Earth Day: Planet vs Plastic in the Age of Disposable Vapes

Post by Laura Young

Every year, April 22nd – Earth Day serves as a reminder of the fragility of our planet and the urgent need for environmental action. This year, the theme “Planet vs Plastic” reminds us that although the problems with plastics are well known, we still struggle with plastic pollution and excessive use of this oil-based material. Slowly, action has been taken addressing pointless plastic problems; bags, straws, cotton buds, however a new concern has emerged: single-use disposable vapes. These devices continue to soar in popularity, posing both sustainability and public health challenges.

The first Earth Day dates back to 1970, when millions of people mobilised under the banner of environmental advocacy. Since then, it has evolved into a yearly reminder of what we want to conserve, prompting individuals, communities, businesses and governments to evaluate their environmental impact and commit to positive change. Yet, despite decades of awareness and activism, the issue of plastic pollution persists as one of the most pressing environmental crises of our time.

Plastic can be fantastic, for durability, or keeping important medical appliances sterile, however when this material is overused and abused we begin to see problems. In particular, single-use plastic has become engrained in our everyday lives, almost everything we package our food in, wear, or use in our homes is made from plastic. It’s cheap and convenient but comes with a big cost to the environment. Plastic waste litters our parks, beaches and oceans, contaminates our soil, endangers wildlife, and has now been detected in the human body. The detrimental effects of plastic pollution are far-reaching, threatening ecosystems and human health.

This year’s theme “Planet vs. Plastic” is yet another plea for action. Efforts to reduce single-use plastics, promote recycling, and develop sustainable alternatives have gained momentum globally. However, just as progress is being made in one area, new challenges arise in unexpected forms.

Enter single-use disposable vapes. These sleek, portable electronics devices have surged in popularity in recent years, particularly, and worryingly, among young adults, teenagers, and children. Originally a smoking cessation device for adults trying to quit tobacco cigarettes, disposable vapes are marketed as a convenient and discreet, offering a seemingly effortless way to quit smoking. However, beneath their attractive exterior lies a hidden environmental menace.

Unlike refillable, rechargeable, and reusable e-cigarettes, disposable vapes are designed for single-use and are discarded after the battery is depleted or the e-liquid runs out. This convenience throwaway culture has led to a proliferation of vape-related waste, with millions of vapes ending up in landfills each year, and many littered on our streets. It is estimated that the UK throws away 5 million per week (Material Focus, 2023). These electronic devices are packed full of critical materials such as lithium, cobalt and copper, and are packed neatly into colourful tubes containing multiple types of plastics. Plastic nozzles, sponges, casings, wire coverings and paint coatings are just a few ways single-use plastics are engrained in these devices, much of which is non-recyclable. Continuing to produce non-recyclable plastic demands continued new fossil fuel extraction while landfills build up and incineration plants continue to burn plastic-based products, contributing to climate change.

The environmental impact of disposable vapes extends beyond just physical waste. The production and disposal of these devices contribute to carbon emissions and resource depletion, putting a strain our planet’s finite resources. Additionally, many chemicals in e-liquids pose potential risks to human health and the environment, showcasing the interconnected nature of many environmental and public health issues.

Addressing the rise of single-use disposable vapes requires a multi-faceted approach combining regulation, education, and innovation. Governments must regulate the production, sale, and disposal of these devices, including measures to restrict youth access and facilitate collection and recycling. For many that means looking to already existing legislation and tightening monitoring, evaluation and enforcement. However, for many this means going further. In the UK, legislation is in the process of being debated in the lead up to the 1st of April 2025 when single-use disposable vapes will be banned, alongside other tobacco and nicotine regulations. This builds on progress from other countries like New Zealand and Australia, and influences other nations like the EU who are looking to take similar action. However, in the interim, educational campaigns are needed to raise awareness of both the environmental and health impacts, empowering communities to make informed choices.

This Earth Day, when considering “Planet vs. Plastic”, I hope we look beyond just eliminating single-use plastics, but look beyond to challenge the culture of continued disposable consumption that drives society today. Whether it’s plastic bags, straws, or disposable vapes, we must confront the current throwaway mindset that underpins modern life. We must reimagine our relationship with consumption and waste to build a more sustainable future for generations to come.

Beans on Toast

Post by Jean Duncan, Artist in Residence at the UNESCO Centre for Water Law, Policy & Science

As the new Artist in Residence with the UNESCO Centre for Water Law, Policy and Science at the University of Dundee, I thought it might be helpful to share some information from a previous project to illustrate how an artist can get involved in scientific research and assist in presenting information.

The Beans on Toast Project (2012) was funded by CREW and led by Professor Geoff Squire of the James Hutton Institute in Invergowrie.

The project used “an everyday example of our global use of resources, our reliance on imports, on other people’s natural capital; food’s water footprint; green, blue and grey water; teaching through artwork, craft, games and roadshows.” (Geoff Squire,

The project used the story of beans on toast to help a wide audience appreciate the crops and water that go to make a simple meal.

By gathering the information on the tin or package and by searching the web for information, Sarah Doherty then a student from Durham University, compiled a list of all the ingredients that went into beans, bread and spread and worked out where, and if possible, how much water was used to grow the crops and process the food.

The findings were quite overwhelming! The idea that the ingredients for a portion of beans on toast are flown in from all over the world and use several baths full of water to produce was a powerful message for all involved.  Working alongside Sarah and Professor Geoff Squire from JHI to make the information accessible to 8-year-olds was fun too. 

We cooked and ate beans on toast with the children in the classroom before explaining Sarah’s findings and discussing water use. The children then created some fabulous Beans on Toast story boards.

The following text is taken from a blog post on the Living Field Web site.


Much of the food we eat comes from other parts of the world. Rice, pasta, bread, food for farm animals and even food for pets and garden birds is imported. We are currently dependent on these imports to meet our food needs. Becoming self-sufficient as a country and increasing what we grow locally would require a major shift in farming practice, for example using the existing cereal crops exclusively to make human food rather than alcohol and farm animal food.

In Scotland, people starved a hundred and fifty years ago when crops failed. They would go hungry now if the complex system of international food trade begins to fail or is seriously disrupted.

When we import food, we are also importing water and nutrients from other countries. “There’s not that much water in food” we say. “Look at dried noodles or rice – we add tap water to wet and heat them, so use far more local water than what’s in the packet!”

The story of beans on toast by a pupil at Wormit Primary School

Direct and indirect water

But that’s ignoring the water used to grow, process, transport and package the food. The water from the tap can be called ‘direct’ water, whereas all the water used to get the noodles or rice to the shelf in our cupboards is called ‘indirect’. For nearly all types of food, this indirect or hidden water is very much greater than the direct water.

Hidden water can amount to a few baths full just to get a simple meal on your plate. The water starts by falling as rain in other parts of the world.

