The story of the Mekong Basin Development Plan

Prof. David Grey is a member of the International Panel of Experts for the Mekong River Commission’s Basin Development Plan and a co-author of a recent MRC publication ‘The BDP Story. Mekong Basin Planning: the Story behind the Basin Development Plan”.

The booklet tells the captivating story of one of the world’s great river basins. The river is characterised by high variability of flows, resulting in cycles of flooding and droughts which hamper economic and social development in the region.

The Mekong Basin Development Plan is an instrument of the Lower Mekong Basin countries of Cambodia, Lao PDR and Viet Nam for cooperation over the sustainable use, management and conservation of the basin’s water resources. The story of the Basin Development Plan is told within the context of the history of the Lower Mekong region and the history of planning and development of the river basin.

The booklet points out that there are significant benefits to be gained and shared through cooperation. The Basin Development Plan presents an important opportunity for the Lower Mekong Basin countries to move forward with development to support economic growth and poverty reduction.

The planning process has enabled countries to identify strategic priorities for the basin, outline steps for the implementation of joint development projects, and explore mechanisms for sharing transboundary benefits. As well as harnessing the opportunities for development, the initiative also aims to ensure that negative impacts of water resources development are kept to a minimum.

A cautiously optimistic outlook is depicted for the future of the river basin and its potential to deliver the sustainable development very much needed by the people of the Mekong.

Read the full publication

Smart handpumps one of the Guardian’s 12 global development innovations of 2012

Featured alongside disease-eating prawns and solar-powered lamp-posts, Oxford University’s Smart Handpumps are recognised by the Guardian newspaper as one of twelve innovations for global development that caught the eye in 2012.

The so-called ‘smart’ handpumps use a mobile technology device designed by Oxford University which generates information on handpump use and can quickly detect a breakdown. The project is being trialled in 60 villages in the Kyuso district in Kenya where water is scarce during the dry season and functioning handpumps are critical for people’s survival.

The mobile data transmitter monitors movement of the handpump handle and estimates the volume of water being pumped. It sends periodic text messages to relay information on handpump performance to research teams in Nairobi and Oxford. Early detection of a problem means someone can be quickly dispatched to resolve it.

The project is funded by the UK Department for International Development and led by Dr Rob Hope, Senior Research Fellow at the School of Geography and the Environment.

“There are a lot of gadgets and gizmos and devices out there, but those alone don’t really resolve the enduring problem of rural water supply sustainability,” Rob Hope is quoted in the Guardian article. “It’s really the institutional reforms that emerge from using the information in a more effective manner. That’s where our research is really focused.”

Read the full article online

Dryland agriculture a major issue for climate change

People living in rural communities in the world’s driest areas are hit hardest by climate change impacts, according to the report from an International Conference on Food Security in the Drylands. Many of the most effective climate change interventions will be rooted in agriculture, which these communities depend on for their livelihoods.

Oxford University’s Professor Mike Edmunds and Dr Rachael McDonnell were among the invited speakers at the Qatar National Food Security Program conference which was held in Doha, Qatar on 14-15 November 2012, under the auspices of the Heir Apparent, His Highness, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

Mike Edmunds’ paper addressed water security in low rainfall areas, emphasising the need to base sustainable development policy on renewable water resources (especially groundwater). He urged people to consider the advantages of locally sourced water as a basis for sustainable rural development. Rachael McDonnell examined the many new science and policy advances being made in using saline and treated wastewater to meet food security challenges in drylands.

The report calls for action to help rural communities produce food and secure their livelihoods while faced with land degradation, water scarcity and unpreditable weather patterns. Many solutions are available now, such as crop diversification, efficient water management, ‘climate smart’ technologies and conservation agriculture. Targeted investment backed up with sound policies are urgently needed to ensure that these opportunities are seized.

The conference brought together over 400 people to discuss the challenges and opportunities for building food security and mitigating climate change in drylands. These included ministers and senior government officials, policymakers, researchers, development practitioners and representatives of international and regional organisations, farmers’ unions, private and public financial institutions, and private agri-business enterprises.

Read the full conference report.

Africa Water Stewardship Scholarship quenches thirst for knowledge

Cliff Nyaga is a beneficiary of The Coca-Cola Company funded Africa Water Stewardship Scholarship, which funds his place on the MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management, class of 2012/2013. He reports on his first term studying at Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment.

12 December 2012, by Cliff M. Nyaga

As the first Africa Water Stewardship Scholar, I arrived in late September, tired but excited for the year ahead studying at Oxford University. The characteristic cold and grey British weather was a bit of a shock but was compensated for by the timeless elegance of the university colleges. Everything seemed quieter and more orderly than where I come from back home in Nairobi, Kenya.

The course started with meeting the 26 other students from 16 different countries on a fascinating residential field trip to Dorset and the Jurassic Coast. We got to know each other and the teaching staff over the weekend while studying various aspects of catchment management and the chalk aquifer system. The staff took us to a local pub where I got my first taste of English beer. Chat over a beer with my teacher? A first, but not bad experience!

