAWN – Digital Africa Water Network 

The Digital Africa Water Network (DAWN), a UKRI programme led by the University of Oxford, brings service providers, universities and enabling organisations together to explore the potential for digital technology to accelerate the development of water services in rural Africa, where over 50% of the population are without even basic drinking water. In November, the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment hosted three DAWN workshops focusing on what digital approaches can do to a) develop innovative finance and business models for sustainable service delivery (led by Alex Money and Rob Hope); b) standardize water service performance measurement and verification (led by Patrick Thomson and Duncan McNicholl; c) enhance accountability in the water sector and inform useful government and institutional reform (led by Johanna Koehler and Rob Hope). DAWN is currently funded via a Phase I Digital Innovation for Development in Africa grant from the Global Challenges Research Fund. For further information, contact dawn@smithschool.ox.ac.uk



The Meaning of “Natural”: Otmoor RSPB Reserve

By Medha Mukherjee, WSPM ’20-21

Photo by William O’Sullivan, WSPM ’20-21

As the global population continues to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, a team of Water Science, Policy and Management (WSPM) students, embarked on an induction field trip to the Otmoor RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) Reserve on a cold October morning. They were ready to wade through the wetlands in small groups, keeping their face masks on and walking two meters apart but grateful to experience something in person months into the new Covid reality of 2020. The objective was to understand the historical background of the wetlands to be able to critically engage with its current contexts of maintaining water quality, managing water levels along with natural flood management, which are in place to meet the RSPB’s aim of nurturing certain bird species. But all through the trip led by their Course Director Dr. Jocelyne Hughes, Dr. Troy Stenberg and Patrick Thomson, one vital question kept coming to the surface – What does “natural” really mean in a highly manipulated freshwater ecosystem?

Located to the northeast of Oxford, Otmoor is a low-lying area of roughly 1000 hectares, the social history of which relates directly to its current hydrological and environmental issues. Once a marshland, with the River Ray as its primary source of water, Otmoor was drained after the 1815 Act of Enclosure, and the River Ray rechanneled, in an attempt to turn the wetland into a farmland. The move had disastrous effects, causing severe downstream floods with the villagers rioting and breaking the embankments to let Otmoor flood naturally again. Then in 1997, the RSPB established the nature reserve, isolating the wetland from the river system. It is now a precipitation-based wetland, with a strong water balancing system in place for the creation of a conducive habitat for bird species such as snipe, redshank, lapwing and others, in a rather expensive attempt to control the ecosystem. The water levels are maintained with the help of pump stations up and down the reserve, with trenches cutting through the grasslands, and scrapes and surface ponds dug out to hold water. To further conserve biodiversity, cows are used to graze out dominant plant species and increase biodiversity, and electric fences keep predators such as foxes and badgers out, thus ensuring a safe nesting ground for the birds. One student commented how surprised he had been that a seemingly pristine wetland was actually sustained with hidden pipes and pumps.

The WSPM team was joined by Heather Bond, an Oxford WSPM alumna currently working for the Environmental Agency, who further explained the hard engineering approaches for natural flood risk management and the efforts to create an optimal balance between letting the wetlands flood naturally, and keeping the rising water levels from affecting nearby farmlands and villagers. As the students stood on a bund constructed for flood risk mitigation, they looked out onto the vast green stretch of serene wetlands under the pouring grey sky, realizing how the sheer magnificence of this “natural” habitat is actually held in place and carefully managed by a highly mechanized system. Thinking about the meaning of “natural” in the age of the Anthropocene, thus, becomes a moral imperative in environmental and socio-political enquiry.

Owing to increasing rainfall, the field trip finally ended in a barn with a deeply insightful session conducted by two local female farmers who manage an award-winning flock of sheep at the nearby Hill End Farm in Noke. They shared first-hand experiences of living in a wetland area, tackling the binary of either being too wet or too dry—the need for a very delicate balance to maintain equilibrium for natural wildlife and the sheep–while dealing with water pollution from raw sewage discharge, which is poorly managed by a private utility company.

