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Learning to live with floods and droughts

A panel discussion on Living with Floods and Droughts: Adapting to Hydro-Climatic Extremes was held at the School of Geography and the Environment on 1 December 2014, and brought together a number of water and climate experts in the field.

Dr Simon Dadson, School of Geography and the Environment, chaired the event and highlighted the huge impacts that floods and droughts can have in both developed and developing countries. Examples include the 2013/14 floods in the UK and the 2011 floods in Thailand which caused an estimated $43 billion in economic losses.

At the other end of the hydrological spectrum, a severe drought in 2008 led the city of Barcelona to import water in tankers from France. East African droughts in 2010/11 brought about a devastating humanitarian crisis which counted 260,000 deaths and 1 million refugees.

Dr Dadson invited the panel to reflect on how flood and drought risks might change under future scenarios of climate change, and what actions could be taken to adapt to these changes.

Professor Jim Hall, Director of the Environmental Change Institute, said that we have tended to cope with floods and droughts reactively in the past, with extreme events triggering policy action only after they have occurred.

However, he said that a transition is underway to a risk-based approach which bases decision making on a much broader range of possible events and consequences that might occur in the future. This “quiet revolution of thinking and methodology” in risk analysis means that we are better than ever equipped to live with floods and droughts, he said.

“The single most important asset we have to manage present and future risks from extreme floods and droughts is the long-term observational record” said Professor Rob Wilby from Loughborough University. He stressed the value of using historic records and information from climate models to understand the processes driving extreme events and how risks change through time.

Climate models can be used to predict future risks. However as Dr Richard Betts, Head of Climate Impacts at the Met Office pointed out, different models can produce widely varying results and it is impossible to test their accuracy. There is work to be done both in improving the science, and in improving the communication of uncertainties, he said.

Drawing on expertise in climate change adaptation in developing countries, Professor Declan Conway from the London School of Economics and Political Science reminded the audience that the adaptation process has many steps and the production of climate scenarios is just one step.

Professor Conway reflected on what lessons from climate change adaptation in the UK might be relevant for developing countries. In this country, legislation has played an important role in forcing institutions to assess and act on risks facing society. He also mentioned the importance of monitoring – of changes that are occurring now, the consequences of those changes, and the effect of adaptation policies.

Professor Mike Acreman of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology said that natural ecosystems are completely adapted to floods and droughts as these events are all part of the natural cycle. Floods or droughts can only been seen as ‘good or ‘bad’ when considering how they impact human uses of the environment.

The natural environment can play a role in influencing the hydrological cycle, Professor Acreman said, but only on a small scale and to a limited degree. For example, restoring wetlands can help store floodwater and release it slowly during drier periods. Payments for ecosystem services may provide a mechanism to fund conservation and restoration of the natural environment to help combat future floods.

Panel discussion debates the role of dams in Africa’s development

Six distinguished speakers came together on 24 November 2014 to tackle the much debated topic of ‘Africa, Dams and Development’ in a panel discussion organised by the Oxford Water Network and the Oxford Martin Programme on Resource Stewardship.

dams panel

Dr Rob Hope, Director of the Water Programme at the Smith School for Enterprise and the Environment, chaired the event and asked the panellists, “how can dams better balance economic growth, environmental sustainability and human development in Africa?”

He pointed out that less than 10% of the hydroelectric power potential in Africa is developed. But there are major projects planned to change this, such as the Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia, the High Grand Falls Dam in Kenya, Inga 3 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Kandadji in Niger.

David Grey, Visiting Professor of Water Policy at the School of Geography and the Environment, said that Africa is deeply water insecure, food insecure and energy insecure. The continent faces exceptionally high variability in water both between and within years, and storage is essential for coping with this ‘difficult hydrology’, he said.

Professor Grey argued that “of course Africa needs dams”, but good dams and not bad dams. He highlighted the importance of learning lessons from the 23,427 large dams that have been built worldwide, very few of which are in Africa.

Michael Norton, a civil engineer and Global Water Director at Amec Foster Wheeler said that he supported the construction of large dams in Africa in principle. “Storing water at times when it’s plentiful for times when it isn’t is an extremely effective and sustainable technique to meet mankind’s drinking, food and energy needs,” he said. However, he urged for all forms of storage, not just dams, to be considered in terms of their costs, risks and benefits.

