Water shortages could disrupt Britain’s electricity supply

The Guardian reports on a team of academics from Oxford and Newcastle who say nuclear and gas-fired power stations could be forced to shut down during future droughts.

The electricity sector uses large quantities of water for cooling processes in thermoelectric power stations, accounting for around half of all water abstractions in England and Wales. As water resources come under increasing pressures from growing populations and climate change, shortages could have serious impacts on the country’s electricity production, warns a new study co-authored by Professor Jim Hall, Director of the Environmental Change Institute, Oxford University.

“The high dependency on water in electricity generation means there is a real possibility that in just a few decades some power stations may be forced to decrease production or shut down if there are water shortages”, said Ed Byers in the Guardian article, a researcher at Newcastle University and lead author of the study.

The research, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, assesses the water demand of the government’s proposed energy ‘pathways’ to 2050. While some pathways present opportunities to both reduce water dependency and carbon emissions, others increase the dependence on water resources. For example, using fossil fuels with high levels of carbon capture and storage (CCS) could increase freshwater consumption by up to 70%.

The research shows that up to the 2030s, water use performance improves for all pathways, in line with rapid decarbonisation. This is achieved as renewable energy production expands while older coal, gas and nuclear plants are decommissioned and new and more affordable nuclear and carbon capture-equipped generation begins to take shape.

In the 2030s the water security of the UK could be in the balance as the water intensity of the different pathways diverges, warn the researchers. Coal and gas plants would be forced to shut down if they do not adopt CCS, yet if CCS and nuclear power are deployed on wider scales, water intensity will rapidly increase. Developers could be forced to choose between using limited freshwater supplies or increasing abstraction from tidal and sea water, both of which could be problematic for the environment.

The energy pathway with the highest level of renewables uses the least freshwater. Hybrid or air cooling comes at a slightly high cost and more emissions, but minimises water consumption and therefore could reduce dependency on scarce resources.

Read the Guardian article


Byers, E.A., Hall, J.W. and Amezaga, J.M. (2014) Electricity generation and cooling water use: UK pathways to 2050. Global Environmental Change. DOI:

Oxford University leads £2 million research project on UK droughts and water scarcity

A £2 million three-year multi-disciplinary research project will provide new insights to minimise and manage the harmful impacts of droughts and water scarcity in the UK.

Droughts and water scarcity pose a significant risk to the environment, society and the economy. In 2012 the UK experienced the driest spring in over a century, following two dry winters. However scientific understanding of the complex drivers and impacts of droughts is inadequate.

The project Managing the Risks, Impacts and Uncertainties of drought and water Scarcity (MaRIUS) will adopt a risk-based approach to the management of droughts and water scarcity. The project is designed to capture the complexity of the water scarcity by using expertise across the social and natural sciences.

MaRIUS will use scenario modelling and case studies across a number of scales, from household to national, in order to understand both the drought impacts at a local level right as well as the institutional decision making by governments and water companies. The modelling will enable testing of drought scenarios and a thorough representation of their impacts on water quality, agriculture, biodiversity and economic losses.

In addition to the modelling component, social science and stakeholder engagement are a key part of the project and will help us to understand the role of institutions, regulation and the markets in drought management.

The researchers will work closely with stakeholders in government, businesses and NGOs who will benefit from improved evidence of the risks and impacts of droughts and water scarcity. Better understanding of the effectiveness of different measures will help decision-makers make more informed decisions, from real-time drought management to longer-term planning.

The project team is led by Professor Jim Hall (Environmental Change Institute) and includes Drs Chris Decker and Bettina Lange (Centre for Socio-Legal Studies), Dr Pam Berry (Environmental Change Institute), and Professors Sarah Whatmore, Paul Whitehead, Myles Allen, and Dr Simon Dadson (School of Geography and the Environment).

Funding comes from NERC, in collaboration with ESRC, EPSRC, BBSRC and AHRC.

Developing international guidance for strategic drought risk management

Paul Sayers, Senior Visiting Fellow at the School of Geography and the Environment, is leading a project to identify best practice in drought risk management, in collaboration with WWF and the Chinese Government.

