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Assessing the effects of land manager awareness on water quality improvements: an interdisciplinary approach using behavioural and catchment science

Dr Julia Martin-Ortega (SEE), Dr. Paula Novo (The James Hutton Institute), Prof. Pippa Chapman (SoG)

Project partner(s): Scottish Environment Protection Agency

Contact email:

Diffuse pollution remains a major global problem threatening the health and resilience of social-ecological systems (UN-Water, 2015; OECD, 2012). The sources of diffuse pollution include urban run-off, highway drainage, non mains sewage discharges and agriculture, with agriculture being one of the largest sources (OECD, 2012). Over the last 50 years, the use of phosphate and nitrate (the major water resources pollutants from agriculture) has increased significantly, with nitrogen fertilisers increasing by 600% around the world (Fig 1). As a result, the quality of water resources continue to decrease across the globe though at varying magnitudes (Fig 2).  In  Europe, the World Water Development Report estimates that 38% of the water bodies of the European Union are substantially affected by diffuse pollution from rural areas particularly from agriculture (UN-Water, 2015), resulting in eutrophication, loss of biodiversity and human health problems (Natural England, 2015; OECD, 2012). This poses a major challenge to all stakeholders managing and/or affected by diffuse pollution, including communities, governments, non-governmental organisations and international agencies (Christen et al., 2015; UN-Water, 2015; OECD, 2012).

The pronounced impacts of diffuse pollution have led to the development of different policy actions accompanied by enormous financial commitments to mitigate the problem. For example, in England alone, the UK Government spent around £8 million to tackle diffuse pollution in 2008-2009 with over £140 million spent on water quality more broadly (National Audit Office, 2010). Additionally, the cumulative cost of water pollution in some parts of the United Kingdom has been estimated at up to £1.3 billion per annum (NAO, 2010). Earlier strategies concentrated on single mechanisms such as economic incentives, environmental regulations (prohibition and specific rules backed by penalties), or farm advice provision, while latter approaches involved an integration of two or more policy strategies (OECD, 2012). Both approaches have failed to make significant improvement in reducing diffuse pollution due to the complex nature of the problem (Patterson et al., 2013).

While various studies have identified complexities involved in accessing funds, cultural aspects, uncertainty around scientific evidence and lack of stakeholder awareness as barriers to reducing diffuse pollution (Vrain and Lovett, 2016; Novo et al., 2015), there seem to be a general consensus that many of the barriers are of a behavioural nature. Consequently, understanding and influencing land manager behaviour is key to enhancing uptake of mitigation measures, substantially reducing diffuse pollution  and improving water quality (Novo et al., 2015; Vrain et al., 2014; Martin-Ortega and Holstead, 2013; Blackstock et al., 2010; Pike, 2008; Dwyer et al., 2007).

Understanding and influencing land manager behaviour is challenging due to the complexities associated with pro-environmental behaviour (Christen et al., 2015; Blackstock et al., 2010; Dwyer et al., 2007), however, new approaches have been developed to help address these challenges.  The Scottish Government has been a pioneer in this with the development of the Diffuse Pollution Management Strategy (DPMS) for Scotland – a two tier approach of reducing diffuse pollution (DPMAG[1], 2015). The DPMS for Scotland concurrently implements the Priority Catchment Approach (PCA) and the National Approach. While the national campaign involves providing general recommendations, raising awareness, training and inspections in relation to the impact of diffuse pollution, the PCA targets specific land managers in priority catchments through one-to-one farm visits (Fig 3). The Scottish approach is integrative in nature, context-specific and represents a transition from ‘punitive’ to an ‘advice centred’ approach, aimed at raising awareness, influencing land managers’ attitude and behaviours, reducing diffuse pollution and improving water quality[2] (DPMAG, 2015; Novo et al., 2015).

However, to date, research examining whether awareness influences land managers’ attitudes and behaviours and whether/how these are translated into water quality improvement remains relatively scarce (see Vrain et al., 2014; Dwyer et al., 2007), hence, the need to explore these complexes for the development of effective policies (Duckett et al., 2016; Novo et al., 2015). This is particularly important as agricultural activities and land manger behaviour are a major means through which ground and surface waters become contaminated (Zektser and Everett, 2004), and also, because the influence of land manager behaviour on water quality may not be direct (Falkenmark and Rockström, 2004; Bergkamp et al., 2003), suggesting numerous pathways.