Two days later, Hill End Farm messaged the group about the weekend of rain, “I had to evacuate the ewes out of the lower field yesterday morning. I recorded 50mm in 24 hours…It does seem weather patterns are changing.” In some locations 50mm in a day would be high but not unusual. In Oxfordshire, that amount marked the highest amount of rainfall in 24 hours since observations began in 1827. On this field trip, students had seen first-hand humans have manipulated the environment at Otmoor to ensure co-existence between wildlife and humans, but can that balance be maintained by anthropogenic activities when it comes up against the looming extremes of water in the climate change crisis, also propelled by anthropogenic activities?


Turning MSc research into a short film

As a new cohort of WSPM start at Oxford, it’s inspiring to see where they may be in just a few years.

Esteban Boj García, WSPM alumn from the 2018/2019 cohort, and with the help of others has transformed his MSc research for his dissertation into a short film entitled ‘Los Conductores del Agua – The Drivers of Water’’. It documents the impacts of climate change in accessing water in the city of Morelia, Mexico. In the summer months of the WSPM MSc programme, students undertake an original research dissertation as part of their course, involving field work in the social sciences or natural sciences, either in their home country or overseas. Students undertake primary data collection on applied water resources management. The micro-documentary is based on Esteban’s MSc dissertation research fieldwork about the role of water tankers in the urban water supply context.

The documentary was selected as a finalist in the We Art Water International Film Festival. The festival includes an Audience Award. Below are instructions from Esteban on how to vote if you would like to support his short film for the Audience Award before the deadline of 20 October 2020.

1. Go to https://filmfestival.wearewater.org/en/vote_337081
2. Watch our 3-minute micro-documentary ‘‘Los Conductores del Agua – The Drivers of Water’’.
3. Below the text to your right-hand side, scroll down and click on ‘register’.
4. Fill in your personal details.
5. Check your email inbox or spam folder and click on the verification link to complete the registration process.
6. Go back to the website and vote for our video.
7. Thanks for your help! 


Welcome to WSPM 2020-2021 Cohort

While this year is the most unusual start for a new cohort to date, we are thrilled to welcome them (in person or virtually)! Since 2004, every autumn has brought a new cohort of students from around the world to attend the University of Oxford to study Water Science, Policy and Management (WSPM) on a masters course.  Dr Jocelyne Hughes, Course Director, and Prof. Robert Hope, Academic Lead for WSPM, are especially excited for this cohort to have their Induction on 1 October.

These students hail from fifteen countries around the world and a variety of backgrounds–some just out of undergraduate studies while others are returning to academia after time in the work force. They are coming from a variety of sectoral backgrounds, which will add richness to discussions and fit perfectly with this interdisciplinary course cross-cutting themes in economics, climate and catchment processes, governance, water quality, water and health, water policy and management. This year-long MSc course enables students to develop a theoretically sophisticated and empirically grounded understanding of sustainable water management. Including this group, almost 400 students have enrolled in WSPM since it began in 2004.

2019 marked the 15th anniversary of the programme, and to celebrate an Anniversary Fund was created to help WSPM students pursue overseas work for their dissertations.

Unlocking Africa’s Groundwater Potential

Unlocking the Potential of Groundwater for the Poor (UPGro), has been a seven-year international research programme (2013-2020), funded by the UK Department for International Development, Natural Environment Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council. Nearly 200 of the world’s best researchers from more than 50 organisations across Africa and Europe have been focused on improving the evidence base around groundwater availability and management in Sub-Saharan Africa. The goal has been to ensure that the hidden wealth of Africa’s aquifers benefit all citizens and the poorest in particular. UPGro projects are interdisciplinary, linking the social and natural sciences to address this challenge.




OWN member selected for Bosch Academy for Transformational Leadership

Congratulations to OWN member and REACH researcher, Dr Johanna Koehler, on being selected for the Bosch Academy for Transformational Leadership. The award is a 2 year programme with scholars across Europe, tackling environmental challenges in a globalised world.

Connecting fields to the river

By John Boardman, Environmental Change Institute

River pollution is a major problem with few rivers in the UK measuring up to the ‘Good’ standard under Water Framework Directive criteria.  Concerns are about ecological damage, voiced by the angling community, and the costs of purification borne by water companies and therefore consumers.

Pollution comes in many forms – when my grandson (8) swims in the Thames he asks me ‘Will I find a Shopping Trolley?’ In rural England, N and P, pesticides and metaldehyde (slug pellets) are pollutants. Damage to fisheries is often the result of fine sediments coating the beds of former gravel-based streams. Over 70% of fine sediment in watercourses in England and Wales is from agricultural sources.

