Joint PhD Programme in Integrated Management of Water, Soil and Waste

Application Procedure
  • Highlights

    • The degree is jointly offered by the United Nations University and the Technische Universität Dresden, Germany
    • The focus of the programme is on integrated management of water, soil and waste using a nexus approach, making it the first of its kind
    • The programme has a strong focus on developing countries
    • Students have access to the facilities and services of TUD, one of eleven Universities of Excellence in Germany, as well as the network of UNU Institutes
    • Doctoral research includes close cooperation with UN agencies and programmes as well as other international organizations
    PhD in Integrated Management of Water, Soil and Waste

    PhD in Integrated Management of Water, Soil and Waste


    United Nations University (UNU) was established in 1973 and currently it is comprised of over 13 Research Institutes and Programmes in 12 countries around the world. Even though UNU considers itself mainly as a research-oriented think tank addressing the needs of the UN system and its member states and bridging to the academic world, it offers postgraduate training and education programmes at various levels.

    The Technische Universität Dresden (TUD) is one of the top universities in Europe: strong in research and considered first-rate with respect to the range and the quality of the study programmes it offers. As a modern comprehensive, multi-discipline university and with its 14 faculties it has a broad and diverse scientific spectrum. The large campus family of TUD is comprised of 37,000 students and approximately 7,900 employees.

    The joint PhD degree programme established at the United Nations University Institute for the Integrated Management of Material Fluxes and of Resources (UNU-FLORES) and the Faculty of Environmental Sciences at TUD is the latest among the very few doctoral programmes UNU currently offers.


    The main objective of this PhD programme is to provide graduate students with detailed knowledge, critical understanding, strategies and tools to take an interdisciplinary and integrated approach towards the management of water, soil and waste.

    The joint PhD programme aims at creating a new generation of environmental scientists, engineers and managers to conduct, promote and provide guidance on the sustainable management of water, soil and waste. These resources and their sustainable management are of concern to the United Nations and its member states, particularly to developing countries and emerging economies.

    About the Programme

    Considering that the theme of the joint degree programme is new and unique in the academic world, prospective students are expected to come from a variety of backgrounds. To ensure that the students have an evenly-matched starting point, and also to introduce the basic concepts of the nexus of water, soil and waste, the programme comprises 35 course credits (see “Courses”) in addition to 175 dissertation credits. This total of 210 credits spans over 7 semesters. The credits are defined in terms of the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS).

    All coursework is science-based and all courses require basic knowledge in physics, chemistry and mathematics at undergraduate level. In addition, the courses will also require basic knowledge in social sciences. Courses will be offered by academic staff at both universities. In line with UNU-FLORES’ research agenda, research topics for dissertations will be focused on solving current challenges (see Research and research topics listed under Application Procedure) related to the nexus of water, soil and waste. PhD dissertations will be co-supervised by advisors from both universities.

  • All applications should include:

    1. Completed and signed joint PhD programme application form.
    2. Letter of motivation;
    3. Brief research plan/proposal (max 2 pages): it should refer to your letter of motivation and contain
      • the intended research topic (see proposed topics below),
      • an explanation how and why you consider yourself a suitable candidate for this topic and
      • an outline how you would approach the topic methodically;
    4. Curriculum Vitae;
    5. Copies of ALL university transcripts;
    6. Copy of TOEFL/IELTS or evidence to prove that English was the language of instructions for at least one of your successfully completed previous degree programmes, in the form of a letter issued by the relevant university officials;
    7. Abstract of your MSc thesis (or equivalent);
    8. Two reference letters; and
    9. Proof of funding / Funding plan

    Interested applicant should send their application material in one single pdf file to Questions related to the PhD programme should be sent to Please note that questions sent to and applications sent to will NOT be responded.

    Please note that only shortlisted candidates will be contacted (see Admissions).