Fig. 1: Increased use of phosphate and nitrate in Agriculture from 1900 with a sharp increase over the last 50 years.


Fig. 2: Water resources continue to decrease in quality across the globe with only a few regions realising improvement.

Fig. 3: Priority Catchments for the First Round and Proposed Catchments for the second and third rounds. Adopted from DPMAG, 2015

Objectives and Approach

This project aims to understand better the mechanisms through which information and awareness strategies channel behavioural change as well as how spatial and temporal factors interplay with these at the catchment scale to cause water quality improvement. The approach for this PhD project will follow an essentially interdisciplinary one, combining social science research (behavioural science) and natural science research (catchment science).  It will be implemented in four broad steps, which correspond to specific objectives responding to the above overall aim:

  1. Assess whether/how information and awareness regarding rural diffuse pollution affects land managers’ behaviour in relation to mitigation measures. This will be done by assessing whether land managers comply with various regulatory measures (e.g. General Binding Rules and SSAFO) and also take up voluntary measures after receiving information and advice. Additionally, the research will examine whether there is a difference in compliance between farmers who are aware of the causes, impacts and mitigation strategies of diffuse pollution and those who are not aware.

  2. To identify and explore the factors that explain the effect of information and awareness on behavioural changes in relation to diffuse pollution. How farmers’ awareness interacts with other factors that influence uptake of the measures will be explored by modelling the interaction between awareness and these other factors. It is anticipated that the project will draw on quantitative data gathered by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) during their one-to-one farm visits within priority catchments and on a qualitative in-depth study of the Sustainable Land Management (SLM)[3] scheme by Scottish Water. The former represents a substantial body of information consisting of both initial and follow-up surveys with farmers.

  3. Assess whether behavioural changes translate into an improvement in water quality at the catchment level. Use long-term water quality data sets from SEPA to assess the effect of the Diffuse Pollution Management Strategy (DPMS) for Scotland on nutrient pollution in a selection of the priority baseline catchment (Fig 1) and determine whether behavioural changes translate into an improvement in water quality at the catchment level. This will be done by first assessing the long-term trends in the major diffuse pollutants from agriculture, such as nitrate, phosphate and suspended sediment.  Geographic information system (GIS) and spatial analysis will also be used to help predict changes in these pollutants as a result of changes in farmer behaviour and land management. The findings will help to inform an overall synthesis of the impacts of agricultural stewardship on nutrient pollution at the catchment scale and make suggestions as to how research and management may proceed.

  4. Ascertain how this knowledge can be applied to other water issues such as improving drinking water from catchment measures. Through a critical review of the literature and stakeholder consultation, the research will assess how the findings of the study will be applied to other water issues by evaluating the contextual factors (e.g. cultural, social, available resources) that affect uptake of the findings, cost-effectiveness and in what way this new knowledge can be applied. This will ultimately result in the provision of appropriate policy recommendations.

The field work for this PhD will take place in Scotland, where diffuse pollution is a major environmental issue affecting the quality of water resources and accounting for over 18% of the river basin district’s poor quality (DPMAG, 2015). At the same time, as mentioned,  Scotland has employed a relatively new and novel approach (the PCA) which represents a transition from ‘punitive’ to an ‘advice-centred’ approach to mitigating rural diffuse pollution (Novo et al., 2015; see also Fig 1 for priority catchment areas), covers a wide variety of issues raised in the foregoing discussion therefore providing a relevant ground for understanding these complex relationships. It is anticipated that the student will spend time at placements at SEPA and possibly, at Scottish Water. These institutions have substantial research platforms with previous work on diffuse pollution and water management. While this project cannot yet be confirmed as a CASE project, these institutions have expressed explicit support.

Potential for high impact outcome

The main outcome of this PhD is an assessment of whether/how information and awareness strategies influence land manager behaviour and how a multiplicity of factors interplay with these at the catchment scale, and whether behavioural changes translate into water quality improvement. It is envisaged that findings from this study will inform policy and decision making particularly, SEPA and Scottish Water on the effectiveness of their plans from a behavioural perspective, and whether such interventions have the potential to result in improved water quality.  This project will help the Scottish Government, SEPA and Scottish Water to understand the impact of the different strategies used to tackle diffuse pollution and what strategies might be more cost-effective and socially acceptable, hence, guiding policy directions.

