Water - think global // act local
By Paul Edmunds
Water has always been part of my life as I grew up in a small Oxfordshire spring-line village established at the foot of a chalk escarpment stretching along the North Wessex Downs in the UK. In addition and directly related to the location of our family home. This story starts at the source of the local spring which feeds into a stream network running through the bottom of the garden of our family home (see figures 1 & 2). We grew up creating dams, fishing for tadpoles, avoiding the beehives, climbing trees, building camps on the small fluvial island separating the two small streams. The stream meanders through the village and splits into a number of tributaries before reaching a watercress bed which, true to its name, served the early aquaculture economy of the village.
In the early 90s, the seasonal flows in the stream reduced, and in conjunction, the regular sightings of a rare kingfisher ceased due to a reduced food chain. One of the tributary springs in our garden stopped flowing for the first time since our “garden observation” records began. It was a warm summer and blame went to the seasonal climate variations. Eventually, the stream dried up completely, and with it so did the biodiversity: no more ducks, water rats, tadpoles, freshwater shrimps, and so on. The village where “Wind in the Willows”, author Kenneth Grahame lived, was losing its blood flow and its heartbeat that summer.
This was not easily accepted, neither in our family or by many others in the village. Blewbury is a caring community with origins going back about 4000 years and it has a well-established local council and many resident scientists and artists pushed for an investigation. The British Geological Survey and Center for Ecology and Hydrology and Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience are located in nearby, Wallingford, which is today one of the major hubs for earth science, hydraulic engineering, and agricultural research in the UK. So with this, a homemade investigative scientific study began on the historical water table and quickly an anomaly was noticed. The hotter summer was initially and solely blamed, but why had this not happened before? Discussion within the community quickly led to the collation of scientific evidence and an approach to the District Council to open a case. After witness statements, council investigation, and engagement with the utilities operators and consultants, the outcome was unanimous: the summer drought was the driver for reduced water flow. However, with the decreased rainfall, an unsustainable amount of water was also being pumped out of the aquifer for other purposes. The village won the case, and the sustainable balance was reinstated. The water returned and continued its resilience through future dry summers.
This story has stayed in the back of my mind for the past 30 years due to the impact on our environment and our lives. It taught me that water needs to be considered holistically and governed at the catchment level for the benefit of all who rely on it socially, economically, environmentally and emotionally.
Why was this important?
This was a local issue identified by the community with a population bias of creative environmentalists and leading geoscientists. I, therefore, suspect that many similar situations went unnoticed in many parts of the UK at this time. From this point on, we scoped the aquatic environment closely. In addition, the village also investigated declining water quality and eutrophication, where increased algal blooms due to increased nitrate use in agriculture entered the water table and suffocated the natural aquatic microbiology. Blewbury has needed a helping hand to maintain and regenerate its biodiversity in recent years and water levels have been closely monitored by the village since 1989. Undervaluation, increasing demand, and poor governance of water, in combination with a changing climate, are the same water security issues reverberating around the world. In the last thirty years, the world has witnessed a rapidly evolving global water crisis, with entire cities on the brink of running out of water (Cape town 2019 & Barcelona 2008). This is predicted to be a continuing trend: just last month Turkey was reporting a similar problem due to a prolonged drought. Today water has risen to the top of global political and economic agendas due to growing populations with increasing demands and finite resources. According to the WHO. “1 in 3 people still do not have access to safe drinking water”. Climate change is now exacerbating the issue.
An ongoing, but more recent report on a very different scale is the impact of climate change on the Colorado River which flows from source to sea, starting in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and ending in the Gulf of California (See figure 3 below). The scale is incomparable, but the processes are the same. A changing climate has reduced snowpacks and provided less predictable rainfalls. The colorado river provides water for about 40 million people and more than 5 million acres of farmland from Wyoming to Southern California so it is essential for the lives of so many. Over-abstraction in combination with climate change is increasing the threats of desertification.
