#CabotNext10 Spotlight on Water


Dr Katerina Michaelides

In conversation with Dr Katerina Michaelides, co-theme lead at the Cabot Institute

Why did you choose to become a theme leader at Cabot Institute?

I was particularly attracted to this role because I am strongly committed to increasing the visibility of the great water-related work going on in the University, and because I feel strongly about developing the water research community within Bristol and further afield. Over the years since its creation, Cabot Institute has been instrumental in developing my connections with others within the University, in fostering new collaborations and in encouraging new and creative avenues of research. In that same spirit, I relished the opportunity to perform a similar role within the Cabot Water theme and give back to the community by helping to foster collaborations, contacts, and new avenues of research. I believe in the Cabot mission and ethos and felt that I can help strengthen the Water theme in this more formal role.

In your opinion, what is one of the biggest global challenges associated with your theme? (Feel free to name others if there is more than one)

One of the biggest impacts of climate change is on the water cycle. In fact, climate change can be thought of as synonymous with changes in the water cycle with far reaching implications for lives and livelihoods. Think catastrophic storms, droughts, floods, declining water quality. Water is such a fundamental part of life that many in the global north take for granted. So if I was to say one biggest challenge, I would say: addressing global water scarcity and food insecurity challenges under climate change and anthropogenic pressures. There are of course, many other challenges….

Across the portfolio of projects in your theme, what type of institutions are you working with? (For example, governments, NGO’s)

Our theme members work with a huge range of non-academic institutions – from insurance companies, charities, climate services providers, NGOs, local businesses among others.

What disciplines are currently represented within your theme?

We have a broad set of disciplines within the Water theme. These range from water and sanitation, climate impacts on water balance, flood risk and hazard modelling, flooding and infrastructure resilience, freshwater biogeochemistry (water quality), hydrometeorology, dryland hydrology, tropical hydrology, hydrological modelling, forecasting floods and droughts, water, and humanities. And much more!

In your opinion, why is it important to highlight interdisciplinary research both in general and here at Bristol?

Global challenges related to water and climate impacts are inherently multi- and interdisciplinary in their nature. It starts from understanding how climate is changing, to how these changes impact the water balance on the ground hydrology) and may lead to destructive floods or devastating droughts through their effect on agriculture and drinking water. Ultimately, because water intersects society on so many different levels (from natural disasters, to agriculture, to water resources, to droughts) research needs to be interdisciplinary and consider both environmental and social aspects of the problem.

Are there any projects which are currently underway in your theme which are interdisciplinary that you believe should be highlighted in this campaign?

There are lots of interdisciplinary projects across the Water theme. Personally, our research focusses on water scarcity, as highlighted by these two projects below:

Drought Resilience in East African dryland Regions (DRIER) – This is a collaboration between hydrologists, climatologists, social scientists, livelihoods experts, climate adaptation experts. Awarded a Royal Society Grant of £500K for 2020-2023, with Bristol leading and colleagues from Cardiff, UEA, University of Nairobi, and Addis Ababa University. DRIER has been selected as case study for the Royal Society Challenge-Led grant scheme and by BEIS for the GCRF.

Mobile App Development for Drought Adaptation in Drylands (MADDAD) – This interdisciplinary project between hydrologists and computer scientists, funded by a GCRF Translational Award (2019-2021) is developing a mobile phone app to deliver water status forecasts to remote communities in Kenyan drylands. Under climate change droughts are set to become more intense and frequent and there is a pressing need for relevant, timely, and practical information about water resources, particularly with a view to climate change adaptation. However, rural agro-pastoral populations are sparse and distant from decision-making centres making it hugely challenging to disseminate useable information in a timely manner. The provision of a mobile phone app has the potential to transform decision-making and drought adaptation for a large number of people in remote, rural dryland regions of East Africa that currently do not have access to useable and relevant information about the short- and long-term changes in water scarcity in their location.

Down2Earth – Translation of climate information into multilevel decision support for social adaptation, policy development, and resilience to water scarcity in the Horn of Africa Drylands. Awarded an EU H2020 Grant of €6.7M for 2020-2024, with Cardiff University as the lead Institution and ~€1M to University of Bristol. In total, 15 Institutions across UK, EU, East Africa, are involved, including many non-academic actors. This project is completely multi-disciplinary in nature.

For more information, visit Water.

A N-ICE trip to the North Pole: Understanding the link between sea ice and climate

Imagine. It’s the bitter Arctic winter, it’s dark, cold enough to kill, and your ship is stuck in sea-ice.  There’s nothing you can do against the heave of the ice, except let your ship drift along. Out of your control. This seems like a difficult prospect today, but then imagine it happening over a century ago.

This is exactly what did happen when Norwegian explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, intentionally trapped his ship, Fram, in Arctic sea-ice in 1893 in an attempt to reach the North Pole. For about three years, Fram drifted with the ice until finally reaching the North Atlantic. Whilst a main motivation for their extraordinary journey was to find the Pole, they also made a number of scientific observations that had a profound influence on the (at the time) young discipline of oceanography.

