Work with an Oxford startup this summer!

Oxford Earth Observation (OxEO) combines satellite imagery with computer vision, prediction models and a database of location-specific assets to produce unique insight on water risk under different scenarios. We have funding to complete an ambitious package of work over the rest of 2020, and want to work with people who have technical skills in hydrological modelling and/ or geospatial data. We also have a few paid internships available over the summer. All positions are flexible (PT/FT etc), but you must already have the legal right to work in the UK.

To express your interest please submit this short form by 30 June 2020.

For more interest, contact OWN member, Dr Alex Money.

The impacts of microplastics on aquatic ecosystems: state of the art, modelling and policy for UK rivers-with a River Thames case study

Written by: Jonas Adjasoo, WSPM student 2019-2020 cohort

On the 2nd June 2020, the Oxford Water Network ran a water quality webinar led by eminent scholars; Prof. Paul Whitehead, Dr Ana Castro-Castellon and Dr Jocelyne Hughes.  The webinar focused on sources of microplastics (MPs) and their size distributions, potential impacts on aquatic ecology, the lack and critical gap in standardization of MPs sampling and analysis, alternative strategies for MPs mitigation based on Integrated Catchments (INCA) model, and policy instruments.

We heard from Prof. Paul Whitehead that sources of MPs in the River Thames are derived from effluent discharges, vehicle tyres, fibres from textiles, agriculture (sludge and fertilizers applied to land), packaging from food products, cosmetics, pharmaceutical products and others. These MPs may then enter into the river through runoff and wind flow.

Dr Ana Castro-Castellon further described the size distributions and shapes of microplastics. Microplastics are solid synthetic particles which range in size from 1 µm to <5 mm of regular or irregular shape, are from primary or secondary manufacturing origin, and are insoluble in water. The shape of microplastics can be pellets, fibres, films, fragments, foams etc. In their research, six classes of microplastic were selected and compared to aquatic organisms: first class (≤ 5µm), second class (5 – ≤ 100µm), third class (100 – ≤ 350µm), fourth class (0.35 – ≤ 1mm), fifth class (1 – ≤ 2mm), and sixth class (2- 5mm).

These MPs act as pollutants and stressors disturbing the natural balancing nature of fresh water ecosystems. The impacts of microplastics on freshwater is interdependent on the microplastics’ physico-chemical characteristics, concentration in aquatic habitats, and the eco-physiology of aquatic organisms. Microplastic types such as polyamide, polystyrene, acrylamide and polyvinyl are in chemical composition when manufactured. The first three classes of MPs are hazardous for lower trophic levels and cells. Through time, the MPs endure fragmentation and recycling, potentially enhancing their ability to leach chemicals or serve as an adsorbent to attract pollutants to their surface. These MPs can also be colonized by biofilms, leading to the formation of aggregates. Due to the hydrodynamic forces of the waterbody and climatological conditions, MPs can be concentrated, re-suspended, or their sink rate can be changed.

The impact of microplastics also depends on organism feeding strategies; either direct (planktivorous – feeding on suspended organisms, or Benthivorous – bottom feeders) or indirect (trophic transfer through the food web to higher trophic levels). The impact of microplastics on an organism depends on the developmental stages of the organisms’s life cycle. For example, larval stages of aquatic invertebrates appear to be more sensitive to the damaging effects of microplastics. When compared to adult stages, they are unharmed but some species show morphological behavouiral changes. Experiments on tadpoles indicate biometric and morphological changes as a result of MPs exposure, with bioaccumulation accelerating mortality rate and inducing changes at cellular and molecular level. That being said, contradictory results from other research on the impact of microplastics in freshwater is evident. Differences have emerged between studies that compare acute toxicity experiments (organisms exposed to microplastics for 48-72 hours indicate no harmful impacts to the organism) to chronic toxicity experiments (organisms exposed to microplastics for 5 days or more resulting in morphological and physiological changes). Research also shows that benthic organisms are more affected by microplastics than planktic organisms. The research  suggests that microplastics affect life cycle and species sensitivity, which in turn might affect biodiversity and ecosystem fuctioning.

