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Research led by Oxford University highlights the accelerating pressure on measuring, monitoring and managing water locally and globally. A new four-part framework is proposed to value water for sustainable development to guide better policy and practice.

The value of water for people, the environment, industry, agriculture and cultures has been long-recognised, not least because achieving safely-managed drinking water is essential for human life.  The scale of the investment for universal and safely-managed drinking water and sanitation is vast, with estimates around $114B USD per year, for capital costs alone. 

But there is an increasing need to re-think the value of water for two key reasons:

  • Water is not just about sustaining life, it plays a vital role in sustainable development.  Water’s value is evident in all of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, from poverty alleviation and ending hunger, where the connection is long recognised - to sustainable cities and peace and justice, where the complex impacts of water are only now being fully appreciated.  
  • Water security is a growing global concern. The negative impacts of water shortages, flooding and pollution have placed water related risks among the top 5 global threats by the World Economic Forum for several years running. In 2015, Oxford-led research on water security quantified expected losses from water shortages, inadequate water supply and sanitation and flooding at approximately $500B USD annually.  Last month the World Bank demonstrated the consequences of water scarcity and shocks:  the cost of a drought in cities is four times greater than a flood, and a single drought in rural Africa can ignite a chain of deprivation and poverty across generations.

Recognising these trends, there is an urgent and global opportunity to re-think the value of water, with the UN/World Bank High Level Panel on Water launching a new initiative on Valuing Water earlier this year.  The growing consensus is that valuing water goes beyond monetary value or price.  In order to better direct future policies and investment we need to see valuing water as a governance challenge.

Published in Science, the study was conducted by an international team (led by Oxford University) and charts a new framework to value water for the Sustainable Development Goals.  Putting a monetary value on water and capturing the cultural benefits of water are only one step towards this objective.  They suggest that valuing and managing water requires parallel and coordinated action across four priorities:  measurement, valuation, trade-offs and capable institutions for allocating and financing water.

 Lead author Dustin Garrick, University of Oxford, Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, explains: ‘Our paper responds to a global call to action: the cascading negative impacts of scarcity, shocks and inadequate water services underscore the need to value water better.  There may not be any silver bullets, but there are clear steps to take.  We argue that valuing water is fundamentally about navigating trade-offs.  The objective of our research is to show why we need to rethink the value of water, and how to go about it, by leveraging technology, science and incentives to punch through stubborn governance barriers.   Valuing water requires that we value institutions.’

Co-author Richard Damania, Global Lead Economist, World Bank Water Practice said: ‘We show that water underpins development, and that we must manage it sustainably.  Multiple policies will be needed for multiple goals.  Current water management policies are outdated and unsuited to addressing the water related challenges of the 21st century.  Without policies to allocate finite supplies of water more efficiently, control the burgeoning demand for water and reduce wastage, water stress will intensify where water is already scarce and spread to regions of the world - with impacts on economic growth and the development of water-stressed nations.’   

In conclusion, co-author Erin O’ Donnell, University of Melbourne adds: ‘2017 is a watershed moment for the status of rivers. Four rivers have been granted the rights and powers of legal persons, in a series of groundbreaking legal rulings that resonated across the world. This unprecedented recognition of the cultural and environmental value of rivers in law compels us to re-examine the role of rivers in society and sustainable development, and rethink our paradigms for valuing water.’

Oxford Sparks

How do you read DNA?

Stuart Gillespie | 23 Nov 2017

In the latest animation from Oxford Sparks, experts from the Oxford Genomics Centre talk us through how they 'read' DNA – the 'instruction book' inside of all our cells.

Oxford Sparks is a great place to explore and discover science research from the University of Oxford. Oxford Sparks aims to share the University's amazing science, support teachers to enrich their science lessons, and support researchers to get their stories out there. Follow Oxford Sparks on Twitter @OxfordSparks and on Facebook @OxSparks.

