The Oxford Water Network: Securing Water for Sustainable Development

This is part of our special feature on Water in Europe and the World.


Water is vital for human well-being, economic development and a healthy environment. Each year shocks such as floods and droughts have devastating impacts on people and economies worldwide. Ensuring access to an acceptable quantity and quality of water, and protection fromwater-related shocks is a defining challenge for society in the 21st century.

The Oxford Water Network is the University’s response to these challenges, building upon existing and emerging water science excellence.

The network is a multi-disciplinary research community, harnessing Oxford University’s diverse strengths to address the challenge of managing water in a complex and uncertain world. Oxford’s scientists are developing a research agenda to address key challenges of water security, advancing knowledge to inform policy and planning, and developing instruments to improve practice in partnership with government, research and business communities.

The Oxford Water Network advances cutting-edge interdisciplinary research which yields practical and policy-relevant solutions for managing the risks of water scarcity, water quality and flooding. We drive innovation and generate new knowledge to transform current thinking about how we understand and respond to water-related risk.


Connecting people across disciplines

Addressing the complex challenges of water security requires bringing together insights and expertise from across the natural, social and engineering sciences. Oxford University has a diverse portfolio of outstanding water research spanning many different departments, institutes and interdisciplinary schools, including:

  • African Studies Centre
  • Centre for Socio-Legal Studies
  • Department of Chemistry
  • Department of Engineering Sciences
  • Department of International Development
  • Department of Politics and International Relations
  • Department of Public Health
  • Department of Physics
  • Environmental Change Institute
  • Faculty of Law
  • Institute for Science, Innovation and Society
  • Mathematical Institute
  • Oxford Martin School
  • Saïd Business School
  • School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography
  • School of Archaeology
  • School of Geography and the Environment
  • Smith School for Enterprise and the Environment


Forging partnerships of science, policy and enterprise

Oxford University invests in strategic partnerships across science, policy and enterprise communities to advance a common agenda for tackling global water risks.

Oxford collaborates with the UN, European Union, World Bank, The Nature Conservancy and world-class research institutions, research councils, water utilities, governments, enterprises and NGOs around the world. This global network strengthens the evidence base to inform decision-making and ensure water resources are managed sustainably.

Some of our current partners include:

  • IRC
  • BP
  • Skoll Foundation
  • International Food Policy Research Institute
  • Global Water Partnership
  • UK Department for International Development (DFID)
  • OECD
  • Environment Agency
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • Research Councils UK
  • Thames Water
  • Met Office
  • World Economic Forum
  • WWF
  • Siemens
  • World Bank

Oxford Networks for the Environment (ONE)

The Oxford Water Network forms part of the Oxford Networks for the Environment (ONE) which include networks on the converging challenges of climate, food, energy and biodiversity. ONE builds the University’s capacity to deliver world-leading, diverse and innovative environmental research and education at the intersection of the environment and global challenges.


Priorities and Activities

The Oxford Water Network comprises almost 200 researchers from approximately 30 departments at the University with expertise across the natural, social and engineering sciences.  Several initiatives have advanced water research and teaching across Oxford since the early 2000s, highlighted by the MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary in 2019 and now has approximately 350 alumni.

The Oxford Water Network grew out of the MSc programme and prior interdisciplinary research initiatives.  A white paper on water security in late 2010 established a 10-year vision and strategic plan for Oxford Water to understand and address water security challenges.  This plan involved many steps including a series of international events and conferences, and associated agenda-setting papers, projects and partnerships.  A research strategy anchored in interdisciplinary, risk-based science has guided key themes and activities, leading to the establishment of a network of long-term observatories of water risks and responses across the world, working closely with science, policy and enterprise partners.

The Network supports these aims by fostering interdisciplinary collaboration across Oxford guided by a shared set of global challenges connected to water security, including poverty, health, hunger, hydro-climatic risk and urbanisation.

A series of events and associated outputs have served as focal points for interdisciplinary initiatives, and engagement with partners.


Apr 2012: International Conference on Water Security, Risk and Society attended by over 200 people from 30 countries.

