Tag Archives: water

Piped dreams? Understanding the need for and values of informal community based water supply

By Amita Bhakta, Loughborough University


Image credit: Rod Shaw, WEDC 2015

It’s a hot, sunny day. Feeling thirsty? More than likely, you can go to the kitchen, turn on the tap and, there we have it, a glass of clear water, safe for consumption. But what if there was no tap, no pipe, no clean water? And should we assume that a piped supply of water is always the answer?

With World Water Day taking place this week, we’re reminded of the immense challenges we still face in providing adequate drinking water for all. As the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals emphasise, this remains a critical concern across many developing countries. In their paper in The Geographical Journal, Liddle et al (2016) highlight the importance of multi-faceted approaches to ensure that community based water supplies can be effectively provided and maintained in the longer run. That is to say, a mix of both formal and informal water supplies are needed in a community context.

Liddle et al (2016) discuss in great depth the reasons why people in Zambia turn to informal sources, they cite: intermittent water supply as the pipes previously put in place by the colonial powers struggle to meet demand; finance as individuals in Ndola spend 45% of their income on water; and the ever present problem of poor water quality unfit for people to drink.

But it is about more than these issues, the less formal, more intangible values of water held by the local users is important. The clue is in the name, World Water Day should be about the various perceptions about water around the world, and incorporation of technical solutions for the supply of water that meets local social values.

Further to that, it’s also vital that we learn from each other. Indigenous knowledges are a vital part of the way in which we can combat our environmental challenges, and if we’re to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, to ensure that everybody can drink safe water easily, we still need to sit, listen and learn at the grassroots. After all, until the formal sector can listen to those in need, to these ‘informal’ users, water supply issues cannot be understood, nor can they be resolved without their support. The grassroots too need to listen and see which technological solutions are best for them, and an effort on both parts is needed. ‘Piped’ dreams may remain distant for many, but these knowledges can indeed pave the way for different, holistic solutions to become a reality.

books_icon Liddle E, Meger S and Nel E 2016 The importance of community-based informal water supply systems in the developing world and the need for formal sector support The Geographical Journal 181 85-96

60-world2 Shaw, R 2015 ‘Woman holding a bucket of water on her head’ Drawing Water:  A Resource Book of Illustrations on Water and Sanitation in Low-income Countries Loughborough: WEDC, Loughborough University

60-world2 Wheeler A 2016 World Water Day 2016: How access to clean water can change lives, jobs and entire societies International Business Times


Let’s get a proper grip on flooding

By Edmund Penning-Rowsell, Middlesex University, London

Flooded Riverside Worcester 2007. Photo Credit: Philip Haling under CC BY-SA 2.0

Flooded Riverside Worcester 2007. Photo Credit: Philip Haling under CC BY-SA 2.0

The floods in winter 2013 show the damage and disruption such events can cause. Spurred on by this flooding the government is moving to secure ‘affordable’ flood insurance arrangements, after a bruising ‘battle’ with the insurance industry and the prospect that the scheme will be vetoed in Europe. Flooding remains highly political!

But the total flood risk that England and Wales is facing has been exaggerated by the Environment Agency for over a decade, as this paper shows (Penning-Rowsell, 2014a). I am not saying that this country cannot suffer from serious flood events (as in 1947, 1953 and 2007). What I do say is that the average economic losses from fluvial and coastal flood are being exaggerated some 3-4 fold by the current national assessments, and that this is not a good basis for wise evidence-based decision making.

The annual average losses are not over £1bn as suggested by the Environment Agency (in NAFRA 2002), reaffirmed by Foresight in 2004, repeated again in the Agency’s Long Term Investment Strategy (LTIS, in 2009), cited in the National Audit Office report in 2011, and repeated once more in the Adaptation Sub-Committee’s 2012 report. The real annual average economic loss value is more like one quarter of that sum: my thinking is that flood depths are being exaggerated, as is the likelihood of existing flood defences being breached.