    Thematic focus of current call for applications

    UNU-FLORES has after its establishment in December 2012 implemented a nexus-oriented research programme and various projects and imbedded into this the joint PhD programme of TU Dresden and UNU which started in 2015. For the current call for applications we have defined below listed specific research topics according to our work plan and research programme, addressing specific research gaps and needs. We are particularly looking for applicants who are interested and qualified to work on any of these topics which may be subject to specifications and amendments according to interests, regional focus, data availability etc. We will also look at well-worked out alternative research proposals if they fall into the scope of our research programme.

    As explained above interested applicants should add to their motivation letter an outline of the intended Nexus-oriented research (max 2 pages), preferentially referring to one of the topic proposals listed below. They should briefly outline their specific interest in this topic, their respective qualifications, skills and experiences and finally sketch out some first ideas how to address the topic in terms of methodology.

    Topic proposal DPIM1701: Trade-offs, Thresholds and Trans-disciplinary Approaches to Sustainable Development

    Background: The research focus is on understanding inter-relationships among environmental resources of water, soil and waste at various scales. Key nexus concepts of trade-offs and thresholds will be examined through a focus on selected case studies of implemented projects covering water supply, wastewater, irrigation, forestry etc to cover challenges of global change, including climate change, urban development, population and demographic change. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and global debates on environment and development will serve as a background to the research that explores the relationships between water-soil-waste and global change; the comparison between conventional and integrated management (a Nexus Approach) of water, soil and waste under global change, including the advantages, limitations, difficulties and opportunities. The research will employ quantitative and qualitative components, based on fundamental theories and case studies. Expected outcomes include development of knowledge translation tools based on innovative uses of data generated and collected using multiple sources and mediums, ultimately aiming at facilitating Nexus governance.


    1. To understand the role of boundary conditions at the intersection of material fluxes, public financing and structural features of economy and society that influence the governance of water, waste and soil resources.
    2. To critically examine the role of non-linearity of legal and policy processes in the context of structural features of economy and society and variability of the bio-physical environment.
    3. To encourage the innovative use of research methods and data with potential to strengthen monitoring and assessment frameworks and advance the nexus approach to environmental management.

    Topic proposal DPIM1702: Exploring the capabilities of open-source platforms, software tools and data sources for Nexus-monitoring and supporting resources management

    Background: Scientific open data-sources, like reanalysis meteorological data, Earth Observation missions (e.g. Sentinels, MODIS and Landsat), surface energy fluxes and carbon dioxide data from FluxNet networks, generally do not restrict users’ access, acquisition and use of the temporal series. The different data characteristics – coverage (regional, global), temporal and spatial resolutions, their non-destructive nature, immediate transmission, digital format, etc – , make them essential for monitoring ecosystems, especially in emerging countries, with ground data scarcity, unreliable monitoring networks, and restricted data access. However, these data sources have to be homogenized and processed in order to derive information that can cover the stakeholders needs. Open-source software, platforms or programming languages, such as QGIS, R or Python, should be valuable in this regard, since they guarantee end users’ freedom to run, study, share and modify these tools.

    Objectives: a) Explore new applications of open-source tools for an Integrated (Nexus) monitoring and management of resources. b) Explore the capabilities and constrains of open-data, platforms and tools for resources management at different scales: How to overcome the data gaps in an effective way? Different techniques: combination of models, data fusion of different data-sources, uncertainty assessment shall be applied for a selected region, addressing a specific Nexus-monitoring problem.

    Topic proposal DPIM1703: Scale-dependency of Earth Observation data for water management: Exploring information requirements and technical constrains for local to regional applications.

    Background: Remote observation techniques of Earth’s surface have become an essential tool for monitoring ecosystems and evaluating management strategies in many sectors, such as agriculture, forestry, weather forecasting, or land-use policy. EO data characteristics – their global coverage, with various temporal and spatial resolutions; their non-destructive nature; immediate transmission, and the open accessibility of some of them (e.g. Sentinel, Landsat, MODIS) -, make them essential to evaluate ecosystems functioning. However, the precision/resolution/accuracy of the information required for management will differ at each scale: farm-local (e.g. evaluating the effect of management practices,), to watershed (e.g. evaluating the effect of fire, water resources allocation) and regional (e.g. early prediction of drought). Furthermore, water dynamics are defined by local and regional conditions such as climate, water availability, and ecological and socio-economical water quality and quantity needs. Therefore, decision support systems for water management should be adapted to specific situations and challenges.

