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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

 

Scientists find vast new freshwater sources under the sea

Untapped reserves of fresh groundwater – up to 0.5 million km3 – are buried beneath continental shelves around the world, according to new findings published in the international scientific journal Nature,

The research was led by Vincent Post (Flinders University, Australia) and co-authored by Mike Edmunds (Oxford), Jacobus Groen and Henk Kooi (Amsterdam), Mark Person (New Mexico), and Shemin Ge (Colorado).

These reserves were formed during the glacial periods over thousands of years when on average the sea level was much lower than it is today, and when the coastline was further out, rainwater would infiltrate into the ground and fill up the water table in areas that are nowadays under the sea. When the sea level rose due to the melting ice caps some 9000 years ago these areas were covered by the ocean. Many aquifers were – and are still – protected from seawater by overlying layers of clay and sediment.

This is good news since this water is accessible to many of the world’s burgeoning coastal cities suffering from water stress. But, it should be stressed, these waters are non-renewable and would need to be ‘mined’. Yet, the reserves are estimated at 100 times the amount we have already extracted from the earth’s subsurface.

In Europe freshwater has been found at and beyond the English Channel and North Sea coasts of the UK and the Netherlands, areas that were exposed as land masses for much of the past 80 000 years. Other areas with considerable offshore reserves include North America, China, Indonesia, Australia and South Africa.

There are two ways to access this water – through platforms out at sea or by drilling from the mainland or islands close to the aquifers. While offshore drilling can be very costly, this method should be assessed and considered in terms of cost, sustainability and environmental impact against other water sources such as desalination, or even building large new dams on land.

But while nations may now have new reserves of freshwater offshore, they will need to take care to not contaminate it. Boreholes drilled into the aquifers for oil and gas exploration or production, or targeted for carbon dioxide disposal can threaten the quality of the water.

The study “Offshore fresh groundwater reserves as a global phenomenon” by Vincent E.A. Post, Jacobus Groen, Henk Kooi, Mark Person, Shemin Ge and W. Mike Edmunds is published in the latest issue of Nature.

Reference

Post, V.E.A., Groen, J., Kooi, H., Person, M., Ge, S. and Edmunds, W.M. (2013) Offshore fresh groundwater reserves as a global phenomenonNature, 504: 71-78

The hidden resource: groundwater’s role in achieving water security

Groundwater is critical to global water security. This was the clear message Professor Richard Taylor delivered at a seminar in Oxford on 13 November.

Knowledge gaps in groundwater science

Water stored underground provides around 36% of the world’s domestic supplies, and 42% of all irrigation water. Use of groundwater could also prove a useful adaptation to climate variability and change, Taylor said.

Despite its strategic importance, our understanding of the magnitude of groundwater resources across the world is strikingly poor. A groundbreaking 2012 study by Taylor and colleagues showed that the volume of groundwater in Africa is 10-100 times greater than water found above the surface. Far greater investment in groundwater monitoring and science is needed, if this resource is to be harnessed to achieve water security.

Climate change impacts on groundwater recharge

While knowledge on the current state of groundwater is patchy, still less is known about how these resources will change into the future. It is unclear how the trend towards more frequent and heavy rainfall events expected as global temperature rises will impact groundwater recharge.

The 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report referred to just one study on the impact of climate change on groundwater, which projected a dramatic 70% reduction in groundwater recharge in some parts of Brazil and Africa. The model used assumed that more intensive rainfall would more often exceed the capacity for water to infiltrate soils.

However, Taylor provided stark evidence to the contrary, suggesting that more heavy rainfall events may in fact lead to greater groundwater recharge. This more optimistic outlook was based on a study of 55 years of observational data of rainfall and groundwater levels in semi-arid Tanzania.

The records from Tanzania show that recharge is closely associated with extreme seasonal rainfall, with only seven rainfall events during the 55 years accounting for 80% of the recharge. Increased use of groundwater could therefore prove a useful adaptation to climate variability and change, suggested Taylor.

Sustainability of groundwater use

In Bangladesh, China and India, tapping into groundwater reserves for irrigation has enabled these countries to dramatically increase food production to meet the needs of their expanding populations.

However, groundwater is being used faster than it can be replenished in some parts of the world, warned Taylor, including north-west India, the California Central Valley, and the North China Plain. Indirect impacts on groundwater, for example due to irrigation demand, can outweigh any direct impacts of climate change on recharge rates. The sustainability of resources therefore remains a key concern.

Groundwater depletion is not always inevitable and in some cases, groundwater abstraction can actually lead to greater recharge. Taylor’s research shows that in parts of the Bengal Basin in Bangladesh, water pumped out of the ground is almost completely replenished by the yearly monsoon. The subsurface effectively acts as a storage reservoir, with pumping during the dry season making space for greater storage and recharge during rainy periods.

Whether abstraction leads to groundwater depletion or increased recharge depends on the geology and soils, with sandy soils being favourable to recharge in the Bangladesh case.

The inadequacy of global water scarcity metrics

Current metrics of freshwater availability are based solely on river flows. According to Taylor, these measures are fundamentally flawed as they ignore groundwater, and therefore warp perceptions of water security.

Water scarcity metrics are also unhelpful when it comes to planning for adaptation to climate change. Using water more efficiently, and increasing storage, can both help buffer increasing varibility in flows. “We need to think of storage more holistically”, said Taylor. This means considering not only constructed storage such as reservoirs, but also the water stored naturally beneath the Earth’s surface.

This blog is based on a talk given by Richard Taylor, Professor of Hydrogeology at University College London, as part of the Water Security, Growth and Development seminar series. Download the presentation slides

 

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.