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African wetlands and climate

Dr Simon Dadson at the School of Geography and the Environment, has led a team of researchers from Oxford University, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Met Office and the University of Cape Town in a project to investigate the role of African wetlands in the climate system.

Okavango River

Okavango River in Botswana © Simon Dadson

The research, which was funded by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council and comes to an end this year, enables the calculation of river flows and inland flooding in data-sparse regions. The system is now integrated within the UK Met Office’s Unified Model suite of global and regional climate models and is being used worldwide.

The scientific impact of this work is to further understanding of how climate variability and change effects water resources availability, but also to get a better view of how patterns of changing freshwater availability affect local meteorology. The project has generated significant interest among the African environmental science community and enabled several research fellows to undertake exchange visits to Oxford, and vice versa.

Dr Dadson will build upon this work in a new project with the University of Reading which will investigate the influence of wetland-climate feedbacks on African hydroclimate.

Read the impact case study ‘How changes to inland waters impact regional climates’

Visit the project webpage and access the project data

Britain leads global water initiative

In May 2015, Professor Paul Whitehead gave a keynote talk at the launch of Britain’s first national water benchmarking scheme. The event took place at world-renowned Pinewood Studios, giving it “00” status!

paul-whitehead

AquaMark is a multi-million pound grant scheme managed by consultants ADSM and is free to join for all UK participating organisations. The national project will fund a range of services so that sophisticated benchmarks can be derived for over 500 different building classifications, allowing commercial users to reduce water usage by an average of 30%. The project is the first of its kind and is set to put Britain at the forefront of global water benchmarking.

Paul Whitehead, Professor of Water Science at the School of Geography and the Environment, delivered a keynote on ‘Security of water supply: managing for the future and minimising risk’. He explained the implications of climate change for water resources in the UK, and introduced modelling tools for predicting future water shortages and environmental risks.

Oxford University research is helping identify and address water security risks, both in the UK and globally. Professor Whitehead highlighted the MaRIUS project on drought and water scarcity in the UK, the Macronutrients Cycles Programme, and the ESPA Deltas project which explores the impact of future climate change and socio-economic change in the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers in India and Bangladesh.

Patrick McCart, ADSM Founder and Director, commented: ‘Right now there exists a real opportunity for UK organisations, both large and small, to participate in this ground-breaking research project. Britain is set to become the global advisor on sustainable water supplies for commercial users. The recent events experienced in California and São Paulo, have highlighted how essential it is that businesses and organisations are supported with all the necessary tools to combat water scarcity.’

The launch took place in Pinewood studios and was supported by over 100 blue chip and public sector organisations.

The project has received backing from the water industry, regulators OFWAT, The Environment Agency, and leading research experts BRE, BSRIA and the University of Oxford.

For further information about joining the scheme, please visit www.adsm.com/AquaMark

See Paul Whitehead’s presentation ‘Security of water supply: managing for the future and minimising risk’

Desertification: the environment gone pear-shaped?

On 17 June, World Day to Combat Desertification, Dr Troy Sternberg asks some important questions. What is desertification? Is it caused by climate or humans? Are deserts taking over? Can the process be stopped?

The Gobi Desert

The Gobi Desert. Photo by Nanel

The idea of desertification came in the 1970s when scientists noted that parts of the Sahara Desert appeared to be expanding by kilometres per year. News reports and popular imagination extrapolated the numbers and declared that deserts were spreading at alarming rates. Articles began, ‘at this rate, in 10 years (choose your favorite African city) will be covered in sand.’

In 1994 the United Nations created the Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) to address the issue. Soon the term was applied to China and India, the American Southwest and the Middle East. Desertification had captured the public’s imagination and became the go-to term for ‘something’s happening in the desert.’

In time, science and climate knowledge diverged from popular perceptions of desertification. With interest, investigation and new techniques, like satellite imagery, researchers were able to better understand climate and landscape interaction in arid regions. Two important factors became clear: (1) climate variability, particularly in precipitation, resulted in fluctuations in land cover, and (2) humans had significant impact on desert environments.

The first point, now broadly acknowledged, highlights how climate affects vegetation patterns. With more rain plant cover increases, while in dry or drought years ecological productivity decreases. Thus in wetter years deserts ‘shrink’ whilst ‘expanding’ in drier years.

The second point stresses the huge impact people have on landscapes, especially drylands. Agriculture, livestock grazing, resource extraction, urbanisation and intensive land use all affect desert environments. Once damaged, marginally productive arid landscapes are unlikely to recover.

Soon the idea of desertification grew in complexity. It was not a simple case of ‘deserts taking over’ or just a ‘climate event’. One year’s ‘desertification’ might be replaced by the next year’s ‘greening’.