The global trade in hidden water is harming many of the world’s ecosystems and its poorer people. The lack of sufficient fresh water is a major issue for many of the world’s poorest people yet hidden water is still exported from many countries in food and other materials.

The project on beans on toast was the first Living Field web article to look at the global water footprint in a simple meal.


The Beans on Toast project led to art, craft and images that helped form demonstrations and exhibits at school visits and Institute open days. Sarah made a presentation that ran in a loop in the background. The children’s artwork was displayed (examples are shown at Where does our food come from?) and Graham Begg prepared a world map showing where the crops were grown and a measure of water-using a giant tube of ping pong balls. For example, a little bit of water is part of the meal itself and is eaten along with the beans, the toast and the spread. More water – about three times more – is contained in the stuff (beans, tomato, etc.) that is processed to make up the beans and juice that ends up in the tin. Then the big surprise – how much water is used to grow all the different ingredients, process them and get them to the factory.

It’s such a lot compared to the other two that it’s hard to visualise – but if the water in the meal is equivalent to three ping-pong balls stacked on top of each other, and the water in the ingredients is nine or ten ping-pong balls, then the water used in growing and processing is so much that you could not get the ping pong balls into the cabin. In fact, if you stacked them up one on top of another, they would reach into the clouds.

Next the visitors were taken through a series of questions on where all the nine or ten crops that go into beans on toast came from. Clues allowed them to place pictures of crops on a map of the world.

The great success of the project was that it got people talking about the issues in question – for example, the way we use the water and other resources from different parts of the world, and the way a simple meal can in reality consist of many different crops, sourced from several continents.

And the beans on toast story is just one part of a much bigger question – should we in Scotland be comfortable with importing nearly all the cereal carbohydrate (bread, pasta, rice) and legume protein (beans, lentils, farm animal feed) that goes to make our present staple diet.

This is a question that the Living Field has continued to raise and explore over the years since the first ideas around the Beans on Toast project formed in 2011/12.

These are further links illustrating the details of Sarah’s research and the water footprint.


Research and presentations – Sarah Doherty Durham University placement student.

Primary school roadshow – Sarah Doherty and Jean Duncan

Drawings and paintings on these pages – children from Wormit Primary School, Fife.

Original photographs of artwork – Jean Duncan and Tracey Dixon. (Visualisation and GIS officer University of Dundee)

Open Day exhibit at the James Hutton Institute – Dr Graham Begg and Gladys Wright.

CREW (Scottish Government) provided the funding for 4 months of Sarah’s time and some days and materials for Jean.

Original Blog Post Geoff Squire.(

Many thanks to Geoff for his ongoing encouragement in my art/science projects many of which are recorded in my pages on the Living Field website.

World Food Day – Water, barley yields, Natural Capital and climate change in Scotland

Post by Mike Rivington and Mohamed Jabloun, The James Hutton Institute

Climate change in Scotland will alter the spatial and temporal distribution of rainfall, whilst warming temperatures will result in more water evaporated from crops and soil. These changes will impact crop yields with consequences on the food and drinks sectors. Research at the James Hutton Institute has undertaken a spatial assessment of what the impacts of climate change might be on barley yields, as well as broader aspects of changes in climatic conditions affecting land use and Natural Capital.

How has Scotland’s climate changed?

The effects of climate change are already here: Scotland’s climate has experienced substantial change since the 1960-1989 baseline period. This and the likelihood of future change has serious consequences for Scotland’s Agriculture, Natural Capital, society and our economy through changes in ecological processes. We have already experienced some changes in the climate that are comparable in magnitude to those projected for the future (2020 and 2049, and in the case of January and November precipitation, the 2050-2079 period) by climate models. Observed changes and future projections include:
• November, December and January’s mean monthly precipitation totals have already increased since the 1960-1989 baseline period to amounts greater than those projected for the 2020-2049 period.
• February observed temperatures have already increased to be at the lower end of the 12 climate projections (high emissions scenario) for the 2020-2049 period.

February has experienced the largest increase in mean monthly rainfall, whilst the largest decrease has been in September. The eastern arable crop areas have experienced rainfall decreases in the key months of March and May.

How might Scotland’s climate change in the future?

Analysis shows that August, September and autumn are likely to become warmer and drier in the future. Spring shows large spatial and temporal variation, with risks of drought impacting crops and nature. Winters are likely to get warmer and wetter, particularly in the west, resulting in higher risks of flooding. Storms may be more intense with higher amounts of heavy rainfall. Lower precipitation and higher rates of evapotranspiration associated with higher temperatures are likely to reduce water availability, impacting ecological processes and agricultural production.

Climate extremes have already changed and are projected to increase: longer summer dry periods; heavier rain in winter. Snow cover has declined and is likely to reduce further as temperatures warm, but there may still be some winters with high snowfall, but staying for less time on the ground.

Precipitation (mm)

Maximum Temperature and Minimum Temperature

The figures above illustrate, for the whole of Scotland, how precipitation and temperature have changed compared to the 1960-1989 baseline (0 on the y axis), and how they are projected to change for two time periods in the future (solid green and blue lines = mean of 12 projections, shaded areas are the range of the 12 projections).

What does this mean in terms of water availability?

Using 12 projections from a Regional Climate Model, a Climatic Water Balance indicator was estimated. This indicator is estimated by calculating the difference between precipitation in and evapotranspiration out (daily, at a 1km spatial resolution) and indicates where there may be a shift from water surplus to a deficit.

During the winter there is likely to be plenty of surplus water available, however, in the spring and summer in the east of Scotland, there is an increasing risk of less water available to crops from our soils. This is because there may be less rainfall but higher rates of evapotranspiration (evaporation from plants and soils).

What does this mean for barley yields?

There is likely to be increased annual yield variability, with potentially some good years for arable agriculture, but also more years when crops become water stressed at key stages in their growth.

Climate change is likely to have both positive and negative impacts on barley growth and annual yields, with some years potentially experiencing good yields when conditions are favourable but with an overall decrease in yields by the 2040s, which continues to worsen by the 2070s. Under the twelve climate projections used (which leads to temperature increases ranging from 1 to 3.5°C and 7% increase to 14% decrease in growing season precipitation), barley yields are likely to decrease in many parts of Scotland. This will likely be due to additional water stress, especially if water is limited in the spring to early summer periods.

Future higher temperatures and potentially reduced precipitation are likely to lead to an increased water deficit, where evapotranspiration loss of water to the atmosphere is greater than the precipitation input to soils.

There is good agreement between the climate projections as to where these changes in yield may occur. The spatial extent and temporal frequency of yield decreases is likely to cause substantial challenges to the barley supply chain and end users. Earlier sowing appears to be a viable adaptation option.