The Chinese Government has committed significant resources to address water resource management issues across the country. One challenge that the country faces is drought, which occurs regularly in China, often with very significant social, economic and environmental consequences. As climate change leads to increased uncertainty about future rainfall patterns, and potentially also leads to an increase in the frequency and severity of droughts, it is important that sophisticated drought planning and management is mainstreamed in China.

As part of an on-going collaboration, WWF and the Chinese Government’s General Institute of Water Resources & Hydropower Planning (GIWP) aim to collate and synthesise lessons from international experiences in this field, identify world best practice guidelines and influence the upcoming revision of Chinese water policy.

Paul Sayers will be attending a workshop in Suzhou, China, October 2013 to discuss strategic approaches to drought planning as part of this ongoing collaborative WWF/GIWP research project.

Making clean drinking water universally available is achievable

Making clean drinking water globally accessible is one of the biggest challenges of this century. Yet, a new study by Oxford University contends that this goal is achievable if the key elements of good governance and management are adopted.

The study proposes a framework built on examples of good practice in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, areas which the authors argue present the most severe challenges of all the developing countries. They warn, however, that the scale of investment necessary to update the often neglected, ageing infrastructure of pipelines or water pumps goes beyond the narrow project timeframes favoured by politicians. The findings are published in a landmark collection of papers on water security, risk and society by the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A.

The study says the problem of providing clean water is most acute in developing countries, particularly in Africa, where creaking infrastructures struggle to keep pace with fast-growing urban populations; in rural areas, millions of water pumps stand unused waiting to be repaired. Despite hitting the Millennium Development Goal for drinking water access in 2012, over 780 million people still do not have safe and reliable drinking water, says the report, resulting in largely preventable health problems that most affect women and children.

Based on nine case studies in Cambodia, India, Kenya, Uganda and Senegal, the authors analysed new data in rural and urban areas to compare what the authors call the under-researched aspects of water security: the institutional side of how water supplies are delivered, their operation and management systems. They examined water payment systems; and the quality of service, such as how quickly leaks or pumps were fixed, and whether populations had water on demand or a regularly disrupted service.

The study suggests that a critical factor in all cases is to have a good system for maintaining existing water supplies. Additionally, new information systems were found to be important for improving the way the quality of service was monitored. In West Africa, for instance, a structured crowd sourcing platform is used by water scheme managers to input weekly data via a mobile phone application; in East Africa, a mobile-enabled monitoring system is leading to faster repair times for water pumps.

Late bills are still a huge problem in developing countries, so consequently there is often a failure to recoup the service costs needed to invest in the infrastructure. The study highlights a successful mobile water payment system adopted in one Kenyan city, which was the preferred way of paying bills for 85% of customers who would otherwise often have to queue in water company offices. More efficient and transparent payment systems were not only found to reduce debts, but also helped root out corrupt practices which diverted water payments into illegitimate channels.

The study warns that barriers to progress include the vested interests of individuals benefiting from the status quo, and misguided public investments which are short-term and without any real measures of performance. However, the authors argue that these findings provide concrete evidence to demonstrate how drinking water risks can be managed and reduced ‘even in the most difficult and challenging contexts’.

Lead author Dr Rob Hope, from the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford, said: “We hope this study provides a framework to design policy and guide investments to systematically reduce drinking water risks in urban and rural contexts. These case studies demonstrate a variety of approaches taken by countries in some of the most challenging circumstances.”

“They set benchmarks by which others can measure their own progress. Our examples include water managers who have introduced both bonus systems to reward good performance and competitions between different areas to drive up standards of service. Some water service providers have found ways of giving subsidies to expand access to water customers on the lowest incomes. There are other examples of initiatives to promote greater efficiency which can mean leaks or water pumps get fixed more quickly or water rationing can be replaced with a continuous service.”

“Despite the often gloomy outlook voiced by some on the prospects for making drinking water more accessible, these case studies in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia show there are realistic pathways to transform water services, thereby potentially improving the health of the millions of people who depend upon them.”

Meanwhile in the same collection of papers, Professor David Bradley of Oxford University, with Professor Jamie Bartram, uses an analysis of the effective monitoring programme developed to measure the success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for the provision of domestic water supply and basic sanitation to see how it can be further improved and possibly be applied to a broader goal of water security.


Robert Hope and Michael Rouse (2013) Risks and responses to universal drinking water security. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, vol. 371, no. 2002.