The UNCCD developed a definition of desertification as ‘land degradation in arid, semi-arid and sub-humid areas resulting from various factors including climatic variations and human activities’. The focus identifies a process resulting from many potential causes. Implicit is that desertification reflects a change in state, crossing a threshold in which original productivity is lost.

Much discussion uses the term ‘desertified’, where perhaps degradation would be more appropriate. This allows for changes in precipitation or land use (e.g. farmland left fallow or ending overgrazing) that may improve vegetation and pasture. As with several scientific terms that enter the popular lexicon, there is more nuance and shades of meaning to desertification than its usage suggests.

Two Oxford University researchers, Dave Thomas and Nick Middleton, wrote about this in ‘Desertification: Exploding the Myth’ in 1994, a book that highlighted the use and misuse of the term. Now over twenty years later the word is ever more popular and has become a shorthand way to say the environment has gone pear-shaped. Few writers take the time to look at contributory factors, from drought to conflict and war, poverty, intensive cultivation on unsuitable land and development pressures. Indeed, the term has become so generic that it has little real meaning.

A recent article of mine ‘Contraction of the Gobi 2000-2012’ showed how the size of East Asia’s largest desert has been decreasing due to increased precipitation (Sternberg et al. 2015). However, Chinese researchers were convinced that it was not precipitation but ‘good government anti-desertification policies’ that led to the shrinking of the desert.

In a recent visit to Oxford the UNCCD representative stressed ‘degradation in any environment’ rather than using the word ‘desert’. Where is the funding appeal for a dry or dessicated piece of land? Much better to rebrand desertification as a term for severe degradation. That implies the potential to change, reverse and improve landscapes through human action; a positive message the public can embrace.

On this day take a moment to think about the two billion people, predominantly poor, who live in marginal arid and semi-arid regions, to realise the implications of a term we use lightly.

Dr Troy Sternberg is a geographer researching desert environments and societies, based at the School of Geography and the Environment. His current focus is on how climate hazards impact landscapes and people across Asian drylands.

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MSc students get ‘hands on’ with freshwater biodiversity at Otmoor

The MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management class recently journeyed to Otmoor, a historic wetland landscape to the northeast of Oxford, to learn about freshwater biodiversity and wetland restoration. Melissa von Mayrhauser reports back.

Students search for invertebrates in pondwater

Students search for invertebrates in pondwater collected at Otmoor.

Armed with wellies, nets and buckets, we collected invertebrates from elongated ponds to conduct a biological survey. Due to their diversity in freshwater, sedentary tendencies and life cycles that often extend for at least six months, invertebrates are ideal candidates to use as an indicator of water quality.

Netting dragonfly nymphs, water spiders and freshwater shrimp was a welcome change of pace from library revisions. We collected sediment in our nets from different pond mesohabitats and emptied the findings into our shallow containers. We then used spoons to search through the vegetation for hidden species, from damselfly nymphs to ramshorn snails.

Analysing these macroinvertebrates in jars over sandwiches at a local pub, we happily found high biodiversity and species that usually live in freshwater with low pollution, meaning that the water quality of elongated ponds was high.

After lunch, we spoke to the wetland’s warden from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds about the ways that they are working to restore the area to a wetland landscape with more robust biodiversity, as it had been prior to the nineteenth century. They are able to manipulate water levels to achieve this goal.

This trip was not only a picturesque excursion to a nearby preserve, but also a hands-on case study, helping us to pin principles from our course to a specific place in our backyard. Several of the students will use similar fieldwork practices for their dissertations to study species richness and biological water quality around the world. And water students in a wetland are as happy as a mayfly nymph in a reed bank!

Oxford University water research at the 2015 European Geosciences Union General Assembly

There was a great turnout for the School of Geography and the Environment at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly, where eight students and staff presented their latest water and climate related research findings.

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Map of a global topographic index developed by Toby Marthews and colleagues.

The annual EGU General Assembly is the largest European geosciences event and took place this year on 12-17 April in Vienna. The meeting covers all fields of science dealing with planet Earth, including volcanology, the Earth’s internal structure and atmosphere, climate, as well as energy, water and other resources.

Our students and staff were among the 11,000 scientists at the event from 108 countries. Oxford University presence included oral and poster presentations by Associate Professor Simon Dadson, post-doctoral researchers Emily Barbour, Gianbattista Bussi, Benoit Guillod, Rachel James, Toby Marthews and Daniel Mitchell, and doctoral candidate Franziska Gaupp.

Franziska Gaupp presented research on the role of storage capacity in coping with water variability in large river basins. Using a global water balance model, her analysis shows that current storage is able to buffer water variability in most basins. However, hotspots of water insecurity were found in South Asia, Northern China, the West Coast of the United States, Spain, Australia and several basins across Africa.