Clearer communication by GPs could speed up cancer diagnosis

Deciding when to return to the GP when symptoms do not resolve is something many people struggle with, especially when the symptoms may not appear to be serious or life-threatening. Research with cancer patents in Denmark, England, and Sweden, published today in BMJ Open, indicates that small changes to how doctors conclude consultations with their patient could help to improve both survival rates and efficiency.

Led by Oxford University, the international team included researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark with Lund University, Umeå University and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. The project was funded by Cancer Research UK.

The researchers interviewed 155 people aged between 35 and 86 years old, within six months of being diagnosed with lung or bowel cancer. Patients were invited to talk about events since they had first noticed a problem, including what influenced their decision to consult a doctor.

The study compared Denmark, England, and Sweden because survival rates for lung and bowel cancer between 1995 and 2007 were persistently higher in Sweden than in Denmark or England, particularly in the first year following diagnosis.

Notable differences between the three countries were found in patients’ accounts of the clarity and communication of action plans at the end of GP consultations. Patients in England and Denmark told the researchers that they had not known whether and when to return to their GP with symptoms, while Swedish patients described clear action plans with instructions from their GP to return in specified timeframes.

The study concluded that if clear action plans are used routinely in primary care consultations then uncertainty, false reassurance, and the inefficiency and distress of multiple consultations during cancer diagnosis could be reduced.

The authors recommend that every GP consultation should conclude with explicit advice about what to look out for and provide specific advice for patients to return if symptoms do not resolve, or re-occur.

Dr John MacArtney, Senior Researcher at Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, said: ‘Spotting cancer early can make the difference between survival and death. We already know that many people are reluctant to seek medical attention in the first place, for fear of unnecessarily bothering their doctor. If they have already seen a GP for the same or similar symptoms then they may wait longer to return, even if they have been given the general advice to “come back if things don’t get better”. This makes it important to understand why people might be reluctant to re-visit their GP.’

The study, which is the first to study how patients experience the pathway to cancer diagnosis, has helped to illuminate previous findings from other International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership studies, which have shown that no single factor could explain why differences in cancer outcomes persist between high-income countries with universal health coverage.

The study lead Sue Ziebland, Professor of Medical Sociology in Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, said, ‘Making the general public aware of the seemingly innocuous symptoms of common cancers is only one part of improving early diagnosis. It is just, if not more, important to remove the barriers patients face in getting to see their GP if they are concerned about their health. One of those barriers arises when patients are unsure about what to do when symptoms return or persist, because they have already seen a GP.

‘Recognising these issues exist, and encouraging GPs to communicate concrete and specific action plans, could be vital in improving patient survival, especially for those patients who worry about wasting the doctors time.’

Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK’s director of early diagnosis, said: ‘Diagnosing cancer is complex and most often starts with someone presenting to their GP with signs or symptoms they’re not sure about. This fascinating study builds our understanding of what’s happening at a very personal level, at what can be an anxious and difficult time for patients. Having this insight across different countries and cultures helps build a clear picture of what’s most important about the conversation between the doctor and patient, and could well improve cancer outcomes. GPs across the UK may need more support to help them make the most of these critical consultations in the little time available. Charities such as Cancer Research UK can provide information to patients at this point in the diagnostic process.’

The full paper, 'Patients’ initial steps to cancer diagnosis in Denmark, England and Sweden: what can a qualitative, cross-country comparison of narrative interviews tell us about potentially modifiable factors?' can be read in BMJ Open. 

Forest elephant

In a guest post for Science Blog, Oxford DPhil student Anabelle Cardoso, from the Environmental Change Institute in the School of Geography and the Environment, writes about a citizen science project helping us better understand the endangered African forest elephant.

Anabelle and her colleagues need volunteers to help classify photos taken by cameras set up in a forest-savannah landscape in Gabon. Find out more about the Elephant Expedition project, and volunteer as a citizen scientist, here. The project is also on Twitter and Instagram.