Proportional water allocation policies help federal countries cope with drought extremes

Dr. Dustin Garrick (School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford Martin School) delivered a presentation on drought management in federal rivers at a conference on Water in the Anthropocene, held in Bonn on 21-24 May.

Garrick and colleagues compared water allocation policies used to divide water and spread drought risk between state jurisdictions in federal countries, analysing the Colorado, Ebro and Murray-Darling Rivers. He highlighted the importance of proportional allocation rules to cope with climatic variability. Proportional allocation rules distribute water based on a share of available water – not a fixed volume or priority.

Allocation reforms in the three rivers indicate that proportional allocation rules are prevalent among upstream states, while downstream states seek fixed volumes to increase water security. The comparative study suggests that proportional rules distribute risks and benefits in a way that is perceived as fair and limits conflict when compared with fixed allocation systems.

The conference ‘Water in the Anthropocene: Challenges for Science and Governance. Indicators, Thresholds and Uncertainties of the Global Water System’ was organised by the Global Water System Project.

A Declaration signed by the participants of the conference warns that within one or two generations, the majority of the nine billion people on Earth will be living under conditions of severe pressure on fresh water, due to climate change, pollution and overuse.  However, these experts assure that this outcome is entirely avoidable. The Declaration calls for a partnership of scientists, public stakeholders, decision-makers and the private sector to take action to protect and conserve water systems worldwide.

Read the Bonn Declaration on Global Water Security

Visit the conference website

Experts discuss changing extremes in hydrology in the UK

The conference ‘Changing extremes in hydrology’ was held at Exeter College in Oxford on 15 April 2013, and examined the characteristics and impacts of the extreme hydrological conditions experienced in the UK during 2012.

The conference’s theme was inspired by the extraordinary nature – in hydrological terms – of 2012. The first three months of 2012 were marked by the on-going drought which began in 2010. In early April water companies were forced to issue water use restrictions, affecting 20 million users. Then just a few days after the restrictions were imposed, a period of intense rains commenced and continued for the entire summer period, making it the wettest summer in the past 100 years. This prolonged period of rain resulted in widespread flooding across the country throughout the remainder of the year.

The aim of the conference was to review the meteorological and hydrological conditions that characterised 2012, to review the economic damages associated with the drought and flooding, and to provide a broader conceptual framework for understanding how the occurrence of extreme hydrological events might change in the future as a result of climatic changes and other drivers.

Mike Kendon from the Met Office opened the event by describing the characteristics of the 2010-2012 drought and placing it within the context of previous droughts across England and Wales. The drought was one of the ten most significant of the last century, but what was really remarkable was its sudden end in the spring of 2012 with the onset of greater than average rains.

This sudden transition from too little water to too much water was discussed by Simon Parry from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. Parry explained how a shift in the jet stream in the spring of 2012 provided the climatic conditions necessary to produce two of the wettest months on record. This rapid change from drought to flood conditions had massive impacts on farmers, explained Tim Hess from Cranfield University. He pointed out that very few farmers are insured against flood damage and recommended a series of measures to make the UK agricultural industry more resilient to weather-related shocks.

Stuart Hyslop from the Environment Agency spoke about the effects of the 2010-2012 drought on water supply in the Thames region. He pointed to the increasing sectoral competition for water for agriculture, domestic use, recreation and wildlife during low flow periods. In order to resolve this conflict, the Environment Agency has a role in monitoring and coordinating the different water users to ensure that an equitable balance is struck between users wherever possible. Edmund Penning-Rowsell, Visiting Research Associate at Oxford University, described the damages caused by the 2012 floods.  Comparing the damage with that of historical floods, he showed how economic losses caused by flooding are overestimated in the UK.

Bill McGuire, University College London, addressed the problem of extremes from a broader perspective, providing examples of how changing climate triggers geological events such as volcanic eruptions and tsunamis. He suggested that changes on the Earth’s surface induced by climatic changes, such as ice sheet melting and sea level rise, may trigger geological catastrophes. This may imply that in the future we might witness “geological mayhem as well as climatic mayhem”, he said.

Patrick McSharry from the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, Oxford University, discussed the contribution of mathematical statistics and the theory of extreme values to quantifying risks associated with extreme weather events, enabling better estimates of the levels of risk associated with catastrophic events.