“Dams are simply not worth the cost” was the message given by Dr Atif Ansar, Lecturer at the Blavatnik School of Government. He presented a study of 269 large dam projects across the world which showed excessive cost overruns. The analysis revealed that actual costs more than double for two out of ten dams, and triple for one out of ten dams.

The theme of costs was continued by Dr Judith Plummer who presented her research at Cambridge University on the cost of delays in dam construction. She said that the impact of delays can be devastating for countries that actually need the dams. She also emphasised that the benefits of dams are hugely underestimated as they are difficult to value.

Jamie Skinner, who leads the Water Team at the International Institute for Environment and Development, considered the impacts of dams on biodiversity and ecosystems and asked “who will stand up for the environment?” Where government priorities favour development over environment priorities, there may be more traction in promoting the maintenance of ecosystem services of value to people, he said.

According to Skinner, African countries consider the World Bank as a donor of last resort because of their stringent requirements for ecosystem sustainability, whereas finance from China demands very few, if any environmental safeguards.

Dr David Turton, a Senior Research Fellow at the African Studies Centre, concluded the panel presentations with a case study of the Gibe III Dam in Ethiopia, where the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people in the lower Omo Basin will be affected by the dam.

“Dams must be made into development opportunities for the people that have to get out of the way to make them possible”, said Dr Turton. The principles for achieving this, he said, are widely accepted in theory but ignored in practice: open and transparent information sharing; meaningful consultation; and compensation, benefit sharing and livelihood reconstruction.

The presentation slides and video webcast are available online

Coping with the curse of freshwater variability

Oxford scientists say that institutions, infrastructure and information are the key ingredients for coping with freshwater variability and enabling economic growth, in an article published in Science.

The authors, which include Prof Jim Hall, Prof David Grey and Dr Simon Dadson, say that a key challenge to achieving water security is managing the risks posed by variable and unpredictable freshwater resources. Building resilience to these risks requires a transformation in the way investments are made.

Extreme events such as floods and droughts are hard to predict and future changes in variability are highly uncertain. The article highlights three dimensions of freshwater variability: change within the year (seasonal and monthly), year-to-year, and the unpredictable timing and intensity of extremes. When these three dimensions combine the situation is “most challenging – a wicked combination of hydrology that confronts the world’s poorest people,” say the authors.

The article warns that the inability to cope with variability can place serious burdens on society and the economy. Extreme events such as droughts and floods have ripple effects through the economy. For example, floods in Thailand in 2011 caused $43 billion in losses. Meanwhile in Ethiopia economic growth is 38% less that what would be expected based on average rainfall, due to the country’s complex hydrology.

Countries can do very little about their natural endowment of water: when and where it rains and how much water evaporates, infiltrates into the ground, and runs into rivers and lakes. However for those countries burdened with highly variable hydrology, investment in water management can help buy their way out of water insecurity.

The study’s analysis shows that countries that have achieved economic growth, despite high variability in freshwater resources, have invested heavily to reduce risk. In river basins with complex hydrology where there has been low investment, the economy suffers.

Countries along river basins with less variability are more wealthy, even though investments have sometimes been quite modest. Where the hydrology is highly variable, additional investment is needed to transition from water-insecure to secure, but this is least affordable and hardest to deliver in the poorest countries. Climate change may increase variability further, making water security an even more distant goal for countries already underequipped to cope.

F2

 

The authors highlight “the three ‘I’s” as essential for adapting to freshwater variability: institutions and good governance (such as river basin organisations, legal systems, and water pricing), infrastructure (such as water storage, wastewater treatment, groundwater wells) and information (including monitoring, forecast and warning systems, and modelling tools).

Crucially, coping with variability involves a combination of institutions, infrastructure and information – rarely will they generate their full benefits alone.

The article calls for a new approach to investing in water security. A broader and longer-term vision is needed that looks beyond individual projects to the sequence of investments that can create a pathway to water security. Context also matters when it comes to what combination and sequence of investments are needed.

This new approach will focus on risks, trade-offs and uncertainties to enable decision-makers to choose between alternative investment pathways and build a more water secure future.

This research stems from the work of a global Task Force on Water Security and Sustainable Growth, an initiative of the Global Water Partnership and OECD, co-chaired by Oxford University’s Professor Jim Hall and Professor David Grey.

Reference

Hall, J.W., Grey, D., Garrick, D., Fung, F., Brown, C., Dadson, S.J. and Sadoff, C.W. (2014) Coping with the curse of freshwater variability. Science, 346(6208): 429-430.

