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


From rights to results in rural water services

New evidence to translate the human right to water into measureable results in rural Africa is presented in a new report funded by UK Department for International Development and led by Oxford University.

rural water suply


Institutional transformations are required if Africa is to deliver the universal Human Right to Water to 275 million rural people without improved water services. Improving the reliability of one million handpumps which should deliver drinking water to over 200 million rural Africans will be a major contribution to translating water rights into measureable results. This study tests a new maintenance service model over a one year period in rural Kenya using mobile-enabled data to improve operational and financial performance by reducing risks at scale.

The report, produced by the Smith School Water Programme, highlights results that have led to:

  • a ten-fold reduction in handpump downtime (days not working),
  • a shift to 98 per cent of handpumps functioning,
  • a fairer and more flexible payment model contingent on service delivery,
  • new and objective metrics to guide water service regulatory reform,
  • a revised financial architecture shaped by an output-based payment model.

The model outlines a new and replicable framework for policy and investment behaviour informed by rural water users’ more expansive views of the design and delivery of rural water institutions than currently prescribed.

Report launched at ‘Smart Handpump’ day

The report was launched at an event at Kellogg College on 5 March  hosted by the Oxford Centre for Affordable Healthcare Technology, Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, School of Geography and the Environment and Department of Engineering Science.

Attendees from DFID, ARM, Sequoia Technology, Oxfam and ESRC were invited to meet the ‘Smart Handpump’ that has been installed in the college grounds. Smart Handpumps use a mobile-enabled transmitter which sends data on pump usage, rapidly detecting any failures and enabling repairs to be made. The technology is currently being piloted in rural Kenya and feeds into ongoing work at Oxford University on improving institutions to measurably reduce poverty.

Researcher Patrick Thomson demonstrating the handpump to Nick Liddington (MD of Sequoia Technology Group) Steve Sydes (Commercial Director of Sequoia Technology Group).

Researcher Patrick Thomson demonstrating the handpump to Nick Liddington and Steve Sydes (Managing Director and Commercial Director of Sequoia Technology Group).

Download the full report

Research highlight: Women in India becoming more influential in irrigation

Women in Northern India are playing an increasingly important role in irrigation, a traditionally male-dominated activity, according to new research published in the journal World Development. This is improving female engagement in formal politics more broadly, says Alexandra Girard, author of the study.

Irrigation canals in Northern India are critical for local livelihoods, but they are also important for forming cultural norms and building social support within communities and between villages. These canals are governed by deeply embedded gender traditions, a reflection of the overall decision-making system in the community. Traditionally only men in the village make formal decisions regarding the canals or participate in their repair and construction. Women are informal actors: they channel demands and complaints through informal means, such as talking to their male relatives.

However, in recent years, women have come to play a more influential role in irrigation, a result of several gender-inclusive policies. First, some canals have had their management decentralised to formal local government institutions. These local governments are composed of 33-50% female members, as required by the 1992 Reservation Law. Second, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), a poverty alleviation scheme aimed at investing labour surplus into the construction of durable rural assets such as irrigation, must target a minimum of 33% of women. In practice, almost half of MGNREGA beneficiaries are women. Together, these gender inclusive policies are legitimising women as both formal decision-makers and labour force in irrigation.

The research examined how women’s new legitimacy in the traditionally male domain of irrigation affects their involvement in other formal political processes in their community, and in particular their participation in formal village meetings. Factors linked to the formalisation of women’s role were examined, as well as factors from the private domain (for example, age, education, household background). The survey consisted of 593 female canal users in rural areas in the Palampur region, Himachal Pradesh, as well as interviews with 37 local government members (male and female), and over 10 other irrigation stakeholders.

The results reinforce many existing findings on the link between women’s engagement in formal politics and their personal background (for example, older women are more likely to engage in village meetings). Most importantly, the study reached several novel conclusions on the positive outcomes of formally including women in male dominated activities such as irrigation, for female engagement in formal politics. Formally creating political responsibility and economic opportunities for women in irrigation increases their visibility and mobility, and introduces them to a world of political procedures, administration, and the politicising notions of rights and benefits, which in turn favour women’s engagement and participation in other formal politics processes in the community.

Alexandra M. Girard is a recently graduated DPhil student at Oxford University.


Girard, A.M. (2014) Stepping into formal politics: women’s engagement in formal political processes in irrigation in rural India. World Development, 57: 1-18.

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.


