Behavioural Start to Water Quality Series

This year, the Oxford Water Network is organizing a seminar series on water quality, led by Dr Katrina Charles. The series focuses on the interdisciplinary challenge of achieving safe water quality. Some might think of water quality as a technical subject, focused on how to measure or treat dangerous chemicals or pathogens. Actually, water quality research is much broader and has political, environmental, and behavioural aspects that must be considered. All of which will be taken into account throughout the series this year.

People’s behaviour and water quality in households was the focus of the first talk in the series, given by Dr Robert Dreilbelbis of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Because expanding piped water access is expensive and progress is slow, intermediate options for pathogen treatment for household water use have been explored. While these options include filtration, solar disinfection, and purifiers, the most widely used option is simply boiling the water at the point of use. But the bigger issue is not how to clean the water, it’s how to get people to make the effort to clean it. This is where Dr Dreilbelbis’s research comes in.

Very few households that need to improve their water quality make an effort to do so, and previous work on ‘education’ around these issues has not produced significant behavioural change. Dr Dreilbelbis thus wanted to explore how changing a household’s understanding of the threat from their water could impact behavioural change by examining three options of outreach: firstly, just using standard educational messaging; secondly, using education plus laboratory confirmed results for their household water; and thirdly, using education plus providing test kits and training so households could evaluate their own water quality. Behavioural modelling indicates people are most likely to make changes when they feel there is a high threat and they have the agency to take impactful action. This project in rural India found that demonstrating that there was a real threat through either laboratory or at home testing did lead more participants (28-38%) to change their behaviours and use adequate water purification methods. Given the low costs of test kits and how that allows households to participate in the tests themselves, this seems like an effective way forward to improve water quality in households. However, more research is needed to demonstrate what is needed to sustain those changes.


Smart Handpumps Crowdfunding

On 18 June, BBC South Today featured the Water Programme’s Smart Handpumps project in its evening news bulletin. This timely piece was just before Thursday’s new JMP published report. Patrick Thomson and Jacob Katuva were interviewed about the project and mentioned the crowdfunding campaign, which is going well, reaching 50% of its £50,000 goal pledged as of Friday. This is the final week and this project only receives its pledges if reaches its £50k goal, so spread the word!

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.


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

How to get rid of industrial waste: feed it to bacteria

A spin-out company is pioneering the use of bacteria that literally eat the toxic by-products of high-tech engineering.

Professor William Pope, Microbial’s Chief Executive Officer, with untreated metal working fluid (left) and metal working fluid after treatment with MicrocycleTM (right)

Professor William Pope, Microbial’s Chief Executive Officer, with untreated metal working fluid (left) and metal working fluid after treatment with MicrocycleTM (right)

Microbial Solutions Ltd has developed a clever solution to the disposal of ultra-high toxicity fluids, a serious issue for high-tech metal working companies such as those that manufacture aircraft and cars. Extremely precise engineering is required to create something like an aeroplane’s wing or a modern fuel efficient engine, and the interface between the metal and the machine cutting it has to be constantly lubricated with a carefully emulsified mixture of high-grade oils and water. The fluid carries away metal swarf, facilitates the most accurate cut possible, and absorbs heat which could otherwise damage the product and the tool.

There is a problem, however: bacteria love these oil and water mixtures. They are warm and full of hydrocarbons which the bacteria feed on, providing a perfect breeding ground. Under normal working conditions the fluids can rapidly become so contaminated with bacteria that they have to be replaced. This is expensive, and therefore the lubricating fluids contain biocides to make them as toxic as possible, resulting in fluids that last much longer, give better machining performance and save companies money.

In the long run, though, even these fluids become unusable, and this creates another problem: a highly toxic waste product that has to be disposed of. Expensive and energy-intensive chemical methods can be used to break up the fluids, but these will not remove all the toxic components. The poisonous sludge left behind also has to be disposed of – incinerated, or in some parts of the world buried in landfill, where it will slowly break down anaerobically, but at the cost of releasing the greenhouse gases methane and CO2 into the atmosphere. The disposal process can cost companies hundreds of thousands of pounds a year.

It was research by Chris van der Gast, a DPhil student affiliated to the Department of Engineering Science and working at the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), which began to address this problem. In conjunction with Professor Ian Thompson (then at the CEH, but now at Oxford University), Chris investigated whether bacteria could be employed to deal with the poisonous waste. It seems counterintuitive to use bacteria to consume something that has deliberately been treated with biocides, but in fact almost anything can be eaten by bacteria – it is just a question of finding the right ones.

After a careful worldwide search of the hundreds of bacteria that survive naturally in metal working fluids, five were selected, and this mix of bacteria was able to create a self-sustaining system. At ambient temperature and pressure, with no need for high energy inputs, the bacteria gradually consume the toxic fluids (including the waste oil), producing small amounts of carbon dioxide. Toxicity, carbon and nutrient balancing keeps bacterial growth at a stable level and prevents algal bloom. The grey water left over at the end of the process can be recycled or released directly into the sewers, and the system has proved capable of running for years at a time without the need to add more bacteria.