This figure shows the spatial distribution of the level of agreement between climate projections in the barley yield change over the period 2030-2049 as compared to the baseline period 1994-2015, where Yellow = variable probability of change; Blue = yield increases; Red = yield decreases. This distribution of where decreases are likely aligns with where soils with lower water capacity are. Areas with better soil water holding capacity appear to be more resilient and could potentially experience increases in yield when favourable climatic conditions permit.

Implications of climate change on Natural Capital

Climate change impacts will vary across different types of Natural Capital and ecosystem service flows. Likely impacts include:
· Increased water stress for multiple species and habitats, affecting ecosystem function and the provision of ecosystem services. Reduced water flow in streams, and higher soil and water temperatures.
· Increased species competition for water and nutrients, favouring those with broader tolerance ranges (i.e., pioneer and invasive species), risking species loss, habitat alteration and changes in ecological processes.
· Mismatches in the growth and development of species that rely on one another (e.g., pollinators and plant species) due to different responses to changed seasonal weather patterns.
· Mixed range of impacts for Peatlands: longer growing seasons may increase primary production and increase access and working conditions (i.e., if less snow cover) which would benefit restoration efforts (re-wetting). Reduced water in the summer and autumn will increase respiration. If a severe drought period, some decrease in primary production and risks of drying of exposed soils. Multiple drought years threaten poor recovery.
· Drier and more flammable vegetation and peatland soils increases fire danger, requiring investment in ignition prevention and mitigation measures including habitat management and increasing public awareness of risks.
· Changes to crop yields: potential increases when favourable weather conditions (adequate spring precipitation), but overall reductions, especially where soils have lower water holding capacity and / or on degraded topsoil (e.g., due to erosion, compaction) with low carbon and hence low water retention.
· Flooding events increase the risk of spreading invasive species, increased erosion and concentrated diffuse pollution flushes. Reduced snow cover will impact water flow rates, whilst warmer air temperatures and altered albedo (darker surfaces) will increase water temperature impacting river ecology, e.g., spawning fish populations.

What does this mean for us?

Scotland, like the rest of the world, will face substantial challenges to mitigate the causes of the climate and biodiversity crises risks, and adapting to impacts. However, approaches such as Nature Based Solutions and equitable burden sharing to these challenges are also rooted in social justice aims, to ensure we have sustainable economies and environments. Through our research we are better informed about the risks and opportunities, and so better placed to make sure we leave no-one behind.

Further information about the research is available here:

Climate trends and future projections: Climate Trends and Future Projections in Scotland

Climate extremes: Climate Extremes in Scotland

Natural Capital and climate change: Climate Change Impacts on Natural Capital | The James Hutton Institute

Barley and climate change: Barley Responses to Climate Change

Assessing climate change impacts on snow cover in the Cairngorms National Park.

Water Services – a Scottish Model?

Post by Prof Sarah Hendry

Water services is the issue of the day! Having seen so much coverage of the sewerage and surface water issues in the last year, the last few days has expanded that to widespread critique of the whole model, not just for Thames Water but across the sector in England. Currently, and I am trying not to be smug, the UK media is full of comments about Scotland providing a better model for service delivery than England. I have spent much of my career making that argument; that a public service could be as good as one in private ownership; and perhaps even better. Although some private sector participation is found in many parts of the world, the ‘English model’ of divestiture of the assets is rarely found. So it might be a good time to remind ourselves of the history of Scottish Water, and whether the differences – and the similarities – might provide some clues to the sorry state of affairs ‘down South’.

Some forty years ago, John Major’s government did not divest Scotland’s water services. As someone who campaigned to ‘Keep Scotland’s Water Public’ – we ‘won’. Arguably, the system was in such a poor state that no investor would have bought it – but either way, the assets remained in public ownership. Under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1994, three regional authorities were created; in addition, Build-Own-Operate-Transfer schemes were enabled to bring private finance into the construction of wastewater treatment plants, implementing the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive.

Some twenty years ago, after the Scottish Parliament was established, the Water Industry (Scotland) Act 2002 created Scottish Water as a public corporation, responsible for delivering all of Scotland’s public water and wastewater services. In 2005, the Water Services (Scotland) Act established the Water Industry Commission, the equivalent of Ofwat. After a difficult period of adjustment to the new regime, when Scottish Water was in the lowest quartile in every operational area compared to the English companies, Scottish Water has performed increasingly well.

The Water Industry Commission oversees a six year business planning cycle involving all the regulators, the Government, and an Independent Customer Group; this is not dissimilar to the business planning overseen by Ofwat. In addition to the Water Industry Commission, Scottish Water is regulated by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (the equivalent of the Environment Agency in England) for abstraction of raw water and for discharges from UWWT works; and by the Drinking Water Quality Regulator (the equivalent of the Drinking Water Inspectorate).

So the names are different, and some details of the remits, but the broad regulatory model remains the same as that in England and indeed Wales. Similarly, at least until now, the standards applied have been the same, deriving from EU law, on drinking water, waste water treatment, and more broadly around the Water Framework Directive and related rules. Scottish Water, as with the large English (and Welsh) providers, is a stakeholder for river basin planning and its activities are key to both water quality and water quantity.

What then are the differences? The simplistic answer is the absence of private shareholders, and more generally a profit motive. In the past, I have argued that regulation, not ownership, is the key. A properly regulated entity should provide a service that meets the needs of its customers, maintains its systems, meets regulatory standards, and has a surplus for appropriate future investment. Whilst personally I do think water services should be in the public sector, a realistic and stable dividend to shareholders may not make that impossible. Scottish Water could be required to pay a dividend to its owner, the Scottish Government, if its surplus is more than required for its investment plans. Arguably, Ofwat has not been successful at controlling the companies (and perhaps that is also true in energy, and rail, and telecoms – all the big service sectors divested in the 1980s on the same model). That might be because its powers are deficient, or it might be some version of regulatory capture; better regulation might still be the solution.

Another important difference is scale. Geographic scale – Scotland is not much smaller than England, but with a tenth or less of the population. This low population density means that many services are provided across a much wider land area, which in practice makes the service more expensive to provide. There is also what we might call ‘jurisdictional scale’ – the small population, a relatively integrated public administration, and also having only one entity to regulate. That is in itself very beneficial for a regulator, but linked to that, at least in the last decade, there has been a genuine ‘pulling together’ between the entity, its regulators and the wider civic sphere. The absence of private financial interests has enabled a coherent message between the service provider, the government, the regulators and the customers which is not tainted by negative perceptions of profit and external beneficiaries.