Emily Barbour’s research examines the complex relationship between water resource management and poverty in the Bangladesh Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Delta. Her poster shares experience with engaging policymakers and stakeholders to discuss the impacts of climate and socio-economic change on water availability and quality.

The map featured on this page shows a topographic index developed by Toby Marthews and colleagues – a measure of the ‘propensity for soil to become saturated’ – which will be an invaluable resource for use in large-scale hydrological modelling. In a second poster, Toby presented findings from a study which sought to find out if human-induced climate change contributed to the devastating 2014 drought in the Horn of Africa. The modelling results suggest no human influence on the likelihood of low rainfall but clear signals in other drivers of drought.

It’s difficult to study extreme weather events such as floods and droughts, because, by definition, they don’t occur very often. A way to overcome this issue is to use large ensembles of climate model simulations to produce ‘synthetic’ weather events. This was the topic of Benoit Guillod’s talk which he illustrated with an example of synthetic drought events in the UK being generated for the MaRIUS project (Managing the Risks, Impacts and Uncertainties of drought and water Scarcity) in order to better understand and predict droughts. In a second talk Benoit presented results on the impact of soil moisture on rainfall – an important interaction in the climate system.

Taking a more local perspective, Gianbattista Bussi spoke about his research on water quality in the River Thames basin which analyses the dynamics of fine sediments. Another strand of the work models the growth and movement of phytoplankton – microscopic algae which are an important food source for river wildlife, but over-growth can lead to algae bloom, depleted oxygen levels and the death of fish and other species.

It was fantastic to see so many of our researchers in Vienna sharing their insights and knowledge about the Earth’s water and climate systems.

Visit the EGU General Assembly website

Presentation files

Water Lives to screen at the 2015 UK Green Film Festival

Water Lives is a science advocacy animation about the important life underpinning and sustaining our freshwater ecosystems. It has been selected for screening alongside the documentary H2Omx at the 2015 UK Green Film Festival.

Water Lives was produced in 2012 by Rob St John, a former student of the MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management at the School of Geography and the Environment, and course director Dr Paul Jepson. A collaboration between artists and scientists, Water Lives shows how freshwater is a living, dynamic system inhabited by beautiful, important organisms largely unseen by the naked eye.

The curious and otherworldly physical form of freshwater organisms provides artistic inspiration for the animation, which also features a series of haiku about freshwater ecosystems written by acclaimed environmental poet John Barlow.

Watch the animation

Visit the 2015 Green Film Festival website

Report shows how water insecurity is a drag on the global economy

A new report shows floods, droughts and a lack of investment in providing good quality, reliable water supplies is dragging down the global economy. The report, published today and entitled ‘Securing Water, Sustaining Growth’, was written by an international Task Force chaired by Claudia Sadoff and co-chaired by Professors Jim Hall and David Grey from the University of Oxford.

cover with borderThe Task Force was established by the Global Water Partnership (GWP) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The report and new scientific analysis examines not only water’s destructive force but also how it contributes to human health and prosperity. It was launched at the start of the Seventh World Water Forum in South Korea, the international summit at which the world’s water challenges are addressed.

The report draws on research led by the University of Oxford and feeds into a policy statement released by GWP and OECD calling on governments to invest in strengthening the world’s institutional capacity to manage water security, with much improved information systems and better water infrastructure. It urges that special attention be paid to social risks, with a focus on vulnerable segments of society.

According to the report, South Asia has the largest concentration of water-related risks. East and Southeast Asia face rapidly increasing flood risk, although the United States has the greatest exposure to flood risk. Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region where the risks of inadequate water supply and sanitation are rising. North Africa has the greatest percentage of population at risk of water scarcity.

The international Task Force is comprised of leading academics, researchers and practitioners from around the world.

Claudia Sadoff, Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Environmental Change Institute, said: ‘Both our empirical and theoretical analyses demonstrate the importance of investment in water security for development and the importance of development for investment in water security.’

‘Effective ways of achieving water security involve combinations of investments in information, institutions and infrastructure’, says Professor Hall, report co-author and Director of the Environmental Change Institute. ‘Not all investments have been beneficial or cost-effective. Investment must be designed to be robust to uncertainties and to support adaptive management as risks, opportunities, and social preferences change. All of this will require refined analytic tools, innovation, and continuous monitoring, assessment, and adaptation.’

Report co-author and Visiting Professor at the School of Geography and the Environment, David Grey said: ‘Our analysis shows that the countries that depend on agriculture for their economies are often the worst affected by floods or water scarcity. Some countries will need to think about how they can diversify from an agriculturally focussed economy to one less dependent on water. They will also focus on how better use can be made of the limited water supplies available to them.’