Bruno Merz from the German Research Center for Geosciences discussed the linking of observed changes in flood frequency with specific drivers. While it may be easy to detect changes in flood frequency, separating the effects of drivers such as climate change, dam building or land use change on flooding is much more difficult and requires further research effort. This issue was also taken up by Thomas Kjeldsen from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, whose research investigates the effects of urbanisation on a catchment’s flood response. Comparing pre-urbanisation and post-urbanisation flood data has increased understanding of how urbanisation affects flooding frequency.

The final presentation by Harvey Rodda, Hydro-GIS Ltd, considered the nature of floodplain development in the UK and how flood risk is incorporated within the planning process. A number of examples showed how flood risk may, in some instances, be used as a lever against problematic planning applications.

The conference demonstrated clearly the need for further research to link observed changes in flood frequency to drivers, and to better understand and manage rapid shifts from drought to flood conditions. At the intersection between research and policy, thinking should be devoted to investigating risks associated with extreme events, and to means of financing these risks and sharing the burden of extreme hydrological events across society. In terms of policy-relevant findings, a better understanding and an unbiased representation of the damages caused by hydrological extremes is required to prioritise flood protection investments and also to reduce the chances of inappropriate use of flood risk information in planning.

The conference was organised by Hydro-GIS Ltd, a UK-based hydrology and GIS consultancy company, and received sponsorship from Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment. Visit the conference website

By Edoardo Borgomeo, DPhil student at the Environmental Change Institute

More severe and widespread UK droughts expected with climate change

UK droughts are projected to be more severe and affect larger areas of the country over the next 100 years, according to a new study by Muhammad Rahiz and Prof. Mark New published in the journal Water Resources Management.

The team made a detailed analysis of regional climate data from the Met Office’s Hadley Centre to investigate future drought trends. “Both drought intensity and the spatial extent of droughts in the UK are projected by these climate models to increase into the future”, said Professor Mark New, Professor of Climate Science at the School of Geography and Environment and co-author of the study.

The findings of the study could have implications for the way water is managed, particularly in the South East, one of the most vulnerable regions. “If you have small, localised droughts, that’s not so important from a water management point of view, because most utilities can move water in from another place,” said Professor New. “But if a drought affects a whole region like the South East of England, then you’ve got a more significant problem.”

Read the full article on the Natural Environment Research Council website


Rahiz, M. and New, M. (2013) 21st Century drought scenarios for the UK. Water Resources Management, 27(4): 1039-1061.

Collaboration with Chinese Government and WWF identifies best practice for drought management

Paul Sayers is working with the Chinese Government and WWF to identify world best practice for risk-based drought planning and management. He will present findings at the Asian Water Week 2013 to be held on 13-15 March in Manila, Phillipines.

The Chinese Government has committed significant resources to address water resource management issues across the country. Drought is one particular challenge, which occurs regularly in China and often has very significant social, economic and environmental consequences.

As climate change increases uncertainty about future rainfall patterns, potentially increasing the frequency and severity of droughts, it is important that sophisticated drought planning and management is mainstreamed in China.

Oxford’s Paul Sayers is part of an on-going collaboration between WWF and the Chinese Government’s General Institute of Water Resources & Hydropower Planning (GIWP), aimed at synthesising lessons from international experiences in this field and identifying world best practice. This information will be used to support GIWP in its role as key planning agency under the Ministry of Water Resources. The results will also contribute to WWF’s freshwater work globally.

In March, Sayers will meet with WWF, GIWP and the Asian Development Bank in Manila to discuss the development of strategic drought planning guidance. This will include the principles, methods and approaches for undertaking risk-based drought planning and management as a means of supporting the overarching goals of the river basin plan and other related management objectives. Sayers will also present results at the Asian Water Week 2013.

This latest work continues a four year long collaboration on water-related issues, with earlier projects focusing on river basin management, water allocation and strategic flood risk management.

Paul Sayers is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the School of Geography and the Environment.

Effects of drought in the Amazon persist years later

An area of the Amazon rainforest three times the size of the United kingdom was strongly affected by a drought that began in 2005, says a NASA-led team that includes researchers from Oxford.