This is not a call for England to re-nationalise, necessarily; it is not my place to make that call. But a more complex answer to the differences would look at the underlying business environment, and at wider questions of governance beyond regulation as such. Scottish Water has debt – historic debt, and current borrowings. This is public sector borrowing, which the English model has prioritised avoiding. But there would be no question of Scottish Water being able to massively extend its debt in the way that Thames and others have done. The equity to debt ratio has been allowed to reach an unmanageable place, especially as interest rates are rising. There are problems in Scotland too; of course. There are sewage overspills; there will be need for significant investment, especially in wastewater treatment; there are water scarcity problems on the horizon; there are issues around affordability within a completely different model of billing and charging. But the system is not poisoned. It has broad support and there is therefore a good starting position for making difficult decisions with wider buy-in from the public. That is clearly and visibly lacking in England and will make addressing all the 21st century challenges in the environmental sphere infinitely harder to achieve.

World Migratory Bird Day

Post by Prof Chris Spray

May 13th is World Migratory Bird Day (WBMD), or at least it is in the northern hemisphere; the southern celebrating it on 14th October, reflecting the cyclical nature of bird migration with opposite migration periods in the north and south. With a different focus each year, awareness raising, campaigning and action in 2023 centres on the topic of water and its importance for migratory birds, helping to identify key actions for protecting water resources and aquatic ecosystems.

For many migratory birds, aquatic ecosystems are a key part of their lives. They are places to rest and refuel during their long journeys, and over the years scientists have been able to identify global ‘population flyways’ that connect different patches of wetland habitats, each essential to the safe movement of millions of birds. Like a string of beads on a necklace, these coastal, estuarine and inland wetlands encompass the various habitats that are vital for feeding, drinking, or nesting. Each river, stream, loch, pond, marsh, fen and bog is part of a connected wholescape.

Globally, nearly 70% of wetlands have been lost since 1900, and they are still being destroyed three times faster than forests, with negative impacts on the well-being and livelihoods of many millions of people, as well as birds. WWF’s Deep Dive in to the State of Freshwaters, part of their Living Planet Report 2020 shows that human consumption of freshwater is increasing by 1% every year – in line with a growing population and increasing demand that comes with rising wealth – driving a 4% decline per year in the Living Planet Index for freshwater species.

Increasing human demand for water, especially abstraction for agriculture, as well as pollution, overharvesting, invasive species and changes to the physical regime of watercourses through diversions and dams are having a direct impact on the availability of fresh water and the conservation status of many migratory birds. These direct pressures on wetland habitats are driven by our prevailing human systems for food production, energy generation, urban and infrastructure development. And increasingly above all, by climate change.

The idea for a day to celebrate and raise awareness of bird migration started back in 1993, with organisations in the USA including US Fish and Wildlife Service, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology initiating celebrations and encouraging bird festivals and education programmes. From these beginnings, the programme spread and World Migratory Bird Day itself came in to being in 2006, recognised by the Secretariat of the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals. It was then formally expanded and relaunched globally in 2018, with major events to celebrate the day now organised twice a year, on the second Saturday in May and October.

The need to recognise and protect linked habitats for migratory species however is not new. Indeed, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands is the oldest of all modern global intergovernmental environmental agreements of any sort. The treaty was negotiated in the 1960s by countries and non-governmental organizations concerned about increasing loss and degradation of wetland habitats for migratory waterbirds. Adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971, it came into force in 1975. It focuses on the’ wise use of wetlands’ and in so doing stresses the interlinkage between human needs and those of waterfowl populations, and the need to maintain each wetland’s ‘ecological character, achieved through the implementation of ecosystem approaches, within the context of sustainable development”. Now some 50 years old, this foreshadowed modern-day thinking around ecosystem services, sustainable development and indeed the SDGs. As a Contracting Party, the UK has committed to work towards ‘wise use’ of all our designated wetlands, using national legislation, policies, plans, management actions and public education.

To return to World Migratory Bird Day, the UNESCO Centre here in Dundee is a great place to see, and indeed hear migration in action! Each September, I listen with anticipation for the sounds of whooper swans and skeins of pinkfeet geese from Iceland as the fly over in ‘V’ formation en route south for the winter. Many geese stay for a day, some much longer on the Tay estuary or Loch of Lintrathen (both Sites of Special Scientific Interest, the latter also the human water-supply reservoir for Dundee!) where they rest and roost overnight. Some 50 kms to the north lies Montrose Basin, a Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve and another ‘bead’ in this necklace of protected sites for this migratory species and home very briefly to up to 84,000 geese in the autumn migration (peak October 2020). Recognition of the importance of such habitats was further emphasised by the inclusion last month of ‘The East Atlantic Flyway’ among five new sites from across the UK in the government’s “Tentative List” of World heritage sites for recognition by UNESCO.

Whooper swans from Iceland

And spring is no different. I heard my first cuckoo of the year last week, my first swallows the week before and saw early migrants like sand martins and wheatears in late March. Even the common blackbirds or robins in your garden in winter may be continental migrants, species even as small as goldcrests (at 5 grams) regularly cross the North Sea to join us here in the UK. And along with these common migrants, we occasionally see ‘falls’ of migrants in early May, with thousands of small birds suddenly landing out of mist-covered skies on the Tayside and Fife coasts, often containing real rarities from southern Europe, temporarily lost on migration. For all these birds, the habitats where the stop en route are critical for their survival.

It was Aristotle, centuries ago who said ‘one swallow does not make Spring’ and this and many other literary references to bird migration are embedded in human culture world-wide. World Migratory Bird day is a chance to raise awareness and highlight the need for the conservation of migratory birds and their habitats.


  • International treaties in nature conservation: a UK perspective. Stroud, D. A., Cromie, R., Finlayson, M., Lewis, M., Mundkur, T., Pritchard, D., Spray, C., Tasker, M., Tierney, R. & Wilson, J. 2021. Biodiversity Press, Totnes.
  • A horizon scanning assessment of current and potential future threats to migratory shorebirds.  Sutherland, W. J., Alves, J. A., Amano, T., Chang, C. H., Davidson, N. C., Finlayson, C. M., Gill, J. A., Gill, R. E., González, P. M., Gunnarsson, T. G., Kleijn, D., Spray, C. J., Székely, T. & Thompson, D. B. A., 2012, In: IBIS. 154, 4, p. 663-679 17 p
  • Blood lead levels in wintering and moulting Icelandic whooper swans over two decades. O’Connell, M. M., Rees, E. C., Einarsson, O., Spray, C. J., Thorstensen, S. & O’Halloran, J., 2008, In: Journal of Zoology. 276, 1, p. 21-27 7 p
  • Whooper Swan. Spray, C., 2007, The Birds of Scotland.  R. W. Forrester & I. J. Andrews (eds.). the Scottish Ornithologists Club, Aberlady, East Lothian. p. 133-136 4 p.
  • Comparative study of the breeding success of Whooper swans nesting in upland and lowland regions of Icelend. Rees, E. C., Black, J. M., Spray, C. J. & Thorisson, S., 1991, In: IBIS. 133, 4, p. 365-373 9 p

Nature based integrated water management solution to address climate change loss and damage

World Water Day series – post by Dr Nandan Mukherjee

More than 40% of people on earth reside in coastal regions that are less than 100 kilometres from the ocean, where they are subject to climate challenges like rising sea levels, intense rainfall, and extreme flooding. Each year, this results in $40 billion in losses and damages. According to the UN’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, these disasters resulted in 700,000 fatalities, more than 1.4 million injuries, and roughly 23 million people becoming homeless between 2002 and 2012. About 45 million people in Bangladesh reside in regions where powerful cyclones frequently destroy homes and means of livelihood. While the IPCC’s sixth assessment report highlights the weakness of infrastructure-based water management solutions to address climate change impacts, nature-based approaches have the potential to overcome the barriers and constraints to adaptation by addressing avoidable and irreparable loss and damage.