Further, the project is expected to contribute significantly to the development of policy design more broadly and beyond Scotland in relation to mitigation of diffuse pollution that can address the double challenge of ensuring food security and reversing ecosystem degradation, clearly contributing to NERC's aim to play a critical role in improving our quality of life and grow economies whilst living within the Earth's limits. Namely, in relation to how we can use resources responsibly and managing environmental change.  

In addition, as poor water quality remains a major problem in Scotland, Europe and the world at large (DPMAG, 2015; UN-Water, 2015; OECD, 2012), the study will contribute new knowledge on the role of farmer attitudes and behaviours in influencing water quality. For instance, Post-2013 Pillar 2 CAP decisions indicate that support for water quality improvement is high in the agenda (30% of RDP funds must be related to agri-environment and climate change). This makes the research a very timely effort in contributing to such a commitment beyond the UK. Moreover, it will help inform the appropriate scale and mechanisms needed to trigger behaviours aiming at improving water quality. For instance, the project seeks to contribute new knowledge on the numerous pathways through which land manger behaviour (man-made activities) may influence water quality and possibly, the health of living organisms in water bodies (natural processes). This aligns directly with NERC's role of showing how the processes of natural variability and man-made change work in order to develop appropriate solutions for managing our environment from local through to the global level.

Furthermore, as research specific to the effects of awareness raising on farmer behaviour and whether behavioural changes translate into water quality improvement remains relatively scarce, this project will fill an important gap in the academic literature particularly gaps identified in previous works by the supervisors (e.g. Novo et al. 2015; Christen et al. (inc. Martin-Ortega) 2015; Duckett et al. (inc. Martin-Ortega), 2016). There is currently great interest in catchment science and mitigation of diffuse pollution and land managers behaviour, but there is only a very limited literature looking at the two in combination in a truly interdisciplinary way. The interdisciplinary and novel approach used in this project will help explore the interconnections and complexes between the two issues and this will produce scientific knowledge that will help fill the research gap in the area and help in addressing key water quality challenges in the policy arena beyond the UK. This will be achieved through the publication of at least four scientific papers with high impact journals (one per step of the approach and over-arching synthesis paper).  

The supervisory team combines a very strong combination of natural and social scientists with proven track record of academic publication and policy-relevant outputs[4], which will support the student in achieving high impact outcomes.


The project will provide interdisciplinary training for the student, including training on social sciences techniques (e.g. in-depth interviews and surveys) and catchment science (e.g. process based modelling), as well broader statistical skills (e.g. predictive modelling and inferential statistics).   Again, the supervisory team combines a very strong combination of skills and PhD supervision experience in the relevant areas of work.

The successful PhD student will have access to a broad spectrum of training workshops put on by the Faculty that include an extensive range of training workshops in diverse analytical tools, through to managing the students’ degree to preparing for the viva ( The student will also have access to a state-of-the-art facilities (e.g. GIS laboratory and laboratory facilities for carrying out full suites of nutrients and sediments) which will help him/her to gain advanced knowledge and skills in GIS for environment, GIS programming and digital image analysis. This and the advanced statistical training provided will build his/her capacity in spatio-statistical and spatial analysis. 

The student will also benefit from the resources provided by SEPA and the Scottish Water (in-house analytical facilities) and its multi-disciplinary research coverage, which provides a unique opportunity to interact with researchers and practitioners across the spectrum (including waste, water and human-environment relationships).


Bergkamp, G., Orlando, B. and Burton, I. 2003. Change: Adaptation of Water Resources Management to Climate Change. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.

Blackstock, K.L., Ingram, J., Burton, R., Brown, K.M. & Slee, B., 2010. Understanding and influencing behaviour change by farmers to improve water quality. Science of the Total Environment. 408(1), pp.5631–8.

Christen, B., Kjeldsen, C., Dalgaard, T., and Martin-Ortega, J. 2015.  Can fuzzy cognitive mapping help in agricultural policy design and communication? Land Use Policy. 45(42),pp.64–75.

