Phd: Hydrological response to agricultural land degradation in the Lesser Himalayas

University of Birmingham

Birmingham, United Kingdom 🇬🇧

Keyword search “Hydrological”


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

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

Funding Notes

In addition to completing an online application form, you will also need to complete and submit the CENTA studentship application form available from
CENTA studentships are for 3.5 years and are funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). In addition to the full payment of their tuition fees, successful candidates will received the following financial support.
Annual stipend, set as £14,553 for 2017/18
Research training support grant (RTSG) of £8,000
CENTA students are required to undertake 45 days training throughout their PhD including a 10 day placement.


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.

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