'Our project is set up in a mosaic landscape in Gabon, where tropical savannahs and forests interlock with one another, forming a habitat that supports a hugely diverse range of species, including the endangered African forest elephant. In this landscape, and in many other African sites, valuable savannah habitat is being lost to forest encroachment as a result of human-induced global change. Most people don't think of forest expansion as a problem, but when it expands into ancient savannah ecosystems you lose habitat diversity and it can be really detrimental to the ecological health of the landscape.

'My research focuses on better understanding the factors that affect how much forest encroachment a landscape experiences, and elephants can be a key determinant of this. In other parts of Africa we know that the bush elephant, which is a different species to the forest elephant, can help prevent this loss of savannah habitat, for example by knocking down trees. But nobody knows what the forest elephant does to trees in these forest-savannah mosaics. Do they behave like bush elephants? Or are they doing something completely different?

'To try and answer some of these questions, our team uses camera traps to monitor where and how many elephants there are in the landscape at different times of year, as well as why the elephants might be choosing these places, and what effects they are having on the trees in the places that they visit. Gabon is the perfect place to do this because it's home to most of the world's remaining forest elephants.

'Forest elephants are an endangered species as they are being heavily hunted for their ivory across central Africa. A better understanding of forest elephants can help to develop more effective conservation strategies and advocate more compellingly for their protection, both on a local and a global scale.

African forest elephantAn African forest elephant poses for the camera in Gabon.

'Our 40 camera traps across the landscape set to take photos when they get triggered by motion or by heat. The camera traps allow us to monitor the elephants 24/7, and we can set up lots at the same time across a large area, which makes them an extremely effective scientific monitoring tool. Forest elephants have also had to deal with a huge amount of hunting pressure for their ivory, so they can get quite spooked and upset when strangers sneak up on them in the forest! The camera traps help with this, because they are unobtrusive and don't bother the elephants too much, which is ideal because we don't want to upset these beautiful animals.

'When we first set up the project, the plan was that I would go through all the photographs myself and count the elephants, which retrospectively seems almost laughably optimistic, because we definitely didn't anticipate just how many animals there were in the forest and how many thousands and thousands of photos we would end up needing to classify. Thankfully, through the University of Oxford we linked up with Zooniverse.org, which is a wonderful citizen science platform that helps connect projects like Elephant Expedition with a great group of dedicated citizen scientists.

'In Elephant Expedition we've created a platform for citizen scientists to go through each photograph taken by our camera traps and classify it. Photos are classified according to whether or not they have an animal in them, and what kind of animal this is. If the photo has an elephant in it, the citizen scientist also counts how many elephants they see. The platform is super easy to navigate, and it's really fun. It's kind of like going on a virtual safari because you never know what you're going to find next! What this does is create a database where all the images become linked with classification information, and then we can calculate how many elephants there were at a particular site at a particular time. This information is the core of our research, and without the citizen scientists this work would be impossible.

'We find that citizen scientists are really observant and engaged, so the quality of the information we get from their classifications is absolutely amazing. The platform that Zooniverse provides for this connection between the project and the citizen scientists is also really engaging, so there is a lot of interaction between citizen scientists and the research team, which is beneficial to both. I am definitely learning a lot from the project volunteers, and the feedback we get from them indicates they feel the same! It's been really encouraging for us to see how many volunteers post the project photos to their personal Twitter or Instagram accounts, showing that they care about the elephants as much as we do.

Elephant ExpeditionIt's not just elephants that are captured on camera...

'At the moment, however, we have nearly 750,000 photos to classify, and our team just needs more hands on deck to get through all of them. Every month there can be in excess of 3,000 images on each camera, and there are 40 cameras, so it all adds up. The good news is that it's really easy to help with the project just by visiting our project page. You can classify as many images at a time as you want to, so absolutely anyone can help with the project, no matter whether you have a spare five minutes or five hours. Every single volunteer makes a difference.