The research led to the spin-out of Microbial Solutions in 2008. Industry was quick to see the potential of the company’s patented MicrocycleTM bacterial treatment, since it helped them to meet increasingly stringent targets for reduction of pollution, landfill waste and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as saving them considerable amounts of money. The technology has been trialled by British Aerospace and the Ford Motor Company, with highly successful results; Microbial Solutions has won Technology Awards from both companies, as well as a UK Award for Environmental Excellence, and the future of its innovative bioreactors looks extremely promising. Meanwhile, further research into the innovative uses of bacteria in environmental engineering is continuing in the Department of Engineering Science.

Peter Fish, Systems Estates Manager for British Aerospace, said: ‘Microbial Solutions reactor solves a number of problems at once: it can save costs and also helps us meet our environmental obligations. We have a site of special scientific interest near our Brough plant, and we have to be very careful when transporting, treating, or disposing of waste. Being able to remove the toxins from metal working fluids so effectively is a huge benefit. We’re very pleased the trial has worked so well and look forward to continuing our excellent working relationship with the Microbial Solutions team.’

Original research funded by the Natural Environment Research Council

Visit the Microbial Solutions website

This is one of the Oxford University research impact case studies

Action needed to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the Thames

In a podcast on the NERC Planet Earth website, Paul Whitehead from Oxford University and Mark Barnett from the Environment Agency comment on the pollution challenge of the river Thames. They explain why the river will fail to meet European Union standards unless action is taken by farmers to reduce fertiliser use and water companies cut the amount of phosphorus being discharged by sewage works.

“Nitrogen and phosphorus come from a range of different sources,” said Paul Whitehead, Professor of Water Science at the School of Geography and the Environment. For example, phosphorus comes through sewage works, from the soap we use in everyday in dishwashers and washing machines, as well as from agricultural and rural diffuse sources.

“They create eutrophic conditions in the river, where you get excessive blooms of algae and growth of unwanted plants” explained Paul. “It is possible to kill a river, meaning the oxygen levels in the river are reduced down to zero and fish and macroinvertebrates can’t survive.”

Mark Barnett, Catchment Coordinator for the Environment Agency said that although a lot of work has been done over the last few decades to reduce nitrates and phosphates, there is still quite a long way to go to meet European Union targets.

Climate change could have significant impacts on river pollution in the future as the distribution of rainfall changes, with more rainfall predicted in the winter and reduced rainfall and river flows in the summer. “This means that in the summer there will be less dilution of pollutants coming into the river system, so that could raise phosphorus levels, and in winter more nitrogen and phosphorus could be flushed out of the catchment into the river system,” warned Paul Whitehead.

Building riparian buffer strips is one measure that could be taken to cut down pollution levels – these are zones of land next to the stream channel which effectively act as a filter for the sediments and nutrients found in water running off the fields. There are also technologies available for removing phosphorus at sewage treatment works, enabling it to be recycled and sold back to farmers rather ending up in the river.

“I’m reasonably confident that things will improve” said Paul Whitehead. “They’ve improved massively over the last 50 years in the Thames so I’m sure that will continue. Technology is improving the whole time, the water companies are quite keen to actually extract phosphorus and sell it back to the farmers, it’s potentially a source of money for them and at the same time farmers want to use less and less fertiliser because it is more expensive.”

Listen to the Planet Earth podcast

Managing phosphorus water pollution in an uncertain future

An Oxford-led study suggests that multiple strategies may be needed to manage phosphorus in rivers. Sources of phosphorus pollution vary depending on future changes in rainfall and runoff under different scenarios of climate, land use and water resource management.

Phosphorus causes eutrophication or over-fertilisation of rivers, a serious problem that leads to excessive growth of algae, having a harmful effect on plant and animal life. Managing phosphorus levels in rivers is therefore a major global, national and European concern. Phosphorus can come from diffuse sources such as agricultural fertilisers or point sources such as sewage treatment works.

The study, led by Dr. Jill Crossman and Prof. Paul Whitehead, assesses how the water quality and hydrology of the Thames River system respond to future changes in climate, agricultural land use and water resource allocations. It then evaluates the effectiveness of phosphorus management strategies under these scenarios of future change.

The authors of the study found that the relative contribution of phosphorus from diffuse and point sources vary according to future rainfall and runoff. During high flow periods, agricultural diffuse sources are the main problem, and during low flow periods point sources dominate.

The study suggests that the best approach to phosphorus management may be to adopt multiple strategies for use at different times and locations in order to target the dominant source.