So what are the solutions? Slowing and ultimately reversing climate change must be the priority not just for the Colorado River but around the world. The Mekong Delta, The Nile Delta and nearly all freshwater ecosystems are being compromised in some way or another. Local villages in the Sahelian regions of Africa are relying on localized water harvesting to manage their water needs. These regions are extreme examples, but show the resilience and adaptation that will be required by many more communities around the world in the next 50–100 years.
One thing is clear, solutions to water issues need to be scaled globally but addressed more locally. The necessity to quantify future climate risks and growing population demands with increasing granularity at a sub-basin level is mounting. Decentralized systems, such as water harvesting and desalination in desertified areas will become commonplace where renewable energy infrastructure and economic demand allow. Governance of watersheds will need to become much more innovatively managed as the stressed, ancient, natural aquifers will become overexploited if left unchecked.
Our local example in the Oxfordshire village showed the value of a holistic multi-stakeholder approach. Water Utility Companies, Agricultural businesses, governing bodies, local communities, NGOs all need to align a common operational and actionable framework to manage water for the needs of all. However, with climate change taking hold now this governance needs to happen faster and with a greater emphasis on sustainability and efficiency which is easier said than done. Currently, water is not well governed around the world and water conflicts are increasing. As water markets get more attention in their ability to increase the value of water, manage allocations and aid the conservation of nature, they will also face the increasing challenges of conflict. Again, a lot of work needs to be done to ensure these growing markets are managed and governed effectively and the priority given to basic human rights.
Data & Technology
As long as the social and economic activities are embedded and local governance managed, and admittedly with my background bias, I am optimistic that data & technology will be a catalyst for change. Data has been showing us for some time where the problems are and predicting where they will be in the next 30 years. However, climate change is adding a new, less predictable time and space dimension to the extent of the impact. The good news is that many are adapting models and developing technology and international frameworks to enable predictions and monitoring at the local level. The European Space Agency now has hubs in most European countries supporting academic researchers and entrepreneurs to innovate with Earth observation data at ever-increasing spatial and temporal scales. International ICT companies are providing platforms, data and processing power at a single click. Real-time earth observation is already here and digital earth twins will enable us to develop short-term forecasting with increasing accuracy. Quantum computing is also on the horizon so the future will be faster enabling us to communicate more accurately the financial benefits and value of restoring essential natural capital.
The problem in the Oxfordshire village in the early 1990’s took 12 months to identify using paper-based evidence. The same issues can now be observed at a catchment level in near-real time using the right sensors. Satellite sensors are also now able to model changes in river flow and velocity at the river basin level. Data, technology and AI will also play an increasing part in measuring impact and, hopefully, in the regeneration of natural environments. Nature-Based Solutions (NBS) are a clear opportunity to restore complex natural systems in the way that nature does best. It should be noted that NBS do not require any technology or data to make them successful, in most cases it is just leaving nature to regenerate and re-establish the natural system. However, as a catalyst, technology will help to monitor nature-based investments and communicate their success to enable the value to be realised and further incentivize investment to protect and manage.
Village communities as seen in Oxfordshire are a great example of the success of community water stewardship from the ground up. Something that needs to be replicated with the many indigenous communities around the world who naturally have generations of knowledge from living and breathing these environments on a daily basis. Those who are impacted are those that react with the most intent. Only when looking beyond the immediate boundaries of the village was the wider problem identified.
Following the Paris agreement in 2016 corporations are, in addition to Net-zero targets, committing to 100% water replenishment mandates across their supply chains. Water Stewardship certifications such as the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) are increasing exponentially and are looking beyond site boundaries which allow the natural and sustainable watershed balance to set the boundaries on abstraction rather than consumer demand. Many consumers are now changing their habits, however there are still blind spots. Collaboration between businesses and NGOs is starting to become strategic and more complementary rather than conflicting. Frameworks such as those set up by the Nature Conservancy, IUCN, WWF, and locally deployed partners are now enabling rapid growth in blended finance initiatives driven by institutional investors realizing the true value of nature. “Spatial Finance” is a growing phrase being used to boost the geospatial accounting sector. However, the local implementation of these projects need to be carefully monitored to tailor their success and actual impact on the ground
ESG and Finance
Businesses are voluntarily providing water and other climate-related disclosures to agencies such as CDP, CDSB, GRI etc.. at an increasing rate (See Figure 4) . Even though voluntary at this time, their incentive is to increase their water sustainability scores which are then openly exposed to investors and financial institutions who use this information to form ESG metrics to understand the long-term economic impact of a company’s supply chain operations. The introduction of Science-Based Targets initiative will also be a driving force to ensure the impact is real.