Scientists led by the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) are now – pretty much on the 120th anniversary of the original expedition – repeating the journey, this time purely in the name of science.  I’m a member of the international team, meaning that the University of Bristol gets to play its part.

View from near the Norwegian Polar Institute, Tromsø, at about
2.30pm in the afternoon! Tromsø is on a small island,
surrounded by beautiful mountains, but has very long, dark winters.

The group I’m working with are investigating the role of newly formed sea-ice and freshwater on the flow of heat and nutrients through Arctic oceans, which plays a key role in regulating climate both locally and on a global scale.  The sea-ice in the Arctic is diminishing at an alarming rate, with between 9.4 and 13.6% decline per decade in the perennial sea-ice from 1979 to 2012 according to the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report [1]. If we are to understand how the sea-ice might change in the future, and what impact this might have on other systems, we have to be able to understand the physics of the system today.

My role is to help to chemically analyse the seawater, in order to trace the freshwater input to the oceans.  The amount of freshwater will determine the density of the water, and so will control the degree of stratification or sinking, which will be important for the transport of heat.

In November, I went to visit the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø in the very north of Norway for a pre-cruise workshop.  I got to meet a number of the Norwegian Young Sea-Ice (N-ICE2015) team, and visit Norway – a place I’d never been before as Antarctica is my usual stomping ground! We had two days of learning about the scientific interests of all the group members, and finding our way around some of the high-tech instrumentation that we will have at our disposal. I also got a tour of the ship that N-ICE2015 will use: the R/V Lance. By the end, everyone was keen to set off – although everyone will now have to wait until January…

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Kate Hendry, Earth Sciences, University of Bristol.

Further information

You can find out more about N-ICE2015 at the project website.

[1] Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group 1 Contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2013.

Environmental uncertainty: A challenge to both business and vulnerable communities

In September, the IPCC published the Fifth Annual Report on the Physical Basis of Climate Change.  It devotes little attention to the human and ecological impacts of global environmental and climatic change, topics that will be addressed by working group reports released in early 2014 .  Nonetheless, the trajectory of climate and other environmental changes and their implicit impacts on society are stark. Despite numerous treaties and efforts at mitigation, concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases continue to increase, and at greater rather than diminished rates. If those rates continue they will result in global warming of 3 to 5.5°C by 2100. This in turn, will result in dramatic changes to the global hydrological cycle, including both more evaporation and more rainfall.

A More Uncertain Climate

Flood by Paul Bates

The results will be a more hostile climate for many as land can become either drier or more flood-prone or both, changes exacerbated in coastal areas by sea level rise.  Freshwater supply will also be affected by the forecast changes in climate. The quantity of water flowing in glacier or snow-melt fed river basins will change, affecting around a sixth of the world’s population[i], while coastal freshwater will be contaminated with saline water[ii]. Areas of the Mediterranean[iii], Western USA[iv], Southern Africa[v] and North Western Brazil[vi] are projected to face decreased availability of freshwater.

Key to understanding who will be affected is our ability to predict changes in rainfall, seasonality, and temperature at a regional scale.  However, regional climatic predictions are the most challenging and least certain, especially with respect to the nature and amount of rainfall. For vast parts of the world, including much of South America, Africa and SE Asia, it is unclear whether climate change will bring about wetter or drier conditions. Thus, uncertainty will become the norm: uncertainty in rainfall; uncertainty in weather extremes and seasonality; and most importantly, uncertainty in water resources.

Those combined effects lead to an additional and perhaps the most profound uncertainty for the latter half of the 21st century: uncertainty in food production and access. In the absence of other factors, climate uncertainty and more common extreme events will compromise agriculture at all scales, yielding increased food prices and increased volatility in markets.


Impacts on the Poor

Although the human impacts of climate change will be diverse, their effects will be worst for the most impoverished and, by extension, least resilient population groups.  The UN reports that climate change could “increase global malnutrition by up to 25% by 2080.”  And all of this occurs against a backdrop in which access to food is already a challenge for the poorest of the world already a challenge for the poorest of the world [p5], a situation exacerbated by the global financial crash.

These risks to the poorest result from a lack of resources to mitigate harm, lack of power to protect resources, and the global competition for resources.

Those who lack the financial resources to migrate or build more hazard-resistant homes will suffer most from extreme events, as has been sharply illustrated by those suffering most in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.  Those who can least afford to dig deeper wells into more ancient aquifers as water resources diminish will go thirsty.  Subsistence farmers – and those dependent on them – are less resistant to climate shocks (desertification) and adverse weather events (flooding) than commercial farmers.

Land ownership for the poorest is often tenuous, and displacement from land a serious problem for many.  Previous switches to biofuels have led to land competition, resulting in both loss of land to subsistence [p6]  farmers, and diversion of commercial production leading to shortages [p7]  and increased food prices. Within communities, these effects are not evenly spread as marginalised groups, such as women, are the least likely to hold land tenure [p8] .  Similarly, there is increased competition for water [p9]  between peoples, but also between water for industry (including agriculture) and water for drinking. When water is scarce, pollution of fresh water is common, and governance is weak, the poorest are likely to lose out.