Read the full journal article in Science of the Total Environment

New tool launched to calculate nitrogen footprint

Scientists at Lancaster, Virginia and Oxford universities have produced a web-based tool that allows anyone living in the UK to calculate their own ‘nitrogen footprint’.

The tool, known as the N-Calculator, asks you to input certain information on what you eat, how you travel and how much energy you use in your home, and then calculates the likely effects on the environment in terms of nitrogen pollution. It is hoped that the tool will encourage people to choose more sustainable ways of living.

Scientists have warned that reactive nitrogen pollution is already a major environmental problem that is causing significant damage to air and water quality across the UK. Nitrogen runoff from farms and man-made effluents are largely responsible for algal blooms that affect river systems, whilst atmospheric nitrogen pollution is leading to significant losses of biodiversity. Most of the nitrogen pollution arises out of agricultural processes used in the growing of crops or grazing of animals. In addition, a significant proportion of the average UK nitrogen footprint comes from vehicle emissions.

“Nitrogen is essential for growing crops for food or high quality grass for cattle, as any farmer knows,” said Paul Whitehead, Professor of Water Science at the School of Geography and the Environment, and Director of the NERC-funded Macronutrients Cycles Programme. “However, the widespread use of nitrogen fertilizer to boost crop production has resulted in a runoff of excess nitrogen from farms into our rivers, lakes and groundwaters.”

The researchers used publicly available data such as national atmospheric data, national land use and farm statistics, to make the calculations. The N-Calculator website also makes recommendations for how to lessen your ‘nitrogen footprint’. Lifestyle choices affect your nitrogen footprint: reducing your nitrogen footprint means cutting back on road and air travel, choosing renewable energy and, most importantly, altering the balance of the foods contained in your diet.

“Unlike your carbon footprint, what you eat is the most important factor determining your nitrogen footprint,” said Dr Carly Stevens of Lancaster University. “By altering the amount and type of food that you eat, you can make a big difference to your impact on the environment.”

The tool, first developed in the US, has been updated and adapted for UK users by researchers from Lancaster University under a project funded by the NERC Macronutrient Cycles programme at Oxford. The device was originally created by award-winning scientist James N Galloway and his research colleagues, Allison Leach, at the University of Virginia, Albert Bleeker of ECN and Jan Willem Erisman of the Louis Bolk Institute, both of The Netherlands.

Calculate your N Footprint

Visit the Macronutrients Cycles Programme website

Simon Dadson wins grant to study the impacts of urbanisation on water security in the Thames

Dr. Simon Dadson from the School of Geography and the Environment has been awarded a £160k NERC grant for a project which aims to advance understanding of the fine-scale impacts of urbanisation on water resources and pollution in the Thames river basin.

Over the past 50 years changes in UK land use have been considerable and this trend is likely to continue. The UK population is projected to increase by 16% to 2035 which will bring about change to the size and structure of urban areas and increased pressure on land management. These changes have significant implications for water resources.

The three-year project ‘Changes in urbanisation and its effects on water quantity and quality from local to regional scale’ will focus on water security in the Thames river basin, a region facing serious water stress.

A novel integrated modelling approach will be developed and tested for detailed local case studies, and then scaled up for testing across the entire basin. Future impacts on water resources will be quantified, taking into account projections of urban development, land management, and climate change.

The project is a collaboration between Oxford University, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and the University of Surrey.

The Macronutrients Cycles Programme is launched with multiple grants approved

The Macronutrient Cycles Programme – a £9.3 million programme of research directed by Professor Paul Whitehead at Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment – has finally approved a set of grants following an extensive peer review exercise undertaken by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

The grants cover a wide range of research in macronutrients, as shown in the diagram below, and mark the start an exciting three years of integrated research of the cycles of nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon and their interactions in the environment.

The doubling of global cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus has led to the degradation of soils, freshwaters and marine waters, resulting in the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Increased carbon levels in the atmosphere have been linked to global climate change. Efforts to control nutrients to date have focused largely on a single nutrient without considering the interactions between macronutrient cycles. There is a danger that mitigating impacts of a single nutrient cycle could enhance the effects of another.

The NERC Macronutrients Cycles programme aims to address these gaps in macronutrient cycles science and policy-making, delivering integrated research on the complex dynamics and interactions of nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon cycles at a catchment scale.

The programme brings together researchers in the freshwater, terrestrial, atmospheric and estuarine environments. A strong focus is to deliver information, models, new data and new synthesis to policymakers in Government and the Environment Agency. The project will also link to key EU research and policy programmes and international initiatives such as the Belmont Foundation programmes.

For a more information on the programme, visit the website or read the publication by Professor Paul Whitehead and Dr Jill Crossman:

Whitehead, P.G. and Crossman, J (in press).  Macronutrient cycles and climate change: Key science areas and an international perspective. The Science of the Total Environment.