PhD: Hydrological response to agricultural land degradation in the Lesser Himalayas via FindAPhD

University of Birmingham

Birmingham, UK 🇬🇧

About the Project

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 accounts for ~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

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

Specifically during the project you will aim to:

  1. Assess the impacts of agricultural land degradation on hydrological functioning in the Aglar river basin, Uttarakhand, India
  2. Quantify the implications of changing hydroclimatology and runoff generation on sustainable agricultural water management in this Himalayan river basin
  3. Test capabilities of low cost sensors to monitor hydrological variables in remote mountain river basin
  4. Reconceptualise interactions and feedbacks in the water-food nexus and their implications for water security and migration in rural 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 specific approach you implement; but the basic requirements are:

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

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

3.   Model development and scenario simulations with a focus on uncertainty propagation

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

 Training and skills:

Students will be awarded CENTA2 Training Credits (CTCs) for participation in CENTA2-provided and ‘free choice’ external training. One CTC equates to 1⁄2 day session and students must accrue 100 CTCs across the three years of their PhD.

You will work in an international research setting to address urgent research needs in the Himalayan water environment. Collaboration skills will be developed as you will engage 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, you 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. The CASE partner, People’s Science Institute’s, also offers PhD training and development support opportunities (i.e. placement opportunities).

 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 (CEH) and Hydrology, UK, and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Roorkee, India. Extended placement opportunities at CEH and IIT Roorkee are imbedded in the project to undertake analysis/ modelling and fieldwork, respectively.

The People’s Science Institute’s (PSI’s) offers CASE partner support. PSI is a non-profit organization with a mission “to eradicate poverty through the empowerment of the poor and the productive, sustainable and equitable use of available human and natural resources”.

COVID-19 Resilience of the Project:

The COVID-19 pandemic could prevent travel to India to conduct fieldwork. The supervisory team have considerable experience of managing field campaigns abroad from the UK when international travel to remote regions (including the Asian and South America) has not been possible. In this circumstance, you would work remotely (i.e. from the UK) with the IIT and other local partner teams of field scientists based in India. Furthermore, we have some existing field data from IIT projects, an ongoing WMO grant and newly awarded NERC grant that could be utilised.

 Possible timeline:

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) you will be based at IIT Roorkee. 

Please email potential supervisor Prof Hannah ([email protected]) for more information.

Funding Notes

Please apply directly to the University of Birmingham application portal View Website, a completed CENTA application form View Website MUST be an attachment in this application
Successful home-fees-eligible candidates will receive:
• An annual stipend, set at £15,609 for 2021/22, paid in monthly increments
• Full coverage of university fees
• A research training support grant (RTSG) of £8,000
• CASE studentships receive an additional RTSG £3500 contribution
Further funding information can be found here: View Website
• International candidates can apply, however please note the number of international fee-waiver opportunities is extremely limited. Please consider this constraint when submitting your application, and ask if you have any questions


Buytaert … (2014), Citizen science in hydrology and water resources, Frontiers in Earth Sci.: Hydrosphere, 2, Art. 26
Khanal… (2006), Abandonment of agricultural land and its consequences: A case study in the Sikles area, Gandaki Basin, Nepal Himalaya, Mnt Res Dev, 26(1),32-40.
Mao F. (2018), Water sensor network applications: time to move beyond the technical?, Hydrological Processes – HPToday Invited Commentary, 32, 2612-2615 DOI: 10.1002/hyp.13179
Mao F… (in press), Low-cost environmental sensor networks: recent advances and future directions, Frontiers in Earth Science- Hydrosphere
Pandeya B. … (2016), A comparative analysis of ecosystem services valuation approaches for application at the local scale and in data scarce regions, Ecosystem Services, 22, 250–259 DOI: 10.1016/j.ecoser.2016.10.015
Paul J.D. … (2018), Citizen science for hydrological risk reduction and resilience building, WIREs Water, 5, Art.No. e1262 DOI: 10.1002/wat2.1262
Pretty, J… (2010), The top 100 questions of importance to the future of global agriculture, Int J Agr Sust, 8, 219-236.
Sharma (2011), Rain-fed agriculture could meet the challenges of food security in India, Curr Sci, 100, 1615-16
Tiwari…. (2012), Environmental changes and sustainable development of water resources in the Himalayan headwaters of India, Water Res. Mgmt, 26,883-907.
Zulkafli Z. … (2017), User-driven design of decision support systems for polycentric environmental resources management, Environmental Modelling and Software, 88, 58-73. DOI: 10.1016/j.envsoft.2016.10.012