'One of the best things about the project is that it isn't just elephants you spot in the photos. Our study site is filled with gorillas, chimpanzees, leopards, mandrills, pangolins, red river hogs, forest buffalo, monkeys, and lots of different antelope. So when you go on an elephant expedition it's really more of a virtual safari through the central African rainforest! Plus, the website has features to keep a collection of your favourite images, which you can share on social media or even print out for your fridge if you want to. The website is also applicable for all ages, so we encourage everyone from kids to grandparents to get involved.'

The research has been made possible thanks to the University of Oxford's Hertford College Mortimer-May fund and the support of Gabon's Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux (ANPN) and the University of Stirling.

Disruptive bioengineering – changing the way cells interact with each other

Researchers at the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine have developed a new platform based on the revolutionary CRISPR/Cas9 technology, to alter the way human cells respond to external signals, and provide new opportunities for stopping cancer cells from developing.

Cells are constantly monitoring the environment around them and are programmed to respond to molecular cues in their surroundings in distinct ways – some cues may prompt cells to grow, some lead to cell movement and others initiate cell death. For a cell to remain healthy, these responses must be finely balanced. It took evolution over two billion years to tune these responses and orchestrate their interplay in each and every human cell. But what if we could alter the way our cells respond to certain aspects of their environment? Or make them react to signals that wouldn’t normally provoke a reaction? New research published by scientists at the University of Oxford takes cellular engineering to the next level in order to achieve just that.

In a paper published in Cell Reports, graduate student Toni Baeumler and Associate Professor Tudor Fulga, from the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, Radcliffe Department of Medicine, have used a derivative of the CRISPR/Cas9 technology to rewire the way cells respond to extracellular signals. CRISPR/Cas9 frequently makes the headlines as it allows medical researchers to accurately manipulate the human genome – opening up new possibilities for treating diseases. These studies often focus on correcting faulty genes in crops, livestock, mammalian embryos or cells in a dish. However, not all diseases are caused by a defined error in the DNA. In more complex disorders like diabetes and cancer, it may be necessary to completely rewire the way in which cells work.

Cells are exposed to thousands of different signals – some they will have encountered before, while others that are entirely new. Receptors that sense these signals form one part of a complex modular architecture created by the assembly of building blocks like in a Lego design. It is the precise combination of these ‘Lego bricks’ and the way in which they are built that dictates how a cell responds to a given signal.

Disruptive bioengineeringChanging the way cells interact with each other

Image credit: Tudor Fulga

Rather than using the traditional CRISPR/Cas9 system, the team used a version of the Cas9 protein that cannot cut DNA. Instead, it switches on specific genes, depending on the guide RNA (navigation system) it is associated with. Using this approach, the researchers altered the Lego bricks to build a new class of synthetic receptors, and programmed them to initiate specific cascades of events in response to a variety of distinct natural signals.

So could this innovative cellular tinkering improve human health? To answer this question, the team sought to re-program the way in which cancer cells respond to signals that drive the production of new blood vessels (a key step in cancer development). Using a rationally designed synthetic receptor they created in the lab and delivered into cells in a dish, the team converted a pro-blood vessel instruction into an anti-blood vessel response. To test the limits of the system, they then went on to engineer a receptor complex that responds to a signal enriched in the tumour environment by eliciting simultaneous production of multiple ‘red flags’ (effector molecules) known to attract and instruct immune cells to attack cancer. These initial experiments in the lab open up a whole range of possibilities for next-generation cancer therapy.

The system also has potential applications for other systemic diseases, like diabetes. To demonstrate this potential, the team engineered another receptor complex that can sense the amount of glucose in the surroundings and prompt insulin production – the hormone that takes glucose up from the blood stream. In people with diabetes, this mechanism does not work correctly, leading to high levels of glucose in the blood. While a long way from the clinic, the work suggests that this technology could be used to rewire the way that cells in the body function.

The ability to edit the human genome has transformed the way scientists approach some of our biggest medical challenges. With this new technique developed in Oxford, the team hopes that genome engineering does not have to be limited to correcting DNA faults but altering the way that cells work – regardless of the root cause of disease.