This is becoming increasingly topical as disclosure agencies, financial institutions and governments are all trying to determine how best to consolidate, measure, and report on these, which, as a result, will help to drive the long term shift to blue and green economies. There is evidence that this is working as we see blended finance initiatives grow between governments, financial institutions and NGOs. An example being Water Funds, set up and run by The Nature Conservancy and partners for a number of years. Angola, Botswana and Namibia recently jointly established the CORB Fund which will be run as an independent business and help to govern the long-term sustainability of the Okavango river basin which spans each country supporting the livelihoods of about 380,000 people. A Mckinsey report recently calculated the value of nature and the increased investment needed to realise this value.
“Doubling the amount of conserved land and national waters could require an additional operating expenditure of $20 billion to $45 billion a year, depending on the conservation scenario, but the economic benefits from ecotourism and sustainable fishing alone could outweigh these costs by at least three times”
The London Stock Exchange has also recently established the “green economy classification” to also support best practice disclosure across markets, some may be cynical, but these are important, real steps towards change especially if they can be backed up with Science Based Targets.
2021 is certainly seeing the start of a planned transition. A transition that many have been working hard to make a reality in a hostile global political period since 2016. I applaud the groups and individuals who have created some really important frameworks and commitments during a turbid 2020. From NGOs, Academia to multi-nationals and financial institutions, there are real signs of progress at last. However, as these global frameworks and innovations are implemented it will be important to measure the societal and environmental impacts at ground level. The stream in Oxfordshire village started to flow again in the early 90’s however it was never the same again. The world of water will never be the same again, climate change will exacerbate the impact and even if reversed, supply and demand of water resources will fundamentally change. What is absolutely certain is that it needs to be driven by sustainable, quantified transparent natural basin limits and not blind consumer needs. Thus, we all have an individual role to play in changing our habits and exercising our influence to demand transparency in global supply chains.
Some further readings and links
Author: Paul Edmunds
Paul continued his passion for water & geography and for his undergraduate degree in 1999 completed an investigative study on water security on the Island of Malta. Following a career start in map publishing with Lonely Planet in London and then a year volunteering in Hawaii using hydrological models to map volcanic hazards Paul completed an MSc in GIS at the University of Edinburgh, where he worked to analyze and integrate high-resolution satellite imagery for agricultural land-use change detection. Three years working as an energy analyst and environmental consultant led to Paul founding Island GIS Ltd, a successful consultancy that ran for 15 years helping businesses to get more from data & maps. The birth of twins in 2011 and a move to Switzerland in 2014 led to a change in focus and after a short career break, Paul went to learn about digital agriculture at Nestle taking over the challenges of managing a solution for sustainability & direct global sourcing of coffee. Aquascope was conceived in January 2020 after an invite to the World Economic Forum in Davos. Today Aquascope consolidates 20 years of experience in water, data, product development, and business consultancy with a focus on helping solve one of the world’s biggest challenges.
Mentor/Influencer: Professor Mike Edmunds 1941–2015
Prof. Mike Edmunds was a Visiting Professor at the Oxford School of Geography and the Environment. His expertise lay in water quality, especially relating to groundwater, hydrogeochemistry and palaeohydrology. He retired from the British Geological Survey in nearby Wallingford where, since 1986, he had held an IMP (Individual Merit Promotion) research position in hydrogeochemistry. He was involved in the supervision of 12 PhD theses in the UK and overseas and evaluated thesis in several European countries as well as the UK. In 1999 he received the Whitaker Medal of the Geological Society for his achievements in hydrogeology. In 2009 he received the OE Meinzer Award of the Geological Society of America and in 2010, the Vernadsky Medal of the International Association of Geochemistry.