SOAS University of London

Centre for Water and Development

SOAS Water Group Research: Water and Catchment Ecosystem Services

2010-2012: Innovative Market-Based Mechanisms and Networks for Long Term Protection of Water Resources

Partners: Rural Economy and Land Use Programme (RELU), ESRC, Tamar Consulting

In the UK changes in the hydrological cycle with climate change will have significant impacts. Predictions are uncertain but it is expected that we will have warmer and drier summers, and warmer and wetter winters in catchments already under stress from our high demands for water. Water quality has been improving but pollution with nutrients, faecal organisms and sediments from farming remains a concern. Urban runoff and remaining deficiencies in sewage treatment are also problems. The risk and severity of flooding seems to be increasing.

We need improved ways to protect water resources at source and alleviate flood risk. This requires the cooperation of land users and some change in their land use and farming practices. Attempts to achieve this to date have involved a combination of advice and capital grants backed up by regulation. This project proposes that what has been lacking has been the ability to provide incentives to landowners to go further in protecting water by setting aside the limited areas of land with most beneficial effect. Typically these will be steeper slopes or low lying, often waterlogged and along watercourses. Despite their lower productivity they are intensively farmed and their retirement will incur a loss in income.

The project will investigate whether a Payments for Ecosystems Services (PES) scheme can address this. PES schemes involve a voluntary transaction in which an environmental service (often a land use providing this service) is paid for by one or more buyer(s). In short the beneficiaries of environmental services pay for their provision and the providers of those services get paid to provide them.

The project will partner and evaluate the WATER project, a PES scheme for water protection being developed by the Westcountry Rivers Trust (WRT) and its partners in South West England.  The project is funded by the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme (RELU).

SOAS Contact: Laurence Smith,

2007-2010: Developing a Catchment Management Template For the Protection of Water Resources: Exploiting Experience from the UK, Eastern USA and Nearby Europe

The project is funded by the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme (RELU), a collaboration between the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), with additional funding from the Scottish Government and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of the UK Government. The RELU programme aims to advance understanding of the challenges facing rural areas in the UK. Interdisciplinary research is being funded between 2004 and 2012 in order to inform policy and practice with choices on how to manage the countryside and rural economies.

The project has investigated how to extend the scientific and social accomplishments of innovative catchment management programmes in the USA, Australia and other European countries to the UK. A catchment management 'template' has been derived which compiles and assimilates scientific understanding and governance procedures as tested in actual decision making and management practice in case study catchments. The ‘template’:  

  • provides a framework to integrate interdisciplinary assessment methods to protect water resources;
  • integrate scientific investigation with policy, governance and legal provisions;
  • foster decision-making and implementation at the appropriate governance level.

In the project researchers from SOAS and the University of East Anglia have worked in partnership with the Upper Susquehanna Coalition, the New York City Watershed, and the Hudson River Estuary Programme in the USA; groundwater protection programmes in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany; and the Healthy Waterways Partnership in SE Queensland, Australia. Two UK catchments served as case studies against which the lessons from international experience were tested: the River Tamar and the River Thurne. A volume of international catchment management case studies with synthesis chapters that draw on the comparative and UK-based analyses completed during the project will be published by Earthscan in 2011.

SOAS Contact: Laurence Smith,