And the 2013/14 flooding supports this argument. Figure 1 shows that the years 2012 and 2013/14 are indeed above the average, but that the mean of £0.146 billion is actually lower than the mean for the years 1998 to 2010 (£0.147 billion). This is because the year 2011 saw relatively few floods, with a total flood insured loss of no more than £52 million (Penning-Rowsell, 2014b). Grossing up to total losses we get total annual average loss/compensation of c. £0.294bn. Again this is less than one quarter of the figure recently quoted in the Climate Change Risk Assessment.

Figure 1.  Insured flood losses to residential properties in England and Wales 1998-2014

Figure 1.
Insured flood losses to residential properties in England and Wales 1998-2014

The results of this research should help the Environment Agency improve its evidence base for the decisions that it has to make: better data equals better decisions. But for this we need a radical overhaul of the Agency’s methodology and data sources: what we have now is simply not good enough (as many involved privately admit). The results also need proper peer review – hitherto minimal – and a willingness to accept that risk may be much lower than those oft-quoted figures that appear now to have become embedded. We want flood risk to be taken seriously, but not at the expense of rigour and transparency.

About the author: Edmund Penning-Rowsell OBE is a Professor of Geography at the Flood Hazard Research Centre, Middlesex University, London. Edmund is currently Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research at Middlesex University and is currently a member of the Defra/Environment Agency Research Sponsoring Board. He was awarded the O.B.E by the Queen for services to flood risk management in May 2006.

 Penning-Rowsell, E. C. (2014), A realistic assessment of fluvial and coastal flood risk in England and Wales. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12053

 Penning-Rowsell, E C 2014b The 2013/14 floods: what do they tell us about overall flood risk in England and Wales? Circulation. Forthcoming.

60-world2.jpg (15×15) DEFRA 2013 Water Bill Flood Insurance: Flood Re – Finance and Accountability (pdf)

60-world2.jpg (15×15) Ross, T New flood insurance tax ‘could breach EU law’ The Telegraph 26 August 2013

Governing from Above: The Vertical Geopolitics of Climate Change

The laying of water pipes in Israel c. 1946. Hydrological politics are now a key site where climate change meets questions of sovereignty. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Martin Mahony

Global geopolitics have conventionally been conceived of in terms of the horizontal actions and interactions of territorially-bounded nation states. However, critical geographers have recently started giving consideration to ‘vertical geopolitics’, drawing greater attention to the spatial exercise of power in a dimension which cannot conventionally be discerned from a flat political map of the world.

Vertical geopolitics have figured prominently in the news recently, particularly as new technologies of surveillance and violence have challenged conventional orderings of vertical territory (such as the notion of sovereign ‘airspace’). In particular, the military use of drones – or unmanned aircraft – for the purposes of intelligence-gathering  and assassination has quite radically altered the political geographies of modern warfare. Meanwhile, the WWF’s recent announcement that drones will be used to help protect wildlife from poachers marks an interesting development in the sky-bound surveillance of the global environment.

Climate change offers an fascinating window through which to observe the changing dimensions of political geography. In the first instance, the science and politics of the atmosphere may seem to challenge conventional territorial forms of governance. However, research is starting to emerge which demonstrates how certain political responses to climate change represent reterritorialising moves in the ongoing negotiations over sovereignty, environment and natural resources.

A paper I wrote recently with Mike Hulme seeks to explore the knowledge-base underlying many such moves. Regional climate prediction has become a key means of localising or even territorialising climate change, thus producing new forms of political space in which the implications of climate change can be debated. A recent paper by Michael Mason in The Geographical Journal takes this proposition further. In analysing the ‘securitisation’ of climate change in the context of the Israel/Palestine conflict, he offers a fascinating picture of the interaction of climate politics with the (vertical) geopolitics of contested sovereign spaces.

Mason argues that the specific way in which climate change has been rendered as a security problem by the Israeli government tends to reinforce vertical relations of domination over Palestinian skies and groundwater resources. By contrast, in the case of the Palestinian Authority, the threats posed by climate change have both been woven into liberation narratives and used as an opportunity to demonstrate policy competence and fitness for statehood.