The results, together with observed increases in rainfall variability and associated forest damage in southern and western Amazonia during the past decade, suggest these rainforests may be witnessing the first signs of potential large-scale degradation due to climate change.

The researchers analysed more than a decade of satellite microwave radar data collected between 2000 and 2009 over Amazonia. The observations included measurements of rainfall from NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission as well as the moisture content and volume, or biomass, of the forests.

The scientists found that, beginning in 2005, more than 270,000 square miles (70 million hectares or three times the area of the UK) of pristine, old-growth forest in southwestern Amazonia experienced an extensive and severe drought. This drought caused widespread changes to the forest canopy that were detectable by satellite. These changes to the canopy suggest dieback of branches and tree falls, especially among the older, larger, more vulnerable ‘canopy’ trees that blanket the forest, say the researchers in a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

‘The biggest surprise for us was that the effects appeared to persist for years after the drought,’ said co-author Professor Yadvinder Malhi from the University of Oxford. ‘We had expected the forest canopy to bounce back after a year with a new flush of leaf growth, but the damage appeared to persist right up to the subsequent drought in 2010.’

While total rainfall levels gradually recovered in subsequent years, the forest canopy damage persisted all the way to the next major drought, which began in 2010. In fact, about half of the forest affected by the 2005 drought – an area one and a half times the size of the UK – did not recover by the start of the next drought.

Recent Amazonian droughts have drawn attention to the vulnerability of tropical forests to climate change. Satellite and ground data have shown an increase in wildfires during drought years and tree die-offs following severe droughts, but there has been no assessment of the long-term effects of these droughts across Amazonia. Large-scale droughts can lead to sustained releases of carbon dioxide from decaying wood, affecting ecosystems and Earth’s carbon cycle.

The team found that the impact of the 2005 drought was on a much larger scale than scientists had previously predicted. About 30 percent (1.7 million square kilometres) of the Amazon basin’s total current forest area was affected in some way, with more than five percent of the forest experiencing severe drought conditions. The 2010 drought affected nearly half of the entire Amazon forest, with nearly a fifth of it experiencing severe drought conditions.

More than 231,660 square miles (600,000 square kilometres) of the areas affected by the 2005 drought were also damaged by the 2010 drought. This ‘double whammy’ punch by successive droughts suggests they may have a potentially widespread effect on forests in southern and western Amazonia, say the researchers.

The paper points out that the drought rate in Amazonia during the past decade is unprecedented over the past century. In addition to the three major droughts in 1997/8, 2005 and 2010, the area has also experienced several localised mini-droughts in recent years. Observations from ground stations show that rainfall over southern Amazonia declined by almost 3.2 per cent per year in the period from 1970 to 1998. Climate analyses for the period from 1995 to 2005 show a steady decline in plant water availability over the region. Together, these data suggest a decade of moderate water stress that led up to the 2005 drought, helping trigger the large-scale forest damage seen after the 2005 drought event.

Oxford contributes to World Bank report on climate change adaptation in Arab countries

Dr Rachael McDonnell provided input to a comprehensive World Bank report ‘Adaptation to a Changing Climate in the Arab Countries’, which was launched at the COP 18 climate change conference in Doha, Qatar. The report highlights the acute consequences of climate change in the Arab world and calls for urgent actions to reduce vulnerability.

McDonnell was lead author for the chapter ‘Agriculture, rural livelihoods, and food security are stressed in a changing climate’ and contributed to two further chapters on ‘Climate change contributes to water scarcity’, and ‘Implement policy responses to increase climate resilience’.

Challenges faced in the Arab world include worsening water scarcity, very low and variable rainfall, and excessive exposure to extreme events such as droughts and desertification. The report highlights the need for immediate responses to avert the anticipated consequences of rising food and water insecurity.

“Climate change is a reality for people in Arab countries,” said Inger Andersen, World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa region. “It affects everyone – especially the poor who are least able to adapt – and as the climate becomes ever more extreme, so will its impacts on people’s livelihoods and wellbeing. The time to take actions at both the national and regional level in order to increase climate resilience is now.”

Through coordinated actions at multiple levels, the report concludes that the Arab world can successful adapt and adjust to the challenges of a changing climate, as it has done for centuries.

See the World Bank webpage for the full report, story highlights, press release, video blog, and other resources.