India, as many areas of the world, is experiencing widespread rural to urban migration, coupled with rapid population growth. Taken together, these two factors are resulting in significant land use and land cover changes, causing land degradation in particular in the mountainous Lesser Himalayan regions of Northern India (Tiwari and Joshi, 2012; Khanal and Watanabe, 2006).

The interactions between agriculture and the water cycle present a number of key scientific questions, the answers to which are central to future sustainable food production (Pretty et al. 2010). In India, rain-fed agriculture account of an estimated 44% of food production (Sharma, 2011). For centuries, agricultural land management practices have utilised localised irrigation methods of terracing and small-scale onfarm water harvesting to maximise crop yields. Now, with the increasing trend in migration towards urban centres (particularly by younger generations) many of these previously highly managed upland catchments are being partially or completely abandoned (e.g. Khanal and Watanabe, 2006). The impacts of the resulting land degradation on river basin hydrological processes (and hence on downstream water resources, flood risk and sediment transport) are largely unknown.

Changes to the hydrological regime may play an important role in driving such abandonment, with changing hydroclimatology and runoff generation mechanism meaning traditional small scale farms may not be sustainable in areas of rapid agricultural intensification and rising demand for food from a growing population.

Understanding the changing hydrology of agricultural catchments is critically important to issues of water security in the Himalayas. This project will build knowledge through innovative field experiments in the Aglar catchment in northern India (Figure 1).

The cost and practical challenges in maintaining remote high spatial and temporal resolution field monitoring in upland environments often limit research studies. This project will pioneer the use of low-cost environmental sensors to address such challenges.

Therefore, the project aims to:

Assess the impacts of agricultural land degradation on hydrological functioning in the Aglar river basin, Uttarakhand, India

Quantify the implications of changing hydroclimatology and runoff generation on sustainable agricultural water management in this Himalayan river basin

Test capabilities of low cost sensors to monitor hydrological variables in remote mountain river basin

Reconceptualise interactions and feedbacks in the water-food nexus and their implications for water security and migration in rural India

Aglar river basin, Uttarakhand, India


The project will explore the impacts and drivers of agricultural land degradation through paired sub-catchment studies in the Aglar watershed. By augmenting existing IIT Roorkee experimental monitoring with new low-cost sensor installation, the project will establish high resolution monitoring of degraded, actively farmed and natural sub-catchments. To understand the long-term implications of the findings, new knowledge will be derived from model-based scenario analysis. Specific methodologies will depend on the approach implemented by the student; but basic requirements are:

An appetite for fieldwork in remote mountain environments, and openness to explore and work with different cultural communities

Ability to conduct spatial and time series data analysis and statistical testing

Model development and scenario simulations with a focus on uncertainty propagation

Working with stakeholders of different backgrounds and utilisation and communication of local expert knowledge

Training and Skills

CENTA students are required to complete 45 days training throughout their PhD including a 10 day placement. In the first year, students will be trained as a single cohort on environmental science, research methods and core skills. Throughout the PhD, training will progress from core skills sets to master classes specific to the student's projects and themes.

The project provides an excellent opportunity to work in an international research setting to address urgent research needs in the Himalayan water environment. The researcher will collaborate with project partners in the UK and India to identify timely, pertinent research questions, develop and implement field campaigns, and disseminate new knowledge to the Indian scientific community. Consequently, the researcher will gain advanced understanding of mountain hydroclimatological and hydrological processes, develop sophisticated technical skills in environmental monitoring, catchment modelling, and become familiar with the research process and its role in informing adaptation decisions in Lower and Middle Income Countries. These skills will be beneficial for multiple future career pathways.


Year 1: Visit project partners, remote analysis of land use change, design and implement field monitoring

Year 2: Complete field monitoring, data analyses, model setup and application

Year 3: Prepare journal articles and write thesis

The project will require extended periods of field work in India. For these periods (expected to be up to three months at the end of years 1 and 2) the student will be based at IIT Roorkee.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

The project will be supervised by an interdisciplinary team of international experts from the University of Birmingham, UK, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, UK, and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Roorkee, India. In addition to CENTA training opportunities the project offers exciting funded placement opportunities through the H2020 HiFreq ITN held by the Birmingham supervisors.

Further Details

David M. Hannah (University of Birmingham, d.m.hannah@bham.ac.uk)