Water research with policy impact in Kenya

Oxford’s smart handpump research has been recognised by in the Government of Kenya’s Water Services Regulatory Board’s (WASREB) annual Impact Report.

Eng Robert Gakubia, CEO of WASREB, identifies the continuing challenge of attaining national targets for urban and rural water with the need to explore innovative approaches highlighting the “interesting work done in Kitui County” by Oxford University in a a special section.

The Smart Handpump research and implementation has been led by Patrick Thomson and Rob Hope with colleagues in the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, the School of Geography and the Environment, and the Department of Engineering Science with funding from ESRC, NERC, DFID and the Skoll Centre, see: http://www.smithschool.ox.ac.uk/research/water-programme/

Read the Impact Report

Rural water sustainability in Africa

UNICEF has signed a partnership agreement with Oxford University to test new models for rural water sustainability in Africa.

The two year programme of work is led by Dr Rob Hope with Professor David Bradley, Patrick Thomson and Johanna Koehler, and government and private sector collaborators in Kenya. The work builds on an earlier DFID funded project with the second phase expected to deliver:

  • A scalar and replicable model for the sustainable delivery of rural water services.
  • A pre-payment system that underpins a business model for long-term, local sustainability.
  • Measuring health and burden impacts related to handpump functionality and failure events.

The primary study location is Kitui County, Kenya, with a programme of collaborative initiatives with UNICEF’s 21 country offices in the East and Southern Africa region. Watch a video and read the report from the first phase of this work.

unicef

 

University of Oxford and University of Khartoum explore collaboration

In September, members from the Oxford Water Network hosted Professor Gamal Abdo, Director of the Water Research Centre of the University of Khartoum, Sudan.

<em>Professor Mike Edmunds and Professor Gamal Abdo</em>

Professor Mike Edmunds and Professor Gamal Abdo

This four day meeting emerged from two ongoing relationships including 25 years of collaboration between Oxford Professor Mike Edmunds and Professor Abdo in the field of groundwater hydrology, and DPhil Candidate Kevin Wheeler’s work in seeking collaborative trans-boundary river management alternatives through consulting with the Nile Basin Initiative.

Professor Abdo met with faculty and students from the School of Geography and Environment, Environmental Change Institute, and the Department of Politics and International Relations to discuss the possibilities for collaboration in educational resources, research opportunities and knowledge dissemination.

A number of educational collaboration mechanisms were identified for further exploration including course and lecture support, bibliographic support, and expanded bilateral MSc and DPhil student support.

The potential for furthering research collaboration emerged through shared interest in Professor Edmunds hydrological and hydrogeological studies in Sudan, Dr Simon Dadson’s research on the effect of water management strategies on land-atmosphere feedbacks in Africa, and Kevin Wheeler’s ongoing work on impacts of Ethiopian dam operations on Sudanese water security.

We welcome any additional expressions of interest from members of the University to conduct water-related work with University of Khartoum – please contact Mike Edmunds wme@btopenworld.com

Groundwater and poverty research in Marrakech

Oxford University research on Unlocking the Potential of Groundwater for the Poor (UPGro) was presented at the International Association of Hydrogeologists in Marrakech, Morocco in September.

Jacob Mutua Representing the NERC catalyst grant led by Dr Rob Hope, Jacob Mutua (pictured on right) presented results from the Kwale study site in Kenya linking groundwater science with institutional and poverty assessments. Jacob is part of an international consortium including Kenyan universities (University of Nairobi, JKUAT), government and private sector (RFL Ltd., Base Titanium Ltd., KISCOL) and the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC). Jacob is now starting the DPhil programme at the School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford, with matched funding from Base Titanium and Oxford University.

To find out more about the research, view the poster ‘Groundwater risks and institutional responses, Kwale County, Kenya

 

Developing practical strategies for cooperation in the Nile basin

Kevin Wheeler, DPhil candidate at the Environmental Change Institute, recently presented his work on alternative management strategies of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the effects on the distribution of benefits among the Nile Basin countries of Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.

Staff from the Sudan Ministry of Water Resources, Dam Implementation Unit and University of Khartoum learn how to use and develop the Eastern Nile RiverWare model

Staff from the Sudan Ministry of Water Resources, Dam Implementation Unit and University of Khartoum learn how to use and develop the Eastern Nile RiverWare model

He presented both at a workshop on Sustainable Hydropower in the 2014 World Water Week in Stockholm (31 August to 5 September) and was a panellist at the HydroVision International conference in Nashville Tennessee (22-25 July) in a session on ‘Sharing water across borders’.