Figure 1: Key features of the climate resilient home in Bangladesh

UNESCO centre Dundee’s ongoing flagship action research in Bangladesh offering ‘one water management solution for SDG’ has the potential to overcome the critical challenges to achieve sustainable development around implementation, instability, and governance. The ultra-low cost, climate-resilient, livelihood-inclusive, nature-based, co-designed and co-developed integrated water management solution around a net zero building envelope cost only 3.5% (£3500) of the estimated annual budget for implementing the SDGs ($5-7 trillion per year) by offering the solutions to all the homeless families in the world (est. 30 million). Apart from addressing resilience to climatic hazards, for example, flood, drought, storm surge, sea level rise and salinity intrusion, the home offers devolved and decentralised water management solutions to individual climate-vulnerable families to address the root causes around structural inequality, powerlessness, and poor governance etc.

Primarily locally sourced carbon neutral materials used in the construction of the building aims to target the most significant greenhouse gas emission sector, i.e., the construction industry, which causes more than 40% of greenhouse gas emission of the full account. The off-grid home ensures the uninterrupted provision of essential lifeline services (water-energy-food nexus) and climate-insensitive, gender-inclusive livelihood options to a vulnerable family to adapt against poverty and hunger. Capturing black carbons in the form of handmade tiles, and substituting carbon-intensive building materials, for instance, Portland cement, steel and wood with lime and bamboo, helps achieve the global and national target for nationally determined contribution (NDC) under the Paris agreement and net zero ambition.

University of Dundee’s beacon research institution Centre for Water Law Policy and Science has been invited to participate in the United Nations Water Conference, considered the most important water event since 1977. The critical agenda for the event is the comprehensive midterm review of the implementation for the international decade (2008 to 2018) for action with the slogan ‘water for sustainable development’. Professor John Rowan, Director of the UNESCO centre, is going to present this concept in a very high-level event on 23rd March along with other ministerial delegations and UNESCO centre representatives.

Accelerating Change – Water, Sanitation & Hygiene

World Water Day Series – Dr Emmanuel Akpabio

The 2023 World Water Day comes with the theme ‘accelerating change’. Accelerating progress towards universal access to water has never become more urgent considering the COVID-19 pandemic and the possibility of future outbreaks. Adequate supply of suitable water is vital to improving sanitation and quality hygiene and is central to public health management. Global estimates indicate over a billion people lack access to improved drinking water supplies, and 2.6 billion people do not have adequate sanitation. WHO and UNICEF estimate the greatest numbers (c. 80%) of those without access to these services are in Eastern and Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). These represent serious global health burdens in terms of the consequences associated with a lack of access to drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene (WaSH). Movement towards the UN’s 2030 targets are very mixed, with some evidencing great progress and others less impressive.

In regions like Latin America and the Caribbean, northern Africa and much of Asia, 90% or more of their populations have access to clean drinking water. This compares to c. 60% of people in SSA overall, but which also has strong regional and socio-economic differentiation. In 35 countries over 90% of the richest quintile in urban areas have improved water sources and over 60% have piped water on their premises (Salaam-Blyther, 2012). The corollary is that in rural areas such services are often non-existent. South Asia (led by India) recorded substantial progress, having halved the proportion of its population using unsafe sanitary systems. In 2010, 69% of people had access to improved sanitation services up from 46% in 1990, with the result that only c. 4% still practiced open defecation as opposed to 67% in the previous two decades. The equivalent data in SSA points to more modest gains and unsanitary practices fell only by 15% overall.

Climate change is expected to harm the quantity and quality of available drinking water and negatively impact sanitation and hygiene provision. Increased flooding (magnitudes and frequency) will damage critical WaSH infrastructures and may contaminate much relied upon sources such as open wells or surface waters, especially as most settlements (rural and urban) in SSA depend on pit latrines for excreta disposal. Eradicating open defecation in such contexts therefore becomes more pressing. However, the reality of having to negotiate between basic needs for existence and the financial and time commitments to build and maintain an effective pit latrine hampers progress. This has been the practical dilemma of rural Malawi especially the vulnerable communities, such as Chikwawa, Chilwa, Chikale, and several others. On the other hand, prolonged seasonal drought in Malawi and northern Nigeria are already severely limiting citizens’ access to drinking water supplies and further raising the risk of infectious diseases outbreak including cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, etc.

The WaSH sector in SSA is performing less well than in other regions of the world. Visible progress may be recorded in isolated and organised settlements with networked facilities vis a vis urban outskirt, emergency settlements (independent persons displaced camps-IDPs), open markets, rural, riverine and other settlements in difficult locations. Beyond geography, access inequality across gender, age, disability, sexuality and economic circumstances is still a major issue. With these statistics, progress toward achieving the goal and targets set out by the SDGs by 2030 is less guaranteed. Generally, the common factors leading to underperformance are poor institutional capacity and weak governance; excessive influence from external actors; socio-economic challenges and the impact of cultural and religious values and practices.

While the WaSH sector elements include drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, policies and programmes excessively focus on drinking water supplies and the productive uses of water. Sanitation and hygiene are rarely integrated in policy priority. For instance, over 90% of Nigeria’s and Malawi’s WaSH sector spending is consumed by the water component (for drinking and irrigation). For instance, national WaSH sector budget for Malawi is typically < 1% and mainly focusing on drinking water services. Specific budgetary commitment to sanitation and hygiene is rare except dedicated funds from donor support. Newspapers in Nigeria report spending on the WaSH sector fallen to 0.27% of GDP as compared to 0.7% in 1990. Where sub-units exist for sanitation, interest centres on human excreta disposal, whereas hygiene issues rarely have policy visibility. Across SSA there is evidence of what is possible, with Malawi often singled out for attention because of good progress being made as a result of relative political stability and less ethnocentric and religious interests in public governance.

All too typical scene on untreated waste going into a neighbourhood stream

Limited political attention on the links between WaSH activities and public health is widely blamed for a lack of holistic, effective and pro-poor improvement policies and a lack of agency amongst civil society, especially the most vulnerable, to assert their needs. International agencies will invariably approach the issues through the lens of the UN SDG (especially SDG 6.1 water and sanitation for all) or through the public health emergency arising from the global COVID-19 pandemic or regional transmissible disease crises such as the Ebola outbreak in West African which captured the public imagination and catalysed some behavioural changes including hand washing before and after toilet use.