The webinar also revealed a lack of standardization of MPs sampling and analysis. It is important to recognise that the range of microplastics size collected in research affects the mean abundance of microplastics when reported. In order to obtain a good estimation of the quantity of microplastics that exist in freshwaters, Dr Ana Castro-Castellon posited that there is a need to harmonize sampling. Researchers must  perform fraction filtering when sampling to give a good representation of microplastics size collected. Also, processing the samples for analysis can potentially alter the microplastic chemical properties, mask the microplastics, and amplify the loss of microplastics in the research process, especially when oxidative acid and alkalise are used. This leads to under estimation of MPs abundance. The enzyme digestion process should be considered to avoid misidentification and underestimation of microplastics during analysis.

Moreover, the lack of methods used for characterization and quantification of microplastics is a challenging issue. Optical analysis can identify MPs shape and measurement, but cannot identify the elemental composition of MPs. The use of combined optical and spectroscopy analysis provides an area per unit volume as well as identification and quantification of MPs. Organic chemistry methods such as Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS) provide more information, but are time consuming and expensive. Automated spectroscopy and image analysis seem to be more popular for MPs identification. FTIR (Fourier-Transform-Infrared-micro imaging-spectroscopy), coupled with Focal Plane Array (FPA-FTIR) and MP Hunter software avoids pre-sorting of MPs, and thereby provides data unbiased by the analyst. This allows the identification of MPs with lower size range.

Prof. Paul Whitehead modelled Microplastic in Thames Basin, UK, using the Integrated Catchment (INCA) model. The model was driven by daily climate data (e.g. rainfall, temperature), with inputs (e.g. effluents) via point sources and diffuse sources. The river system was modelled by dividing the Basin into 8 sub catchments; Eynsham, Oxford, Sutton Courtenay, Days Weir, Reading, Staines, Walton and Kingston upon Thames. The model is able to simulate daily fluxes of materials moving down the river. The model specifies the microplastic concentration, simulates the impact on the river and their movement down the river system. From the simulated model profile, microplastics build up down the river system, peaking at sewage treatment work discharge points. The MPs also drop as sediment onto the river bed. The model was used to investigate mitigation strategies; the best strategy mitigated microplastic loads at sewage treatment works by 50%. The model also estimates the build-up of plastics on the riverbed and the fluxes of microplastics moving down the river system into the Thames Estuary/North Sea.

To end the webinar, Dr Jocelyne Hughes, described the ‘source-pathway-receptor’ framework, to investigate policy, legislative and regulatory approaches to MPs mitigation in UK freshwaters. To mitigate MPs, there is a need: to enhance the circular economy; introduce further legislation and enforcement that focuses on plastics such as the ban on microplastic beads in cosmetics in 2018 and charge on single use plastic bags which has  reduced bag usage by 90%.The new  Environment Bill 2020 will serve as an opportunity to enforce regulation to eliminate avoidable plastic waste by 2042. In addition, the EU Plastic Strategy aims to reduce plastic products, for example, by collecting 77% of plastic bottles by 2025 and 90% by 2029 using deposit return schemes. This Plastic Strategy also considers the replacement of plastics in fertilizers with biodegradable polymers by 2026.

The main takeaway messages for webinar attendees is to improve monitoring and standards as a means of regulating sewage sluge, whilst also incentivising the development of non-plastic alternative materials.

Climate Displacement, Humanitarian Needs and Forecast based Financing

OWN member, Lisa Thalheimer, presents at EGU press conference on “Climate Displacement, Humanitarian Needs and Forecast based Financing”.

Watch the presentation here.

Read the blog post here. 

Job Opening: Departmental Lecturer and MSc Course Director; Water Science, Policy and Management (WSPM)

The School of Geography and the Environment is seeking to appoint a Departmental Lecturer and MSc Course Director.  The successful candidate will manage and deliver the MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management (WSPM) in conjunction with the programme’s Academic Director and the Director of Graduate Studies (PGT). The focus of this Masters programme is to develop a critical understanding of natural water science and the socio-economic, political, cultural and institutional environments within which water management decisions are made.

You will lead in the coordination, teaching, marking and supervision for the WSPM course and you will also contribute to the academic administration of the department and maintain an active research and publication profile.