Term started gently but then soon accelerated with intense academic activity, centred around taught modules on global water issues including water security, health and policy. There was much for me to work on, learn about, questions to ask and discussions to have. I was left wishing I had much more time. Field study trips in addition to rich study and research resources exposed me to new approaches to understanding and managing water issues and have also made me a better thinker. One highlight was visiting a green wastewater treatment plant at Wessex, where virtually ‘nothing is wasted’.

Not a week goes by in which I don’t attend a lecture from a visiting dignitary, or participate in debates and seminars that involve professionals working in the water sector. And when it’s time for a break from study, it’s easy to take a relaxing park stroll or hop on the bus and visit villages near Oxford (my favourite has been Burford, a village made of stone). A boat ride down the Thames in London was an unforgettable experience.

A great aspect of the scholarship is that I have been able to interact with key people at The Coca-Cola Company to develop a research dissertation on water sustainability. This has been an invaluable learning experience and allowed me to gain a greater understanding of their Replenish Africa Initiative (RAIN) programme in Africa. We have some interesting ideas which I will be developing over the winter break. When I say ‘break’, this is a bit of euphemism as the work continues with various assignments and readings, including preparation for next term. I have been dying to experience snow for the first time so hopefully this will provide an exciting interlude to my studies!

While working with communities on water supply back in Kenya, I had a strong desire to develop solutions for the challenges encountered and learn how Europe was able to overcome such problems and achieve its high level of water resource development. In this respect, Oxford is providing me with a firm foundation. I am learning from distinguished teaching staff with extensive experience in policy and practice, most interestingly on how to formulate cutting-edge solutions to water challenges facing Africa. When I return to Africa, I will take this knowledge with me. I look forward to making a positive difference in addressing the water challenges my continent faces.

This is the first in a three-part blog series. Read Cliff’s second and final blogs.


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

Mobile money and water services in East Africa

The unprecedented growth in Africa’s mobile communications sector offers new opportunities to address the continent’s persistent water service challenges, claims a new article published in Water International, a collaboration between past and current students at the School of Geography and the Environment.

The article is co-authored by two current DPhil students, Tim Foster and Aaron Krolikowski, a current student of the MSc Water Science, Policy and Management, Cliff Nyaga, and a former MSc student, Ilana Cohen. The research stems from Oxford University’s thriving mobile/water for development (mw4d) initiative.

The concept of mobile money is simple – money can be transferred between electronic accounts and the payment system can be easily accessed using a standard mobile phone.

A number of water service providers in Africa have started offering their customers mobile money as a payment option. This alluring marriage between water services and mobile technology offers many potential benefits.

For customers, mobile money provides an easy, fast and convenient payment method, particularly for the millions of people without a bank account or a branch nearby. For water utilities, the direct electronic transfer of money should reduce transaction costs and improve their revenue collection; savings which could then be channelled into extending coverage and improving the quality of services.

This could go some way towards addressing the considerable challenges faced by Africa’s water service sector. Service providers are commonly caught in a downward spiral of deteriorating finances, infrastructure, and operational performance. In urban areas, the expansion of service coverage is failing to keep apace with population growth, meaning that the number of urban Africans without access to a safe water supply is actually increasing.

However, there is very little evidence to determine whether the alleged benefits of mobile water payments are being seen. The new research by Oxford University investigates the impacts of mobile water payments in East Africa and explores customer behaviour and barriers to uptake.

The study shows that uptake of mobile water payments is surprisingly low.  In Dar es Salaam, a free mobile payment option has failed to attract more than 1% of customers. There are a number of reasons for its limited success, including low customer awareness, lack of utility receipts for proof of payment, and high transaction tariffs charged by mobile network operators then passed on to customers.

However, one success story shines. In the community of Kiamumbi in Kenya, a remarkable 80% of customers opt to pay their water bills with mobile money. The research confirms that these customers make considerable savings of time and money, and are also more likely to pay their bills on time.

Fortunately, the common barriers to wider uptake of mobile water payments can be tackled by the water service providers themselves. Once behavioural and operational constraints are overcome, the real test will be whether the savings made through the use of this payment tool are translated into improved access to and sustainability of water services.


Foster, T., Hope, R., Thomas, M., Cohen, I., Krolikowski, A. and Nyaga, C. (2012) Impacts and implications of mobile water payments in East Africa. Water International. DOI:10.1080/02508060.2012.738409

DFID’s challenges and opportunities for delivering water security in a post-MDG world

As the Millennium Development Goals come to a close in 2015, the international development community finds itself at a transition point. As they evaluate the progress made and redefine the targets ahead, decision-makers have the exciting and daunting task of shaping global policy for the coming generations.