The biggest challenge to WaSH sector performance is the influence of cultural beliefs and religious values that tend to work against behavioural changes and innovative practices. Socio-cultural practices and beliefs in water deities and sanitary taboos are widely recognised and can often present a barrier to the adoption of engineering-based approaches to traditional practices (Akpabio, 2012; Akpabio & Rowan, 2021). Similarly, straightforward scientific logic regarding risk of disease transmission is often subordinated to deep-rooted cultural beliefs hindering progress in improving public awareness and behavioural change. An anonymized interview quote is offered by way of illustration:

“… in the Nsanje district… females during menstruation (M’bvade, meaning unclean woman)… are prohibited from using communal latrines, stemming from the belief that males may develop a fat leg (elephantiasis of lymphocele) if they inadvertently tread or cross where an M’bvade has defecated or urinated…; in areas where custom frowns upon the use of the same latrine by daughters-in-law and fathers-in-law or some sons-in-law and mothers-in-law, the provision of separate latrines is favoured rather than attempting to change people’s attitudes…”.

In some cases, the fear of sorcerers and black magicians gaining access to human excreta (faeces) was the primary reason why people in the rural areas refuse to own latrines, preferring open defecation in the bush (Akpabio 2012, Akpabio and Takara 2014).

Accelerating change and improvement calls for better and holistic understanding of WaSH in relation to local socio-environmental, economic, geographical and cultural circumstances as a guide to evolving flexible engagements with local actors and communities for the purpose of evolving solutions that work. Unfortunately, the WaSH sector is poorly governed across sub-Saharan Africa. Different organizations and governmental levels pursue diverse and sometimes overlapping management interest with minimal or no specific mechanism for coordinating activities. The WaSH sector has no clear governance platform and institutional domain. In many countries, a multitude of organizations and sub-units are involved, yet performance progress in the sector is less satisfactory. As most agencies are politically created, it has always been difficult to pursue a common agenda due to conflicts of interest:

“I think we have so many agencies associated with WaSH…and sad to say most of them are not necessary…the politicians just wake up and create agencies to provide jobs for their supporters and people…”, declared by a senior Nigerian public official.

Inter-agency conflict and competition complicate the governance challenge and generate opportunities for external actor involvement. Over the years, a greater proportion of WaSH sector funding, projects and policies are driven by donor agencies and multilateral/regional organizations including the WHO, UNICEF, AFDB, etc. Donor-driven WaSH projects have a strong presence in Malawi through several top funding agencies and organizations including the Scottish Government. Implementation of funding projects, though in most cases in collaboration with national governments, follow mostly specific funding agency’s visions and ideologies, which serve specific purposes at a specific time span. However, their long-term sustainability are hardly guaranteed as funding dries up. In another perspective, most policy reforms in the WaSH sector follow the IMF/World Bank neoliberal templates of individualization, privatization/commercialization, deregulation, internationalization, neo-commodification and liberalizations. Public WaSH services in SSA countries, for instance, are run on a commercial basis (and at most times subsidized by public funds), and the cost of specific services, in most cases are beyond the financial reach of the citizens. Under this circumstance, the rich are more likely to benefit, while the poor are left to work out daily means of gaining access to improved WaSH services. These visions hardly cohere with local socio-economic needs and cultural values and, in some cases, produce tension and increase the rate of inequality in access to simple drinking water.

Addressing the existing gaps needs close working relationships with local stakeholders to co-evolve cost-effective, sustainable and community-driven management solutions. There is need to improve the relationship between the formal and informal actors and institutions through continuous dialogue and public consultation to improve the effectiveness of WaSH related policies and project implementation. Managing WaSH services in catchment-based context holds the prospect of encouraging such collaboration and inclusive management. The national public policies of imposing single and uniform WaSH management plans based on technological and neoliberal options across ecological boundaries hardly recognize environmental, cultural and socio-economic differences that shape access to essential WaSH services. In the context of limited budgetary resources, different ecological regions need different options that reflect local ecological circumstances. A catchment-based WaSH management approach is more likely to account for ecological differences and focus on solutions that work within the limits of available resources.

Dr Emmanuel M. Akpabio ( is the Ag Director of International Programmes, University of Uyo. He received a Marie Sklodowsca-Curie Action Fellowship from the EU, based in the University of Dundee, where he continues to engage an International Associate of the UNESCO Dundee Centre for Water Law, Policy and Science. He is also a Life Fellow (FIWRA) of the International Water Resources Association (IWRA).


Akpabio, E. M. and John S. Rowan (2021). The political economy of coordinating water, sanitation and hygiene management policies and programmes for Nigeria. Water International.

Akpabio, E. M. and K. Takara (2014). Understanding and confronting cultural complexities characterizing water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in sub-Saharan Africa. Water International 39 (7): 921-932.

Akpabio E. M. (2012). Water meanings, sanitation practices and hygiene behaviours in the cultural mirror: a perspective from Nigeria. Journal of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for Development 02(3): 168-181.

Salaam-Blyther T. (2012). Global access to clean drinking water and sanitation: US and International programs. Congressional Research Service. Research Report for Congress.

World Water Day 2023: A Hydrometric Perspective

World Water Day series – Post by Dr Andrew Black

“Accelerating change” is the theme for World Water Day 2023. Quoting the WWD organisers, “billions of people and countless schools, businesses, healthcare centres, farms and factories are being held back because their human rights to water and sanitation have not yet been fulfilled”. Against this backdrop, it’s surprising that the availability of water in many parts of the world is often poorly known: it’s much clearer to know when water is insufficient, or of poor quality, than to know in absolute terms how much is present. After all, water is continually varying in its quantities in groundwater, soil water, ice caps, glaciers, lakes and rivers, as well as showing considerable variations in space, sometimes even over short distances.

Nevertheless, there are many benefits in quantifying water resources, even if doing so is difficult. In fact, in our world of rapidly growing population and rising per capita demands, and against a backdrop of increasing environmental change, it has never been more important. This article examines some of the ways in which staff and students in Dundee are involved in quantifying water and other dimensions of the environment, considers why it’s important and where this work needs to go in the coming years.

At Eddleston in the Scottish Borders, our long-running natural flood management (NFM) project relies on a dense network of rainfall and water level monitoring in order to understand hydrological response to rainfall and snowmelt, and to detect change. The main stem of the river, at 12 km in length, now has 10 river level gauges, which together allow propagation of flood waves to be studied (Fig. 1). Unexpected results have been identified, with river levels peaking at upstream sites after downstream sites – an effect not usually visible in a catchment served by only a single gauge at the catchment outlet. Another surprise is the tendency for many of the largest flood events to be partly caused by snowmelt. We are working with the project managers to target tributaries which would benefit most from NFM interventions. The strongly empirical and detailed focus of our research to date differentiates our work from other studies.