This work followed from Kevin’s 2013 dissertation research for the MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management, in which he conducted interviews in Cairo Egypt, Khartoum Sudan, and Addis Ababa Ethiopia. He taught RiverWare modelling courses in each country to water ministry officials, university academics, sub-basin organisations and private consultants. Together with these stakeholders, he developed various management scenarios for the operation of the contentious Ethiopian Dam, which is currently being constructed on the Ethiopian-Sudanese border.

The MSc research, which was awarded the Water Conservators’ Prize for Best Dissertation, demonstrated how benefits and costs are distributed under different dam management practices and highlighted the tradeoffs associated with these practices. More importantly, this work empowered stakeholders within the basin by teaching them a practical tool that can be used to facilitate the ongoing negotiations between the countries.

Kevin is continuing this work in his DPhil to examine both theoretical and practical mechanisms of collaboration through dam operations under various hydrologic conditions and the implications on trans-boundary water security across different populations.

More information on issues surrounding the Nile Development can be found at:
http://www.scidev.net/global/energy/multimedia/ethiopia-millennium-dam-science-controversy.html

Harry Verhoeven speaks about the water-food-energy nexus

Dr Harry Verhoeven was a speaker at the international conference on the water-food-energy nexus in drylands held in Rabat, Morocco on 11-14 June 2014. In a video interview, he highlights the politics behind how the nexus is defined and addressed.

The conference ‘Water-Food-Energy Nexus in Drylands: Bridging Science and Policy‘ gathered international experts to discuss the impacts of climate change and water scarcity and potential solutions in the fields of agriculture, water management, agro-business and energy. Speakers provided analyses and recommendations on how to address the interrelations between water, food and energy in global drylands, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.

Dr Harry Verhoeven gave a presentation on the nexus and the Nile. Using the example of Egypt, he argued that politically crafted interconnections between water scarcity, food production and energy security have been the foundation of modernist dreams, state-building projects and regime consolidation strategies for generations.

The conference was organised by the OCP Policy Center in partnership with the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB), King’s College London and Texas A&M University.

Dr Harry Verhoeven teaches African Politics at the Department of Politics & International Relations, University of Oxford, and he is a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College. He is the Convenor of the Oxford University China-Africa Network and the Oxford Central Africa Forum.

Working with the Government of Bangladesh to tackle poverty and environmental challenges in the Delta

Oxford University was recently involved in a national-level stakeholder workshop in Dhaka, Bangladesh, aimed at engaging government and stakeholder groups in the development of tools, information and strategies for poverty alleviation and environmental management in coastal Bangladesh.

The workshop was attended by the Planning Minister Mr. AHM Mustafa Kamal, the State Minister for Planning Mr. MA Mannan, and the Secretary of Ministry of Planning Bhuiyan Shafiqul Islam. In addition, approximately 90 participants from different ministries, divisions, agencies, development partners, and consultants attended the inaugural session.

The workshop was held as part of ESPA Deltas, a multi-disciplinary project funded by NERC, DFID and ESRC, which aims to develop knowledge and tools for policy makers to evaluate the effects of policy decisions on people’s livelihoods.

The meeting was jointly organised by the Bangladesh General Economics Division of the Planning Commission, and project partner BUET (Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology). The primary objective of the workshop was to engage the Bangladesh government in the ESPA Deltas project, to ensure the outcomes of the project feed into future legislation, policy and management. A key component of this was to establish links with the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 being currently prepared by a Bangladeshi-Dutch consortium.

The workshop also included a technical session to involve stakeholders in scenario development, and to elicit information about future scenarios and issues of key concern; to identify possible policy and management interventions; as well as barriers to implementation. The technical session was organised by University of Dundee, University of Oxford and BUET.

Through the ESPA Deltas project, Professor Paul Whitehead and Dr Emily Barbour from Oxford University are examining the impact of future climatic and socio-economic changes on water availability and water quality within the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Basin. They are working with stakeholders and project partners to develop scenarios affecting a range of different ecosystem services and are investigating different management strategies to improve water security and reduce poverty.

Group discussions during the technical session of the workshop

Group discussions during the technical session of the workshop