To undertake this role, you will hold, or be close to completion of, a PhD/DPhil in a field closely related to the WSPM Masters programme and have a track record of postdoctoral research and high quality academic publication in an appropriate field. You will also need to demonstrate an awareness of pedagogic methods and the ability to be an effective teacher of graduate students of high ability by lecturing at an appropriate level in an interesting and engaging manner; supervising MSc dissertations; and undertaking student assessments and examinations.

This post, which will be based at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, is a full time, 5-year departmental appointment with no formal college association, though informal relationships may be established on an individual basis.

JOB TITLE: Departmental Lecturer and MSc Course Director; Water Science, Policy and Management (WSPM)



GRADE: Grade 8: £41,526 – £49,553 p.a.

FIXED TERM DURATION OR STATUS: Full time, fixed term for 5 years

CLOSING DATE: 27 May 2020


NOTES: This post is available from 1 July 2020

This post is 80% teaching and course coordination and 20% independent research

Applications are particularly welcome and encouraged from women candidates, who are under-represented in academic posts in SoGE. SoGE is committed to equality and values diversity

COVID-19 amplifies water security inequalities

Dr Katrina Charles, REACH Co-Director and OWN Leadership Team Member, discusses the impacts of COVID-19 on water security inequalities. Read about it here.

Rural water quality monitoring within reach: moving beyond the quantity vs. quality mindset

OWN member and REACH researcher, Saskia Nowicki, argues that substantial improvements in rural water safety will likely remain out of reach unless there is a shift in attitudes towards water quality and quantity. Read about it here.

ECR & PHD opportunities in water governance

13 PhD fully funded 3-years positions in the area of water governance with the NEWAVE Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Network

Here the 13 available Early Stage Researcher/PhD positions descriptions.

With the exception of ESR/PhD project #3, which looks for someone with a natural science/modelling background, the call is looking for candidates with a strong social science background. The ideal requirements for each position can be a bit different, for example specific language skills appropriate for the project field work.

NEWAVE are particularly interested in candidates that have strong professional experience in the field of water and environmental governance (for example NGOs, International Organizations, etc) that can qualify as early stage researchers (mainly no other PhD obtained and less than four years of full time research experience) satisfying specific eligibility requirements.

The deadline for the application has been extended to May 24th 2020. Candidates are expected to start in September-October 2020 and NEWAVE is prepared to adapt to the Covid-19 situation by leveraging remote connection and remote work.

The selected candidates will become the backbone of a stellar actionable research network that includes some of the leading academic and non-academic organizations in the world of water governance including 10 host organizations and 19 partners.

Interested candidates are invited to submit online a proposal only for their preferred option, additionally they can list two alternative preferences among the available positions.

Before applying candidates should read carefully the application information on the NEWAVE website.

For more information, see the exhaustive guide for applicants.

Transformative digitally enabled programme to improve rural water supply and services in Africa

Led by Oxford, DAWN brings together leading academics from universities in Mali, Tanzania and Zambia with OWN members Alex Money, Rob Hope, Partrick Thomson and Johanna Koehler. Project partners include GSMA Mobile for Development Utilities, RWSN and the Uptime consortium.

Commenting on the launch, Alex Money, Principal Investigator said: “Digital services are enablers of sustainable development. DAWN convenes a powerful network, motivated to improve how rural water services are delivered. Covid-19 throws existing challenges in the sector into sharp relief. Solutions are required urgently, and that’s only possible with collaboration.”

The first stage of the programme runs for one year, and will be followed by a competitive call for a longer-term project. For more details of the grant, click here.

Modelling plastics and applications of biosensors to monitor pollution

Monitoring water pollution using molecular biosensors, Bangladesh

As part of the UK REACH project in Bangladesh (, OWN members Paul Whitehead and Cordelia Rampley (Oxford Molecular Biosensors) have been evaluating the new technology of molecular biosensors and how they might be used in water research and pollution/water toxicity issues. Biosensors provide a new way of measuring the environment using the idea that microbes will respond to chemical pollution by altering their metabolism. The team tweak the DNA to enhance the activity of the microbes and also add the DNA of a light emitting gene. The biosensor equipment can then be used to rapidly detect and monitor pollution in rivers and groundwater. (See to understand more about this technology).