Fig. 1.  Propagation of flood peaks on the Eddleston Water, December 2015.  Gauging stations are arranged in downstream order from top to bottom of the plot.

For water resources studies, mean annual rainfall is routinely required, but most gauges have always been located in lowland and valley bottom locations. Catchment-averaged rainfall inputs require knowledge of water inputs on the high ground as well as low, and this against a backdrop of expected increases in the westerly component of north European airflows and studies indicating that the rate of climate change in the mountains is accelerating. Reservoir safety assessments and water resource planning need to be informed by the best available information about precipitation in the mountains. Assumptions made regarding the rate of increase of precipitation with elevation may prove to be unsafe under climate change.

In Dundee we operate 10 recording rain gauges at sites above 400 metres elevation, the same number as SEPA, Scotland’s national hydrometric agency do nationally, while our 7 rain gauges above 500 m out-number SEPA’s 4. Many of these gauges are in Glen Feshie, where our rainfall monitoring has been designed to represent the full range of catchment elevations so far as practical considerations allow (Fig. 2), allowing corrections to be made to rainfall estimates.

Fig. 2.  Rainfall monitoring sites in the Feshie catchment.  Rainfall storage (SG) and tipping bucket (TBR) gauges have been sited to represent the distribution of elevations within the catchment, shown with a hypsometric curve.

There are ecological reasons to focus on the hydrology of these mountains as well as resource planning reasons. Our mountains are our water towers, yielding more water per unit area than anywhere else, and yielding delayed runoff from snowmelt in spring, maintaining low river water temperatures and elevated flows through the often dry months of April and May. Terrestrial environments in the mountains provide habitats for endangered species; multiple aspects of climate impact on their population health.

With a monitoring network which measures more than 15,000 observations every day, there is a danger of being inundated with data. Can there possibly be too much? One thing that stands out from my experience monitoring the environment over the years has been that we can never foresee all the uses which might arise for our data: often uses emerge which had not been anticipated when instruments were first installed. In Glen Feshie, we originally installed our network for the purpose of understanding how hydrological processes at one scale relate to behaviours at another. But in the subsequent 20 years, the estate has changed hands, with the new owner, Anders Holch Povlsen being committed to landscape-scale rewilding, with the Feshie catchment being at the heart of his plans. As woodland regeneration continues and is supplemented by targeted ditch blocking, tree planting and restoration of peat hags, we now have the underpinnings of a longitudinal study.

In a country often perceived as being wet, it is perhaps unsurprising that domestic water consumption is not metered, even though this practice is now widespread in many other (generally drier) parts of the UK. And yet, in 2022 Scotland saw its first-ever application of water abstraction controls since the implementation of the Water Framework Directive, following a dry spring and summer, illustrating that water shortage does occur. With climate change, the risks of shortage are expected to increase. Knowledge is power; the benefits of having quantitative information about water usage would apply equally in Scotland as elsewhere.

Monitoring the water environment gives our students the opportunity to undertake practical learning, be engaged with events as they occur, and helps extend the knowledge base which is sure to be used in years to come for assessments of climate change, water resources, flood risks and more. Digital technology allows data to be seen in real time, which allows water users – that’s all of us – to better understand our environment and take informed decisions relating to water today and in the future. Real-time data from our monitoring network can be found at

Risks of Extreme Events for Rainfed Agroforestry

World Water Day Series – Post by Dr Alexandra Morel

Ghana is one of the largest producers of cocoa (Figure 1b), a perennial tree crop, that is primarily grown by smallholder farmers. Theobroma cacao is native to Central America but was first cultivated in West Africa in the 1800s. Today cocoa beans are one of the major agricultural exports for West Africa and employs 5-6 million farmers across the tropics.

Figure 1 Cocoa production in Ghana. (a) Map of cocoa producing districts (blue outlines) and regions (red outlines) in Ghana. (b) Global cocoa production over the last 60 years. (c) Cocoa pods on a farm in Ghana (photo copyright A.C.M).

Unlike annual crops, which are planted each year (e.g. wheat, corn, soy), perennial crops (e.g. oil palm, cocoa, coffee) can show an impact to their yield the following year or for a number of years following a period of stress. This stress can be related to higher-than-average temperatures, lack of water or a combination of the two. A lack of water can be captured by a metric called “cumulative water deficit”. This estimates the shortfall of rainfall in millimetres compared to the water required to maintain plants’ metabolic and/or reproductive processes (estimated as potential evapotranspiration). It is usually calculated at the monthly scale. Trees may be able to survive this type of stress, but it will likely take a toll on their ability to produce more fruits or invest in growing their trunks, roots and leaves. In extreme cases, this level of stress can also induce a “mass fruiting” event, whereby a plant invests what carbon resources it has left into reproduction, with the assumption it may be about to die. The carbohydrates used for these events are assumed to be stored by the trees and only used in emergency situations; therefore, if a tree does use them but still survives the extreme event, they would likely be significantly less productive or vigorous for the following year or several years. This phenomenon is not well studied nor often observed at larger spatial scales yet will be an important aspect to understand for achieving climate resilience in our agricultural system.

El Niño events, driven by the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), are an example of periods when global temperatures are elevated and, depending on the region, can also cause drier conditions. Conversely, La Niña events are generally cooler with differing influences on rainfall. As ENSO is a Pacific Ocean phenomenon, the impact on West Africa is not always consistent; however, we were interested to explore whether we could observe a yield response in cocoa during and immediately following an ENSO event. For this study, led by Dr Thomas Creedy, we used the Oceanic Nino Index (ONI) as a proxy for the severity of an El Niño or La Niña event. We were able to get a large dataset of cocoa production from the Ghana Cocoa Board (COCOBOD) of annual production for the 6 cocoa buying regions of the country. This data covered the years 1947-2020. We were also able to analyse higher spatial resolution cocoa production data for 68 cocoa purchasing districts, but for a shorter time period, 1999-2020. See Figure 1a for the outline of regions (red) and districts (blue). These data were paired with gridded climate reanalysis data (ERA-5) for calculating spatially relevant anomalies of mean, minimum and maximum temperatures, total precipitation and cumulative water deficit (CWD) for the two time periods. Anomalies were helpful for understanding how far from “normal” these cocoa trees were experiencing during these climate events.