The problems are acute and challenging in areas of intensive arable farming, an example being the Rother valley in West Sussex (Figure 1). Fertile, easily worked but erodible soils are used to grow winter cereals, maize, potatoes, vegetables, salad crops and asparagus.  Most fields in the low-lying belt near to the river are under crops, some with irrigation adding to the risk of runoff.

Figure 1. The Rother valley and fields with a history of erosion since 1987

Erosion in the form of gullies, rills or wash is a frequent occurrence and we have a database of almost 200 fields with a history of erosion since 1987 (Figure 2). This is based on one-off surveys, remote sensing, including Google Earth, and systematic monitoring of all the fields in the last five years.

Figure 2. Erosion near Petworth on a winter cereal field, February 2014

The threat to the river is not so much a result of high erosion rates (these occur occasionally), as the degree of connectivity between arable fields and the river.  Of the 200 fields about 68% are potentially connected to the river: runoff and sediment reaching the river by various routes (Figure 3). At times of exceptional erosion and during storms it is possible to map routeways and points at which sediment enters the river. This is not a task for the faint-hearted or for modellers. Maps and models are poor predictors of pathways of flow. They tell us little about field boundaries: are they permeable or impermeable?  We also need field evidence for the condition of ditches (cleaned or overgrown?) and the presence of culverts between fields and under roads. This is not to deny the usefulness of technology. Google Earth, when one is fortunate with the date of the image, is brilliant!

Figure 3. Routes from the fields to the river

Understanding patterns of connectivity gives us a chance to design mitigation measures to protect the river. In the Rother valley this is an ongoing challenge because with a predominance of high value crops it is not easy to persuade farmers to adopt less risky land use options. Also, detaining coarse sediment (sand) is not difficult but fine sediment tends to travel with the runoff and reach the river via leaky mitigation measures.

This research has been a co-operative effort. I thank Professor Ian Foster (Northampton), South Downs National Park, the Arun and Rother Rivers Trust, Catchment Sensitive Farming, Southern Water and the Environment Agency for help and data.

Further reading

Boardman, J. 2016. The value of Google Earth for erosion mapping. Catena 143, 123-127

Boardman, J. Vandaele, K., Evans, R., Foster, I.D.L. 2019. Off-site impacts of soil erosion and runoff: why connectivity is more important than erosion rates. Soil Use and Management 35(2), 245-256DOI: 10.1111/sum.12496

Impacts of drought on water intakes for Power Stations

As part of the NERC- Oxford ENDOWS/MARIUS Drought Project, Prof Paul Whitehead and Dr Gianba Bussi have undertaken a water quality modelling study on the River Trent. The aim was to assess the potential impacts of drought on water intakes for Power Stations on the Trent. INCA Flow, N, P Sediments, DO and BOD models were set up for the Trent catchment.  A set of drought scenarios based on the Oxford Weather@home data sets were used to drive the models and assess impacts on flows and water quality. Power plants use river waters for cooling purposes and can be sensitive to droughts and low flows. Water quality is also a concern, due to algal blooms and sediment loads that might clog filters. Paul and Gianba assessed the impacts of droughts on river flow and water quality from the point of view of power plant operation. The INCA (INtegrated CAtchment) water quality model was coupled with the weatrher@home climate model to create a dataset of flow and water quality time series. The results suggest a significant decrease in flows and an increase in phosphorus concentrations, potentially enhancing algal production. Power plants should expect more stress in the future based on the results of this study, due to reduced cooling water availability and decreasing upstream water quality. This issue might have serious consequences also on the whole national power network.

Fig 1: River Trent Topography and INCA Reach Boundaries

Fig 2: Impacts of Climate Change (near future and far future) on distributions of the average concentration of nitrate and phosphorus during droughts (top row) and maximum concentration of nitrate and phosphorus during droughts (bottom row) for the River Trent at the catchment outlet (Reach 10).

See more: Bussi, G., P.G. Whitehead. 2020. Impacts of droughts on low flows and water quality near power stations. Hydrological Sciences Journal, doi: 10.1080/02626667.2020.1724295.