Figure 1. Water sampling points along the Turag, Tongi and Balu river systems in central Dhaka and biosensor toxicity data showing the pollution hot spots around this part of the city (lower plot)

Working with colleagues in Bangladesh at BUET (Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology) we have been testing water samples to map toxicity and pollution. We have been comparing toxicity with direct water use along the Turag, Tongi and Balu rivers to assess health impacts. The idea is to assist the Bangladesh Government with restoration of the central Dhaka river systems, to improve water quality and people’s access to clean water, as well as enhance livelihoods along the river system.

Modelling microplastics in the River Thames basin

In a project funded by Oxford University and supported by DEFRA, Paul Whitehead, together with colleagues in Oxford and Associates Daniel Butterfield and Gianba Bussi, have created a new model of microplastics in rivers and applied it to the whole of the River Thames basin.

Figure 2. The eight sub-catchments used to apply the INCA Plastics model to the River Thames basin

The INCA Plastics model has been developed to simulate the transport and distribution of plastics in river systems. It forms a new element of the process- based and dynamic INtegrated CAtchments suite of flow and water quality models. The model has been set up for the Thames from the source at Cricklade to the downstream tidal limit at Teddington Weir. It uses 2008-2018 daily data and effluent discharges and sewage sludge to simulate flows and suspended sediment at various locations along the river.

Figure 3. Simulated and observed flows and suspended sediments at Kingston Upon Thames, for the period 2008-2018

Microplastics data from UKWIR studies have been used to estimate loads of plastics from these sources. A set of mitigation studies have also been undertaken to evaluate the impacts of controlling plastic discharges. Reducing plastic sources by 50% makes a significant difference to the loads of microplastics moving along the Thames.

Figure 4. Microplastics load (kg) moving down the River Thames at different locations for the period 2008-2018. Blue line shows load simulated by the model for existing conditions, and orange line shows alternative results under a mitigation strategy.

The OWN thanks The WRA Bulletin for providing the contents of this news item. The WRA Bulletin is a quarterly publication, and relies on contributions submitted by Partners, Associates and Consultants. The document is circulated by email, and published on the WRA web-site, aiming to keep the WRA network up-to-date with respect to current activities.

EGU Preview

By Marcus Buechel

EGU has such a varied and interesting array of topics that is impossible to keep up with it all; especially when you normally have to run from venue to venue! This year it has gone online and I’ve tried to select a collection of the hydrologically-related topics that you can peruse at your desk. There are many more exciting things to explore so don’t just limit yourself to this list, have a look at: You might even learn how to communicate your science through poetry!

Dates: 4th – 8th May (this week!)
Registration: Not required

(All times stated are Central European Summer Time)

Sessions run by current OHG members:

Session: HS6.3

Session: HS2.4.1

Interesting Sessions

Monday 4th

Session: HS1.1.3

Session: HS2.2.1

Session: NH1.6/AS1.5/HS13.10

Session: HS2.1.5

Session: HS6.2/AS2.5

Session: EOS7.10/HS1.2.8

Session: GM5.1

Tuesday 5th

Session: HS2.1.2/CR3.6

Session: HS6.7

Session: HS2.2.2/AS2.15/BG2.27/NH1.15/NP5.9/OS4.33

Session: CL4.21/AS2.7/HS13.9

Session: HS7.10/NH1.12

Wednesday 6th

Session: HS6.3

Session: HS1.2.3/EOS4.11

Session: HS3.6

Session: HS1.2.6/NP1.6

Session: GM3.6/HS13.34/SSP3.11

Session: HS7.4

Thursday 7th

Session: ITS4.1/NP4.2/AS5.19/CL5.15/ESSI2.5/G6.6/GD10.10/HS3.8/SM1.7

Session: HS2.4.1

Session: HS6.4/BG2.16

Session: US2

Session: HS4.6/CL4.39

Session: HS2.4.2

Session: HS2.5.1

Session: HS10.6/BG3.51

Session: NH3.4/HS13.39

Friday 8th

Session: HS2.4.7

Session: HS2.5.2

Session: US4

Session: HS2.4.3