Using the higher resolution production data from the last 20 years, we saw lower cocoa yields during an El Niño event and higher cocoa yields the year following an El Niño event. This suggested that during the period of stress the cocoa trees were less able to invest in fruit or flower production but may be showing a stress response in the year after. Interestingly, this relationship was not as statistically significant for the coarser resolution production data over the 70-year study period. When we separated the study period into before 1987 and after 1988, we found a flip in the yield responses. In the earlier time period, we see cocoa yields being higher during an El Niño event and decreasing the following year. While from 1987 the yield response shifted to be consistent with the district level results, where yields are lower during the El Niño event and then are elevated the year following. We also noted that yields were higher during a La Niña event and lower the year following a La Niña during the later time period.

We were surprised to see the sign of this impact switching from positive to negative over this 70-year data set and are still investigating any differences due to management or planting history of these study regions. However, for this paper, we have also explored whether the climate conditions during extreme ENSO conditions may have changed significantly over this time period. Using the ONI and gridded ERA-5 climate data, we looked at average temperature, total rainfall and CWD anomalies for the major and minor, wet and dry seasons (Figure 2). We found that temperature anomalies were generally higher in the later time period but were consistently higher during the major dry season of an El Niño event (Figure 2b). We also found that the CWD during the major wet season was more negative (e.g. more stressful) during a La Niña than an El Niño event during the later time period, a dramatic shift from the earlier time period (Figure 2k). We drilled a bit further by month and found this shift in pattern to be statistically significant for March, April and May, which are key months for flowering and pollination of the cocoa trees (see Figure 5 of the below linked paper).

Figure 2 The response of climate to maximum annual ONI in different seasons during the purchase year, grouped into time period before 1986/87 (black) and after 1987/88 (yellow). Vertical dashed lines show conditions considered to be La Niña (ONI ≤ − 0.5), Neutral (− 0.5 < ONI < 0.5) and El Niño (ONI ≥ 0.5) conditions. Significance stars denote p-values derived from these models (***p < 0.001, **p < 0.01, *p < 0.05, .: p < 0.1). The adjusted R squared value is displayed for each model.

These observed shifts, suggest an overall drop in rainfall and increasingly water limited conditions for cocoa trees during both La Niña and El Niño events, with the additional stress of rapidly increasing temperatures. These smallholder farms are generally low input and dependent on rain rather than irrigation. Being able to provide more consistent water during the major wet and dry seasons for both ENSO extremes may help in maintaining more reliable yields; however, it is unclear how financially viable this will be and what the impacts would be for the local hydrology. There are also questions as to the long-term health and productivity of these cocoa trees and farms if these ENSO extremes continue to be increasingly stressful. To date, there has been significantly less investment in the research of perennial crops, which will need to change. Perennial farms today have been managed and planted in locations due to climate conditions of several decades before. They will continue to struggle to adapt to these rapidly changing climate conditions. It will require multi-disciplinary research of agronomists, ecologists, soil scientists, hydrologists, social scientists and climate scientists as well as capacity building and agronomic support for affected farmers.

I am happy to answer any questions about this work. You can reach me at

Creedy, T. J., R. A. Asare, A. C. Morel, M. Hirons, J. Mason, Y. Malhi, C. L. McDermott, E. Opoku & K. Norris (2022) Climate change alters impacts of extreme climate events on a tropical perennial tree crop. Scientific Reports 12, 19653.

Global glacier recession and water security

World Water Day series – post by Dr Simon Cook

Glacier ice covers about 10 % of the Earth’s land surface, and therefore represents a major store of fresh water. Indeed, it is estimated that almost 2 billion people are dependent to some extent on meltwater from snow and glaciers for drinking water, agriculture and hydropower. However, glaciers in most parts of the world are receding and thinning in response to climate change, which threatens the water security of millions of people over this century. At the same time, the loss of glaciers and thawing of permafrost, particularly in high-mountain regions, such as the Andes and Himalaya, often leaves these landscapes in a more dangerous state – they are more prone to landslides, catastrophic floods from meltwater lakes (known as glacial lake outburst floods, or GLOFs) and, alarmingly in recent years, wholesale collapse of glaciers from mountainsides. At the UNESCO water centre in Dundee, we are trying to understand these rapidly changing environments and find solutions to the challenges that these changes present.

A proglacial stream draining Findelengletscher, Swiss Alps.

Starting with the glaciers themselves, we have been working with our partners to quantify rates of glacier shrinkage at different locations around the world. For example, our work has shown that glacier loss in the Himalaya has increased by a factor of ten in recent decades compared to the long-term average measured over several centuries. This is likely a consequence of modern climate change driven by human activity.

Predicting the impact of climate and glacier change on water resources is particularly important. For the Upper Indus Basin, which is crucial for water supply in Pakistan, we have shown that climate change will have complex impacts on precipitation in addition to substantial warming this century. Importantly, our modelling predicts that peak river flows will occur 1 month earlier through this century as ice and snow begin to melt earlier in the year. This will have important implications for irrigation and agriculture in this region. Indeed, our work shows that climate change in this region has already been having an impact on river flows and the seasonality of vegetation productivity.

The rapidly shrinking Rhonegletscher in the Swiss Alps. Note the blankets on the glacier surface designed to protect the ice grotto tourist attraction from melting.

As glaciers shrink, their ability to supply sufficient amounts of water to downstream populations diminishes. At the same time, glacier recession commonly leads to the development of meltwater lakes. These lakes represent both an opportunity and a risk. On the one hand, these lakes represent natural reservoirs that can be used for water supply, or to drive hydropower. On the other, these lakes can burst, causing devastation downstream. We have documented hundreds of such events in the Bolivian and Peruvian Andes for the last few hundred years, with some evidence that their frequency has increased in recent years. Our PEGASUS project seeks to work out which of these developing lakes may be used safely for water supply as glaciers shrink in the Peruvian Andes, and which ones may need continued monitoring or remediation to reduce flood risk.

Taking dGPS measurements of creeping landslide motion affected by thinning of the adjacent Mueller Glacier, New Zealand. Aoraki / Mount Cook is shown in the background.

The risks of rapidly changing high-mountain environments are clear. Our work on the February 2021 Chamoli disaster in the Himalaya revealed that a huge wedge of glacier ice and rock detached from a mountainside, cascading 1800 m into the valley below. As it did so, the ice and rock were pulverised, generating a massive debris flow that destroyed two hydropower stations, with the sad loss of about 200 lives. We have been working with international partners to develop techniques and risk assessment protocols that allow us to better anticipate a range of hazard events in high-mountain regions including GLOFs and mass movements, and to highlight areas where more work is still needed.

Finally, it is important to communicate our research findings to the public, as well as provide expert opinion on glacier and climate change-related events as they unfold. Our expertise has featured across local, national and international media to help inform the public about events such as the 2022 Pakistan floods, the 2022 UNESCO report on glacier recession, and the challenges and progress made at the COP26 and COP27 climate summits. We hope that through our science and public engagement, people become more aware of the critical role that ice and snow play in the world’s mountain environments, and in global water, energy and food security, as well as the importance of our collective actions in combating climate change.