Mason’s paper makes an important contribution to a growing body of literature which emphasises the multitude of ways in which climate change is securitised, normalised and politicised in different contexts and settings. The vertical geopolitics of climate change represent an important facet of this line of inquiry, and one which is only just beginning to be explored.

books_icon Michael Mason, 2013, Climate Change, Securitisation and the Israel-Palestine ConflictThe Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12007


Martin Mahony & Mike Hulme, 2012, Model Migrations: Mobility and Boundary Crossings in Regional Climate Prediction. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 37, 2, 197-211

globe42 WWF plans to use drones to protect wildlifeThe Guardian


John Brennan’s killer drones are new symbol of American in the worldLos Angeles Times

The Return of that Great British Institution, the Weather

By Briony Turner

Source: author

Somewhat regrettably, those scorching days admiring sporting finesse, feeling the heat of the sun against skin (and the 100% recycled polyester iconic top of a Games Maker –the not so regrettable aspect) are now a distant memory, washed out by a month’s worth of downpour in one day.

Having had the topic of weather embargoed for the summer (Games Makers were implored not to be quintessentially British and moan about the weather), the country has returned to its favourite topic of conversation, wiping even the Duchess of Cambridge off the front pages.  According to the Met Office official blog, the culprit is an ‘unusually active’ and ‘lingering’ (blame that part on the jet stream) low pressure system from the Atlantic which has had a field day moving north across the UK, picking up the cooler polar air en route, causing a deeper depression, not only meteorologically but also metaphorically in its wake.

Future climate projections suggest a rise in frequency of such extreme events.  Some geographers, Marc Tadaki and colleagues, are caught up in whether physical geography needs to exist,  and/or indulge in a ‘navel gazing and angst’ debate as to the purpose of geography (Dalby, 2012 p.270).  However, others have simply rolled up their sleeves and are conducting geographical analyses, improving the understanding of and addressing climate change and human vulnerabilities, as noted by Simon Dalby in his recent book review in The Geographical Journal.   These applications and analyses form the basis of information provided by organisations like the Environment Agency, whose website provides the latest flood alerts and enables householders to identify the extent to which, if at all, their homes are at risk of flooding. A catastrophe modelling firm, working with the European Space Agency, has recently launched a mapping tool with geo-coded ‘snapshots’ and impact assessment features to help insurers handle the aftermath of flooding.

Extensive systems and infrastructure, including governance arrangements, are in place to attempt to reduce the impact and effects of flooding.  Homeowners in the UK at risk of flooding currently benefit from the “Statement of Principles”, an agreement between Government and insurers, although it will expire on the 1st July 2013.  Defra are currently working on a replacement.  An article in The Geographical Journal, provides a timely reminder of the complexities encountered in public engagement within flood risk management (FRM) and the potential negative consequences that can result if the local micro-politics are not understood and sensitivities, particularly repercussions of shifts in local power relations, are not accounted for before application of FRM engagement.

One way of reducing the scale of flooding in urban areas is to intercept and delay rain and surface runoff by utilising and improving urban ecosystems.  Built environment industry experts are looking at innovative ways of ecologically adapting the built environment, there’s an annual conference and, this year, a public exhibition of the Integrated Habitats Design Competition’s winners and finalists in October at the Natural History Museum (a Fringe Event of the UN Convention on Biodiversity).  This just goes to show that urban ecosystems can be enhanced, have social, economic as well as ecological value and, as Robert Francis and colleagues point out in their article in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, offer opportunities for innovative research.

Flooding – availability and coverage of insurance Association of British Insurers

S. Dalby, 2012, Geo 2.0: digital tools, geographical vision and a changing planet, The Geographical Journal 178 270–274

UK Climate Projections:  Briefing report (UKCP09) Defra

R. A. Francis, J. Lorimer and M. Raco, 2012, Urban ecosystems as ‘natural’ homes for biogeographical boundary crossings, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37 183–190

Defra tweaking statement of principles replacement Insurance Times.co.uk

What’s bringing the stormy weather to the UK? Official blog of the Met Office news team

Satellite Flood Footprints PERILS

M. Tadaki, J. Salmond, R.  Le Heron and G. Brierley, 2012, Nature, culture, and the work of physical geography, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37 547–562

C-P. Tseng, and E.C. Penning-Rowsell, 2012, Micro-political and related barriers to stakeholder engagement in flood risk management, The Geographical Journal 178 253–269.