DPMAG. 2015. Strategy to reduce diffuse pollution. [Online]. [Accessed 22 March 2016]. Available from:

Duckett, D., Feliciano, D., Martin-Ortega, J., and Munoz-Rojas, J. 2016. Tackling wicked environmental problems: The discourse and its influence on praxis in Scotland. Landscape and Urban Planning, 154: 44-56.

Dwyer, J., Mills, J., Ingram, J., Taylor, J., Burton, R., Blackstock, K.L., Slee, B., Brown, K.M., Schwarz, G., Matthews, K.B. & Dilley, R. 2007. Understanding and influencing positive behaviour change in farmers and land managers. Project for DEFRA, CCRI and Macaulay Institute.

Falkenmark, M., and J. Rockstro¨m. 2004. Balancing Water for Humans and Nature. The New Approach in Ecohydrology, 247 pp., London: Earthscan.

Martin-Ortega, J., and Holstead, K.L., 2013. Improving Implementation and Increasing Uptake of Measures to Improve Water Quality in Scotland. Aberdeen: The James Hutton Institute. [Online]. [Accessed 11 April 2016].  Available from:

National Audit Office (NAO), 2010.  Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, HC 188 Session 2010–2011. London: National Audit Office [Online]. [Accessed 11/09/2016]. Available from:

Natural England, 2015. A clear solution for farmers: Catchment Sensitive Farming. Phase 3 Delivery Report (April 2011 - March 2014) (CSF157). [Online]. [Accessed 16 February 2016]. Available from:

Novo, P., Martin-Ortega, J., and Holstead, K.2015.  Making mitigation of rural diffuse pollution work: facts and gaps regarding stakeholder's views and perceptions. XVth IWRA World Water Congress. Edinburgh, 25 – 29 of May 2015.

OECD. 2012. Water Quality and Agriculture: Meeting the Policy Challenge. [Online]. [Accessed 20 March 2016]. Available from:

Patterson, J. J., Smith, C., and Bellamy, J. 2013. Understanding enabling capacities for managing the ‘wicked problem’ of nonpoint source water pollution in catchments: A conceptual framework. Journal of environmental management. 128 (1), pp.441-452.

Pike, T., 2008. Understanding behaviours in a farming context: Bringing theoretical and applied evidence together from across Defra and highlighting policy relevance and implications for future research. Defra Agricultural Change and Environment Observatory Discussion Paper, November 2008. [Online]. [Accessed 20 March 2016]. Available from:

UN-Water/WWAP (United Nations World Water Assessment Programme). 2015. The United Nations World Water Development Report 2015: Water for a Sustainable World. Paris, UNESCO. [Online]. [Accessed 09 May 2016]. Available from:

Vrain, E., Lovett, A., Noble, L., Grant, F., Blundell, P., Clesby, W., 2014. Farmer attitudes towards diffuse pollution mitigation measures in England: A Demonstration Test Catchments Report. Report to Defra. [Online]. [Accessed 20 March 2016]. Available from:

Vrain, E, and Lovett, A.A., 2016. The roles of farm advisors in the uptake of measures for the mitigation of diffuse water pollution. Land Use Policy. [Online]. 54, pp. 413–422.

Zektser, I.S., and Everett, L.G. (eds.) 2004. Groundwater resources of the world and their use. IHP-VI, Series on Groundwater No. 6. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

[1] DPMAG - Diffuse Pollution Management Advisory Group is a management body created by SEPA to ensure that actions to reduce diffuse pollution are managed effectively and that there is input from rural, environmental and biodiversity groups. Part of the work of the group has been to set up a project based on partnerships between SEPA and land managers to work towards reducing diffuse pollution in river catchment areas.

[2] Activities such as drainage of agricultural liquid waste, application of fertilizers, etc. are major means through which ground and surface waters become contaminated (Zektser and Everett, 2004) and are linked to land manager behaviour (e.g. Falkenmark and Rockström, 2004; Bergkamp et al., 2003).

[3] SLM is a collaborative programme of work put in place by Scottish Water to work with land managers and developers to protect water drinking sources in Scotland:

Related undergraduate subjects:

  • Environmental science
  • Sustainability and environmental management