This blog is based on Jean-Paul Penrose’s talk in Oxford on 30 October, part of the Water Security, Growth and Development seminar series. As the Senior Water Resources Adviser at DFID, he underscored the role the UK Government will play at this turning point. With an aid budget of £7.7 billion and £112 million bilateral water spending last year, DFID is a potent stakeholder in these discussions. As all eyes turn to the post-2015 framework, Penrose highlighted the challenges posed and opportunities available for delivering global water security.

Penrose emphasised the crucial need to build on the weaknesses of the MDGs to define the future of water resources management. For example, a greater focus on energy and transport could allow for the integration of these issues and emphasise water as a driver of growth and human development.

In particular, he pointed out the importance of the water security paradigm to frame water projects around poverty alleviation and sustainability, two agendas attractive to the international community. The challenge lies in ensuring that poverty goals resonate with developed countries, and sustainability remains a focus in developing nations.

From the perspective of DFID, the water security paradigm provides traction in negotiating support from government officials. Increasingly, this sort of political buy-in is essential to the implementation of large infrastructure projects. Such projects, said Penrose, need to account for the future of water resources and climate change. Though not many water supply and sanitation programmes have this dimension, DFID has prioritised both long-term maintenance and water resources sustainability.

However, Penrose pointed out that water resources management projects still lack clear evidence to lend them full credibility in the eye of the public. To justify investments and political support, we need to mobilise experts to generate metrics, unit costs, and results.

New stakeholders are playing an increasingly important role in this process: emerging powers diversify input, the private sector fuels investments, and foundations prepare rulebooks for new developments.

The key, according to Penrose, is to not let this uncertainty stifle the potential for progress. The public needs clear strong stories, and decision-makers need to take more identifiable risks. If the British government is to follow through on their declaration of water as a human right, popular paradigms like water security must be harnessed to implement change.

By Clémentine Stip, MSc Water Science, Policy and Management

Un Photo by Martine Perret

Smart Handpumps feature on BBC Click

Oxford University’s Smart Handpumps project, part of the mobile/water for development (mm4d) initiative, aims to improve rural water security by automatically monitoring handpump performance which trigger maintenance responses. The handpump technology uses data transmitters which fit inside handpumps and send text messages to a central office if the devices break down. The research initiative is a collaboration between the School of Geography and the Environment, and the Department for Engineering Science, led by Dr Rob Hope and Patrick Thomson in partnership with Dr Gari Clifford.

Story starts at 6 minutes 36 seconds

Limits to the availability of groundwater in Africa

“Groundwater is not an abundant new resource in Africa

Professor Mike Edmunds – expert in geology and groundwater management at the School of Geography and the Environment – has commented on a recent publication from Alan MacDonald and colleagues from the British Geological Survey. The much discussed “Quantitative maps of groundwater resources in Africa” paper presents the first quantitative continent-wide map of aquifer storage and potential borehole yields in Africa.

In Environmental Research Letters, Mike Edmunds applauds the authors for raising the profile of the widely neglected issue of groundwater, and providing first-order estimates for the available storage and expected water yields in the continent. However, he warns that the message of groundwater storage being 100 times the annual renewable surface water could give the wrong message that groundwater an abundant resource. In his insightful commentary, Edmunds explores some of the limits to groundwater – including its inaccessibility to the majority of the African population, renewability, and water quality.

Oxford University wins grant to explore links between poverty alleviation and ecosystem services in the Bay of Bengal Delta

Oxford University has won a project grant for £327K as part of a large Consortium Grant Project “Assessing health, livelihoods, ecosystem services and poverty alleviation in populous deltas” (ESPA Deltas),  focusing on the Bay of Bengal Delta region of Bangladesh.

Photo by Frances Voon

ESPA Deltas is an international, multi-disciplinary and multi-partner project which will examine the relationship between poverty alleviation and ecosystem services in deltaic environments, with particular focus on coastal Bangladesh. In the densely populated coastal fringe of the vast Ganges-Brahmaputra-Megha Delta poverty is widespread and rural livelihoods are closely linked with the natural ecosystems. Low-income farmers face multiple threats such as unreliable water supplies, increasing salinisation of soils and arsenic contamination of groundwater.

The overall goal of the project is to build an integrated analytical framework for deltaic systems that is applied in Bangladesh and transferable to other populous deltas. Elements considered will include morphodynamics, water quality and quantity, primary productivity and fisheries, agricultural production, mangroves and human health and well-being. The project is highly multidisciplinary and involves engineers, natural and social scientists, lawyers and policy analysts and a range of stakeholders.

ESPA Deltas is led by Professor Nicholls at the University of Southampton. Professor Paul Whitehead and Dr Fai Fung, from Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment will be modelling the rivers upstream of the Delta – the Ganges, Brahmaputra and the Meghna – to assess impacts of climate change, land use change, water diversions and dams on flows and nutrients arriving into Bangladesh from India and the Himalaya. Scenarios will be developed to assess future changes in ecosystem services and their links to poverty alleviation. These will be used to explore policy interventions for reducing poverty and increasing human well-being.

The project has been funded under the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) programme funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

A Research Fellow position is available for the project, based at the University of Southampton. Further details here.