Image by Mammal Research UnitUniversity of Bristol

Food competition will most likely be exacerbated by other factors: rising demand from a rapidly expanding population and a growing demand for meat from a global ‘middle class’; the increased economic divide between post-industrial and developing nations; the ongoing depletion of soil nutrients and associated impacts on the nutritional value of our food.  The combination of these factors will result in profound impacts on food security. Who decides what gets grown? Who can afford it in the context of global markets and the loss of agricultural land? The poorest members of even the wealthiest societies are the most vulnerable to dramatic and unpredictable changes in food costs[p10] .

‘Wicked Problems’

These issues yield a profoundly challenging ethical issue: the wealthy who are most responsible for anthropogenic climate change, via the greatest material consumption and energy demand, have the greatest resilience to food market fluctuations and the greatest means for avoiding their most deleterious impacts.  Therefore, these issues challenge all governments to dramatically and swiftly act to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the associated climate change.

Unfortunately, many proposed mitigation strategies could also have negative consequences for food prices and availability. Increasing energy prices, such as those brought about by a carbon tax, will be passed onto food prices.  Genetically modified foods could be essential to feeding a growing population, and we would urge that future efforts expand to incorporate a greater degree of climate resilience in crops; however, the patents on those crops can make them financially inaccessible to the poorest nations or build critical dependencies.

Although sustainable agriculture and crops might reduce the impact of climate change and uncertainty in some countries, these solutions can be deleterious for the poorest.  They are more likely to live in regions and areas most negatively affected by climate change, most likely to be relying on subsistence/small scale agriculture and least likely to have access to the global market as consumers.  In other words, a stable global market will be of little direct benefit to them; in fact, most of these populations are likely to face competition for land/water use from globalised markets (for biofuels or commercial farming).  In short, what builds food resilience in one nation might be exposing the most economically vulnerable in another.

In fact, when properly mobilised for the benefit of the community, access to new energy sources – even if in the form of fossil fuels – can be transformative and facilitate the economic growth needed to access increasingly globalised food markets [p12].    Domestic access to gas reduces the need to collect wood for fires, reducing deforestation, improving air quality, and freeing up time for communities to address other development needs.

This is not an argument against mitigation of climate change, but it does need to be balanced against human development needs; and this represents one of the world’s most profound challenges. In some circles, we consider this a ‘wicked’ problem: a problem that has multiple causes, probably in interaction, and where information is incomplete, such that proposed solutions might be incomplete, contradictory, complex and work across multiple causes in complex systems.

Challenges and Opportunities

Biofuel by La Jolla

Wicked problems are not intractable, however, and previous studies of land use for biofuels provide clues as to how a complex solution could be more sustainable for all; well planned switches to biofuels which consider local custom in land tenure can provide more land for agriculture, and reduce deforestation pressure.

In such situations, we argue, solutions which focus on halting or slowing climate change alone, and then coping with the business and development problems that they might create answer the wrong question.  Our challenge to the business (and academic) community, then, is to engage with some wicked questions:

  • What are the business opportunities in improving the social and physical environment?
  • Can the global agricultural system be a single resilient network, rather than a competition?
  • What technology or innovation is needed to support a resilient food network?
  • How can innovative solutions to these challenges generate local income, allowing reinvestment in education and development?

These are difficult questions but they also represent opportunities for development and growth in poor communities.  A world with increasing environmental uncertainty is a challenge for both businesses and vulnerable communities.  But it could also be a shared opportunity for growth and development: to innovate and identify new solutions, to co-invest in local resilience and risk reduction, and to share the growth that arises from more stable communities.


[i] Z Kundzewicz, L Mata, N Arnell, P Doll, P Kabat, K Jimenez, K Miller, T Oki, Z Sen & I Shiklomanov, Freshwater Resources and their Manegemtn. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaption and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge University Press2007
[ii] R Buddemeier, S Smith, S Swaaney & C Crossland, The Role of the Coastal Ocean in the Disturbed and Undisturbed Nutrient and Carbon Cycles,  LOICZ Reports and Studies Series2002, 84
[iii] P Etchevers, C Golaz, F Habets & J Noilhan, Impact of a Climate Change on the Rhone River Catchment Hydrology,Journal of Geophysical Research2002, 4293
[iv] J Kim, T Kim, R Arritt & N Miller, Impacts of Increased CO2 on the Hydroclimate of the Western United States, Journal of Climate2002, 1926
[v] M Hulme, R Doherty & T Ngara, African Climate Change, Climate Research2001, 145
[vi] J Christensen, B Hewitson, A Busuioc, A Chen, X Gao, I Held, R Jones, R Kolli, W Kwon, R Laprise, V Magana Rueda, L Mearns, C Menendez, J Raisanen, A Rinke, A Sarr & P Whetton, Regional Climate Change, The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,2007, 847


This blog is written by Prof Rich Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute and Dr Patricia Lucas, School for Policy Studies, both at University of Bristol.

Prof Rich Pancost

This blog has kindly been reproduced from the Business Fights Poverty blog.