Read the report
Read the GWP news release
Water insecurity costs global economy billions a year, Bloomberg, 13 April 2015
Water insecurity costing global economy billions, Japan Times, 25 April 2015

 

Changing conceptions of rights to water

What do we really mean when we talk about a right to water? A human right to water is a cornerstone of a democratic society, but what form that right should take is hotly debated.

irrigationArticle by Bettina Lange and Mark Shepheard, from the Oxford University Press blog

Recently 1,884,790 European Union (EU) citizens have signed a petition that asks the EU institutions to pass legislation which recognizes a human right to water, and which declares water to be a public good not a commodity.

But a right to water has various facets. It includes rights of economic operators, such as power stations and farmers to abstract water from rivers, lakes, and groundwater sources. The conundrum here is that an individual human right to water, including a right to drinking water and sanitation, can be in conflict with the rights of economic operators to water. More importantly such human rights to water may be in conflict with a right to water of the environment itself. The natural environment needs water to sustain important features such as habitats that support a wide range of animals and plants.

There is a growing trend under the label of ‘environmental stewardship’ that prompts us to think not in terms of trade-offs between different claims to water, but to change how we think about what a right to water entails. Environmental stewardship means that human uses of water – by individual citizens, consumers and economic operators – should pay greater attention to the needs of the natural environment itself for water. This raises some thorny issues that go to the heart of how we think about fundamental rights in contemporary democracies. Should we abolish the possibility to own natural sources, such as water and thus limit the scope of private property rights? Should we develop ideas of collective property, which involves state ownership of natural resources exercised on behalf of citizens? Should we simply qualify existing private property and administrative rights to water through stewardship practices? It is the latter approach that is currently mainly applied in various countries. How does this work? Water law can impose specific legal duties, for instance on economic operators to use water efficiently, in order to promote stewardship practices. Whether this will be of any consequence, however, depends on what those who are regulated by the legal framework think and do.

recent study therefore explored how English farmers think about a right to water and its qualification through stewardship practices. The study found that three key factors shape what a right to water means to farmers.

First, the institutional-legal framework that regulates how much water farmers can abstract through licences issued by the Environment Agency defines the scope of a right to water.

Second – and this struck us as particularly interesting – not just the law and the institutions through which water rights are implemented matter, but also how natural space is organized. The characteristics of farms and catchments themselves, in particular whether they facilitated the sharing of water between different users, influenced how farmers thought about a right to water. Water sharing could enable stewardship practices of efficient water use that qualified conventional notions of individual economic rights to water.

Third – and this touches upon key debates about the ‘green economy’ – the economic context in which rights to water are exercised has a bearing on how ideas about rights to water become qualified by environmental stewardship.

In particular ‘green’ production and consumption standards shape how farmers think about a right to water. There are a range of standards that have been developed by the farming industry, independent certification bodies, such as the Soil Association, as well as manufacturers of food stuffs to whom farmers sell their produce and supermarkets. These standards prompt farmers to consider the impact of their water use on the natural environment. For instance, the Red Tractor standard for potatoes asks farmers to think of water use in terms of a strategic plan of environmental management for the farm, which also addresses ‘accurate irrigation scheduling’, ‘the use of soil moisture and water application technology’, as well as ‘regular and even watering’. These are voluntary standards, but they matter. They can render farmers’ practices in relation to water stewardship more transparent and thus also promote accountability for the use of natural resources.

Supermarket standards were considered as most influential by farmers, particularly in water scarce areas of the United Kingdom such as East Anglia. But these standards revealed an interesting tension between their economic and environmental facets.

Somehow paradoxically green consumption and production standards could also reinforce significant water use by farmers, such as spray irrigation in order to achieve good product appearance. For instance, some manufacturers of crisps seek to reduce the impact on water use of the crops they source for their products. But farmers who want to sell their potato crops to crisp manufacturers still have to achieve ‘good skin finish’, because ‘nobody wants scabby potatoes’!

So, next time you go grocery shopping ask how your consumer choice shapes a right to water.

Dr Bettina Lange is an Associate Professor in Law and Regulation at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Oxford University. Her research draws on social theory and qualitative empirical methods in order to understand how political and economic contexts shape how environmental legal rules are interpreted and implemented. Dr Mark Shepheard is a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Law at the University of New England, Australia. His research interests are natural resource stewardship, regulation and governance, virtue ethics as well as land and water management obligations. Together, they are the authors of ‘Changing Conceptions of Rights to Water? An Eco-Socio-Legal Perspective‘, which won the 2014 JEL annual Richard Macrory best article prize and is available to read for free for a limited time in the Journal of Environmental Law.

 

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.