Sep 2013: Special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society on Water Security, Risk and Society

Oct 2014: 10 year anniversary of the Oxford MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management

Apr 2015: Launch of OECD / Global Water Partnership report – Securing Water, Sustaining Growth co-led by the University of Oxford with Claudia Sadoff

Dec 2015: Water Security conference, inaugurating the DFID-funded REACH programme

Nov 2017: Valuing Water for Sustainable Development conference, and associated Science policy forum article, outlining an agenda for science, policy and enterprise

Mar 2019: International Conference on Water Security and Poverty

Apr 2020: Special issue of Oxford Review of Economic Policy on water and the economy

Since 2015, the Network shifted from an agenda-setting role to implementing new programmes and ensuring their impact and scalability.   Several strategic initiatives are coordinated through the REACH programme [see Box I], which represents a flagship for water research at Oxford.  Other programmes and strategic initiatives are being supported by the Network in priority areas of hydrology, digital water and water economics with emerging partnerships in these areas [See Box II].

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Box I:  Delivering Water Security for Five Million Poor People

REACH is a global, DFID-funded research programme launched in 2015 to improve water security for the poor by delivering world-class science that transforms policy and practice.

Living in poverty often means a struggle for water security. Rapid urban growth, unregulated pollution from industry, extreme floods and droughts, lack of reliable and safe drinking water, and increasing damage to water ecosystems threaten economies and undermine the lives of the poor.

Improving water security is an important pathway to sustainable growth and poverty reduction. However, better evidence is needed to guide institutional and infrastructure investments which unlock growth opportunities and help people move out of poverty.

The REACH programme works to improve water security for over five million poor people by:

  • generating new evidence on water security through an innovative, interdisciplinary, risk-based approach
  • establishing science, practitioner and enterprise partnerships to ground research in approaches that will benefit the poor
  • building capacity and networks for the next generation of water managers and scientists in Africa and South Asia.


On 27-29 March 2019 the REACH programme will host an International Conference on Water Security and Poverty in Oxford, UK. The conference will be opened by Professor Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, with senior representatives from the Governments of Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Kenya working to improve water security in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. Mr. Abul Kalam Azad (Chief coordinator for SDG Affairs in the Prime Minister’s Office, Government of Bangladesh), and Dr. Claudia Sadoff (Director General of IWMI) have now confirmed their participation with more to more be confirmed shortly. We are expecting over 200 guests from academia, policy, practice, and private sectors.

Date and time: From 2PM on 27 March to 1PM on 29 March 2019.

Conference Website:

Box II:  Responding to Water Scarcity through Markets and Incentives

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford have joined forces in a new partnership to understand how water markets and incentives can help communities better manage scarce water resources, for both security of supply as well as conservation benefits.

This initiative responds to the growing recognition that sustainable water management is an essential component in the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals. This collaboration will bring together one of the world’s largest environmental organisations with the cutting-edge interdisciplinary research of the Smith School and Oxford Water Network at the University of Oxford.

The TNC-Oxford Water Partnership will work at the intersection of science and strategy to advance water security solutions. The partnership will focus on impact-driven research to develop, test and evaluate market-based approaches to deliver outcomes for people and nature. The programme of work will leverage innovations in governance, finance and information technology to explore the scalability of water markets and related strategies.

The partnership focusses on three areas:

Prioritization to help identify geographic priorities for market-based approaches. This draws on data regarding the status and trends of water stress, conservation value, and institutional conditions needed to implement incentive-based tools and the associated financing and partnerships.

Portfolios. The partners are assessing and evaluating different portfolios of interventions and incentives — from water markets to sustainable agricultural practices — to address water scarcity and determine which strategies may be most effective for specific geographies or socio-economic settings. This analysis seeks to shift from ad hoc projects to address water scarcity toward portfolios and pathways that improve outcomes for people and the environment.

Performance.  Drawing on advances in impact evaluation, the partners are developing a framework for measuring returns on investment and the scalability of different approaches across a network of flagship sites. This framework can be applied to TNC’s and other water management projects around the world.



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