UNESCO Chair says extraction, more than climate change, is causing rivers to run dry

As global temperature rises, it is predicted that river flow regimes will change, affecting the lives of billions of people. Some countries have already seen a sharp decline in water availability in recent decades. Though it may be tempting to blame climate change, high levels of water extraction may more accurately explain why rivers are running dry, according to Professor Quentin Grafton.

In a guest lecture at Oxford University on 29 October, Professor Quentin Grafton explored reasons behind reduced river flows in four river systems. The research has recently been published in the journal Nature Climate Change. Grafton is the UNESCO Chair in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance and Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment & Policy at the Australian National University.

Grafton’s research focuses on river basins at latitudes where climate change is predicted to exacerbate drying trends. He presented insights from four river systems – Australia’s Murray-Darling, North-America’s Colorado, Southern Africa’s Orange-Senqu and China’s Yellow River – and compared the impacts of water extractions and projected climate change on river flows in these basins.

Historic records show a dramatic decrease in flows in the four rivers. Over the past five years, the median outflow of each river, as a proportion of its modelled natural flow is: 0% for the Colorado, 41% for the Yellow, 12% for the Murray-Darling and 33% for the Orange-Senqu. The Murray-Darling river now stops flowing 40% of the time, compared to just one per cent in the past.

But the science shows that there has not been any long-term decline in rainfall in these areas. Instead, streamflows are declining due to excessive water extractions to meet escalating demand, and therefore poor water governance is to blame.

Bad planning rather than climate change then may underlie the current crisis in the Murray-Darling basin, suggested Grafton. Irrigation is practiced on only two per cent of its area, but accounts for a massive 90% of water extracted from the system. The critical challenge is how to balance water use for irrigation with maintaining flows to keep the river ecosystem healthy.

But these findings are encouraging, Grafton said. By setting up policies and frameworks for better water governance, rehabilitation of these rivers is possible. For example, the Murray-Darling basin is home to the world’s largest water market and this has facilitated the reallocation of water for environmental flows. Crises can catalyse water reform, as long as good evidence is available to support decision making.

By Emma Weisbord, MSc Water Science, Policy and Management

Download Quentin Grafton’s presentation slides

Award-winning programme uses carbon credits to deliver safe water in Kenya

In 2011, nearly 900,000 water filters were distributed to households in Western Kenya, promising access to safe drinking water for 4.5 million people. Oxford University is leading research to evaluate the programme’s impact on diarrhoea, dysentery and dehydration among children under five and people living with HIV.

LifeStraw® Carbon for Water is an innovative public health programme which distributes LifeStraw Family water filters to households in Western Kenya, enabling citizens to safely treat water in their own home.

The ten-year programme is implemented by the private company Vestergaard Frandsen in partnership with the Kenyan Government. It is one of the largest water treatment programmes realised without public-sector funding, and the first ever to be supported by carbon financing.

By using LifeStraw filters, families no longer need to purify their water through boiling, which means less firewood is burned as fuel. Vestergaard Frandsen claims carbon credits for the greenhouse gas emissions saved, which can then be sold and the revenue used to cover programme costs.

Crucially, carbon credits can only be obtained once it is shown that the filters are being regularly used. The certification methodology was designed by the Oxford-based organisation ClimateCare, and ensures that the programme delivers real and long-lasting sustainable development benefits. This results-driven system incentivises important investments in health education and robust monitoring systems.

The programme was chosen by the United Nations Climate Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as one of their landmark ‘lighthouse activities’ which help developing countries to curb their greenhouse gas emissions or adapt to climate change. It will be showcased at the COP18 Climate Change Conference in Doha, Qatar, at the end of November.

It is expected that the use of LifeStraw, alongside the provision of health and hygiene education, will significantly reduce the risk of contamination and illness. Dr John Haskew, an Academic Clinic Fellow at Oxford University’s Department for Public Health, is leading the health impact evaluation, which makes use of cutting-edge mobile phone technology and electronic medical records.

The health impact studies focus on populations most vulnerable to water-borne diseases. The Oxford-led team is evaluating the impact of the programme on diarrhoea and dehydration among children under five years old. They will also establish whether the use of LifeStraw can reduce rates of diarrhoea and infection among people with HIV, and even delay the development of the HIV disease itself.

Watch a video about the LifeStraw Carbon for Water programme

A new owner of a LifeStraw Family water filter in Western Province, Kenya. Photo: Vestergaard Frandsen

Dr Harry Verhoeven finalist of the Global Water Forum’s Emerging Scholars Award

Dr Harry Verhoeven was selected as one of ten finalists in the Global Water Forum’s Emerging Scholars Award, judged from around 800 entries on the themes of ‘water security’, ‘water economics’, and ‘transboundary water governance’.  The Award called for early-career scholars and practitioners working in water-related fields to publish an article that presents their research, project, or opinion to a global audience. The articles were judged by water researchers from the Australian National University.

Harry’s article ‘Big is beautiful: Megadams, African water security, and China’s role in the new global political economy’ looks at the role of dams in development and energy production at a global scale. It argues that the increasing reliance on megadams to fuel development and secure energy, led by China, fails to take into account their ecological impacts. He concludes that while large dams may be alluring to Chinese investors and African regimes, “their long-term contribution to water security in the climate change era remains deeply questionable”.

You can read Harry’s article, as well as the other finalists’ entries on the Global Water Forum’s website.

Harry Verhoeven is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Politics and International Relations, teaches African Politics, and is the Convenor of the Oxford University China-Africa Network.


Feature publication: How will 1°C, 2°C, 3°C, and 4°C global temperature rise affect rainfall in Africa?

Climate change mitigation debates focus on how many degrees of global temperature rise should be avoided. 2 °C has emerged as a benchmark for danger, with severe impacts on water security, food security and human well-being anticipated. However, there is limited research on the implications of this change for Africa. It is also little understand how change will occur as global temperature increases – will it be incremental or will there be sudden and nonlinear shifts?

A new study by Rachel James and Professor Richard Washington at Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment addresses these important questions and examines the changes in rainfall in Africa with 1 °C, 2 °C, 3 °C, and 4 °C of global warming. Models project risks associated with 2 °C and beyond, with increasing changes in rainfall projected as global temperature increases. A closer look at regional variations shows Southern Africa, the Guinea Coast and the west of the Sahel getting wetter, while East Africa becomes drier. These changes could have severe implications for society.


James, R. and Washington, R. (2012) Changes in African temperature and precipitation associated with degrees of global warming. Climatic Change. DOI: 10.1007/s10584-012-0581-7

Water scarcity to drive conflict, hit food and energy, experts say

Reuters AlertNet, Laurie Goering, 17/04/2012

Water is increasingly becoming a scarce resource and shortages could drive conflict, hit food and energy production, and threaten growth in renewable energy technology, experts warned at a water security conference on Monday.

And climate change – which appears to be bringing more extreme weather events such as droughts and floods – is likely to make the situation even more difficult, they said.

Article includes quotes from David Grey, a University of Oxford water expert; Ian Walmsley, pro-vice chancellor for research at the University of Oxford; and Jim Hall, an expert on water and risk at the Oxford Environmental Change Institute.