The next steps for the UK’s water sector – the draft Water Bill and beyond

Reflections on the Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum seminar, 4 December 2012[/intro]

By Gareth Walker, Oxford University

After a summer of unusually high rainfall [1], it is hard to believe that last March the Environment Agency (E.A.) classified most of England as under drought conditions [2]. There were restrictions on both domestic and agricultural use. A government minister was compelled to hold a ‘Water Summit’ to address intensifying competition between agriculture and utilities over water resources in East Anglia [3]. Even the possibility of water transfers from Wales [4] and Scotland [5] to England was discussed at a political level. It was said the drought could continue past Christmas [6].

Then the rain arrived, and didn’t stop, prompting extensive economic damage and disruption across the country. Thames Water, the supplier for much of London, placed advertisements on the London Underground imploring customers to continue to curb consumption despite the floods, unsure if the rainfall would abate before aquifers and reservoirs sufficiently recharged [7]. These are the events which come to mind when assessing the draft Water Bill.

England is home to the world’s most comprehensively privatised water sector. Our water security relies heavily upon private investment. Since 1989 the sector has attracted £90 billion in investment, allowing it to meet ever-increasing European environmental and drinking water quality directives. Yet now there is doubt over its ability to continue to simultaneously deliver environmental integrity, social equity, and healthy dividends. The E.A. is demanding a more integrated approach flood risk management and reform in water abstraction licences, particularly in catchments in the south of England which are now classified as some of the most water stressed in Europe [8].

The economic regulator, Ofwat, is clear that allowable increases in domestic bills above inflation will no longer be the certainty they once were. The introduction of the Competition Act of 2000 led to a House of Lords report singling Ofwat out as having failed in its duty to promote competition, noting that while other utilities had been liberalised, water remained a regional monopoly [9]. The Scottish response was to introduce competition for commercial water customers in 2008, ‘proving’ it was possible. The irony of the Scottish state-owned water sector achieving competition before the fully privatised English undertaking was not lost to policy makers. As Jacob Tompkins put it at the Forum, there was a sense of “Scotland have done it first, so oh my goodness, we need to have a bill”.

So it’s not surprising that the subject of liberalisation and markets has loomed large in recent years. Borne out of both a political mandate for increased competition and an economic philosophy of managing water as a scarce private good, the 2011 White Paper on Water promised to resurrect a vision of market-environmentalism which consecutive governments had quietly retreated from since privatisation. Scarcity would be signalled through increased trade in abstraction rights and bulk water supplies, customers incentivised to reduced waste through price signalling, and companies exposed to direct competition within markets.

However, the institutional reform necessary to introduce markets to a heavily regulated monopoly which presides over a complex and integrated resource system such as water is no simple task. In such instances, markets do not materialise through laissez-fairism and invisible hand prophesies, but through a concerted and state-sponsored effort to govern institutional reform. Institutions are about security in knowing just what the ‘rules of the game’ are. Changing the rules comes at a cost in a sector which places a premium on stability.

Scotland’s success depended upon political will and an ability to ensure a clear and simple institutional framework. Competition was largely a political act, designed by its left-leaning government to protect Scotland’s corporatised public water infrastructure from private ownership while adhering to demands for increased competition in retail. Government-mandated conditions on responsibility for suppliers of last resort, procedures for establishing new contracts, and the bulk sale of water through a single state-owned raw water supplier, all contributed to a transparent and predictable operating environment.

England and Wales arguably contain a greater diversity of interests, both within and beyond government. The Treasury’s mantra of “recovery through stability” does not bode well for White Paper reform aspirations, especially given that investors and lenders are visibly spooked by the prospect of increased competition and have threatened an increase in the cost of capital [10]. There are tensions between utilities and agriculture concerning the impact of markets on the long-term security of abstraction rights. Within the water sector, there are twenty-five water companies and eight commercial suppliers, all with varying ownership structures, overlapping resource systems, and differing local operating conditions. Each with a position on reform.

Where agreement on reform between agents is left to the lowest common denominator, the result is ultimately little or no change. While the aspirations of White Paper were clear, the path to them is not. The draft Water Bill makes only cautious progress towards White Paper ambitions. Universal metering has once again been abandoned, the vertical separation of companies is off the table, and abstraction reform will only be completed by the mid-2020s at the earliest. Environmental groups and opposition government representatives have declared the bill “disappointing” [11]. The lesson learned?  Governance is ubiquitous, even when it comes to market-oriented aspirations.

Gareth Walker is a DPhil student at the School of Geography and the Environment. His research focuses on water scarcity in relation to resource planning and institutional reform in the English and Welsh private water sector.