Britain gets almost a month of rain in 24 hours , The Guardian

Sustainable futures and household water usage

by Anna Davies and Ruth Doyle

WaterWise Exhibit, Science Gallery 'Surface Tension' Exhibition (Dublin). Photograph used with permission of Des Moriarty.

In 2009 the UK Chief Scientific Advisor Sir John Beddington warned that global society is facing a ‘perfect storm’ of challenges in the context of a changing climate with 50% more energy and food and 30% more water required by 2030. In our Area paper we argue that despite such widely articulated concerns, routinised production and consumption behaviour, particularly within households of western, industrialized societies remains unsustainable. Experimental tools for trying to initiate a significant shift towards more sustainable futures are clearly required. Collaborative visioning exercises are emerging as one way to engage a wide range of stakeholders and members of the public in the design of innovations for more radical advances towards sustainable living. Situated within a wider research project on sustainable consumption (CONSENSUS) our Area paper reflects on the learning potential of multistakeholder visioning exercises held with the aim of generating ideas for more sustainable household heating and washing practices. Concepts developed through this visioning process were clustered and prioritized and three distinct future scenarios were constructed. In addition to formal workshops with stakeholders and the general public we also engaged in a more novel public outreach experiment with the Science Gallery in Dublin. As part of their water-themed exhibition – ‘Surface Tension’, we developed an exhibit ‘WaterWise: Washing Futures’ with illustrator Chris Judge who depicted our scenarios for future washing practices in a fun, provocative format.

Visitors are invited to step into the year 2050 and imagine more sustainable washing routines through the use of advanced technologies and water systems supported by alternative cultural norms and water regulations. Drawing on emerging and envisioned societal and technological trends, the exhibit encourages critical reflection on our washing routines and how we approach sustainability problems. Visitors are asked to provide feedback on the scenarios and in this way they contribute to the iterative nature of the scenario design process, helping to shape policy recommendations for sustainable water consumption. Our Area paper reflects on the benefits and limitations of adopting such collaborative visioning processes and marks the first step in examining what impact they can make to changing how we live now and in the future.

The authors: Anna Davies is Associate Professor and Ruth Doyle is a PhD student, both in the Department of Geography, Trinity College Dublin.

Davies A R, Doyle R and Pape J 2011 Future visioning for sustainable household practices: spaces for sustainability learning? Area doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2011.01054.x

CONSENSUS: A cross-border household analysis of CONSumption, ENvironment and SUStainability in Ireland. Project website 2011.

Surface Tension exhibition, Science Gallery, Dublin (open 21 Oct 2011 – 20 Jan 2012).

WaterWise: Washing Futures YouTube video. 7 Nov 2011.

The River Thames & London

'Westminster Bridge on the River Thames' (1746), by Giovanni Canaletto (1697-1768)

Benjamin Sacks

IN THE June 2010 issue of The Geographical Journal, Stuart Oliver (St Mary’s University College) critically reviewed the development of the River Thames as a function of London’s material growth. Importantly, Oliver suggests that the physical geography of the River Thames was intentionally manipulated in order to increase its long-term economic value: ‘The engineering structures that it entailed subjected the river to disciplinary control, and allowed the more efficient flow of the river (and the goods it carried), reworking it in accordance with the priorities of a hidden geography of value’ (164). The River Thames was  (and remains) the city’s veins; a “living, breathing” part of London. Oliver’s argument is significant not least as he highlights the intimate relationship between a famous waterway and a modern world city. As early as the twelfth-century, London officials administered the River Thames as if it were a land-based borough of the city, codifying legal statutes pertaining to the waterway’s use and navigation, as well as organizing long-term water resource management. As London’s needs both grew and multiplied, so too did the River Thames’s usefulness and applicability. Surrounding communities waxed and waned on the river’s economic opportunities, adapting or reconstructing themselves when necessary to maintain an advantageous relationship with the River Thames.  A July 1995 paper, also featured in The Geographical Journal, examined the contemporary impact of the River Thames on urban planning, development, and efforts to re-energize defunct wharfs, quays, and housing estates.

The London-Thames relationship is by no means unique; similar symbiotic relationships exists in major cities throughout the world. Venice, Italy, of course, is renowned for its street-wide canals. But if we look to the Far East, or to the Americas, other, fascinating examples exist. Shanghai developed around the Yangtze River Delta and Huangpu River, the latter of which winds through the heart of the city’s financial and cultural districts. In South America, Manaus is another exotic example. Situated well over one thousand miles inland into the Amazon Rain Forest, Manaus’s life is almost entirely tied to the Amazon River. Thousands of cargo vessels pass through Manaus’s estuaries every year, sustaining the city’s economy. The city’s accessibility via the river has resulted in its cultural enrichment.

Stuart Oliver, ‘Navigability and the Improvement of the River Thames, 1605-1815‘, The Geographical Journal 176 no. 2 (Jun., 2010): pp. 164-177.

Andrew Church and Martin Frost, ‘The Thames Gateway – an Analysis of the Emergence of a Sub-Regional Regeneration Initiative‘, The Geographical Journal 161 no. 2 (Jul., 1995): pp. 199-209.

Water in Bangladesh

by Robin de la Motte

A modern water well

It has been known for some years that in South Asia, particularly in Bangladesh, large numbers of people are exposed to unsafe levels of naturally-occurring arsenic in water supplies drawn from groundwater. A recent study in the British medical journal The Lancet linked a fifth of all deaths in Bangladesh to arsenic contamination, and estimated that up to half the population (77 million people) had been chronically exposed. The problem affects substantial parts of South Asia, and arises due to the region’s increased use of groundwater in recent decades in order to avoid water-borne diseases found in surface water. The arsenic issue is just one aspect of Bangladesh’s water problems, which are likely to worsen in future. Climate change and population growth make it likely China and India will build new dams, reducing the volume of surface water Bangladesh receives downstream. Previous dams have already led to reduced water flows, causing problems of rivers silting up and increased salinity from seawater intruding in coastal areas.

A recent Geography Compass article (Benner and Fendorf 2010) examines the arsenic issue, which has been called the “largest mass poisoning in history”. Over 60 million people in the region are affected by arsenic contamination, with concentrations in drinking water sometimes over 100 times World Health Organization safety standards. Drinking water is the primary concern, but in addition contaminated water used for irrigation may – depending on local conditions – accumulate in soils and affect crops, particularly rice, although the health impacts of this are not well understood. Benner and Fendorf describe how the problems are caused by a combination of environmental conditions specific to the Asian deltas. The arsenic originates in Himalayan rocks, from where it is eroded and carried in river sediment to the delta floodplains, and then enters local aquifers. Benner and Fendorf note that the large increase in groundwater extraction (with nearly a million wells in Bangladesh by 2003) has unpredictable effects on arsenic concentrations, with both positive and negative effects possible; so far there is insufficient evidence of any effect. They note the potential of tapping deeper aquifers, which are largely uncontaminated, but also the risk of thereby drawing in contaminated water from shallower aquifers.

In brief: Millions of Bangladeshis poisoned by arsenic-laced water IRIN, 25 June 2010, “In brief: Millions of Bangladeshis poisoned by arsenic-laced water

Decades-old water dispute could destroy nation’s agriculture The Citizen (Tanzania), 24 September 2010, “Decades-old water dispute could destroy nation’s agriculture

View the Benner and Fendorf (2010) article here Benner, Shawn G., and Fendorf, Scott (2010), “Arsenic in South Asia Groundwater“, Geography Compass, Volume 4, Issue 10, pages 1532-1552