    Objectives: To overcome scale-dependent constrains in water management integrating Earth Observation information, different data-sources, models (with different input requirements), methodologies (data fusion), uncertainty and sensitivity assessments will be studied and resolution thresholds for the information required will be determined with bottom-up strategies. This study aims to determine (spatial/temporal/social) resolution thresholds for specific water management scales and needs, focusing on a selected target area.

    Topic proposal DPIM1704: Determination of the appropriate design of low-cost wastewater treatment systems to optimize effluent quality for the safe use in agriculture

    Background: Wastewater can be a useful asset for the sustainable management of resources. It contains both water and nutrients that are key for food production. In particular in water-scarce areas these practices are used regularly. However, safety standards to protect farmers and consumers from health hazards need to be in place. By designing low-cost, easy to operate wastewater treatment systems such as constructed wetlands the effluent can be “designed” in in a target-oriented manner to be used to its fullest potential while safeguarding human and environmental health.

    Objectives: To determine design criteria and a methodology for optimal design of natural wastewater treatment systems (such as treatment wetlands) in order to obtain effluent quality that matches the needed nutrient content but is low on health hazards. The design criteria shall be integrated into a model which can aid the development and optimization of treatment systems.

    Topic proposal DPIM1705: Effect of sustainable wastewater treatment technologies on Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria and Antibiotic Resistant Genes for save use in agriculture and for groundwater recharge

    Background: Wastewater can be a valuable resource for irrigation in agriculture and enhance biomass production. At the same time safely treated wastewater can be used as replenishment of the sub-surface water banks of water scarce areas. In particular in water-scarce areas both practices are used regularly. However, safety standards to protect citizens, farmers and consumers from health hazards need to be in place, requiring a certain level of treatment. An increasingly threatening health hazard is the development and abundance of Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria and Antibiotic Resistant Genes (ARB&G) in the environment. As of now it largely unclear if and how low-cost and easy to operate wastewater treatment systems affect ARB&G in the effluent.

    Objectives: To screen and analyse design criteria for natural wastewater treatment systems in order to obtain effluent quality that matches: a) the needed nutrient content but is low on health hazards (considering ARB&G), b) standard groundwater quality for non-potable uses. To do so, effects of different wastewater treatment systems on effluent quality in terms of nutrient content, pathogens (including ARB&G) and other contaminants and its respective suitability for crop irrigation will be assessed.

    Topic proposal DPIM1706: Rebound effects of wastewater reuse

    Background: Rebound effects are secondary effects of a technical or political action, which run contrary to the original objectives of the primary action. They have been observed e.g. in irrigation systems where an increase in irrigation efficiency aiming to conserve freshwater resources ultimately led to increased water use since the irrigation area was expanded. Wastewater is being used as valuable resource providing water and nutrients so enhance biomass production in many regions of the world and can complement or even replace freshwater irrigation. However, even if used in a safe manner after (partial) treatment, remaining micro pollutants and pathogens in treated wastewater might be disposed on farmland and thus enter the food chain, impacting human and environmental health.

    By using the in many areas easily available wastewater instead of limited freshwater sources rebound effects may become apparent whereby more water is being used for irrigation purposes than actually needed for the crops or infrastructure is neglected and leaky causing water loss and environmental as well as health issues.

    Objectives: To review rebound effects in irrigation agriculture at different scales and considering different water sources; in particular, determine the rebound effects from wastewater reuse in selected case studies, and assess economic as well as ecologic effects.

    Topic proposal DPIM1707: Mapping and analysing policies of NEXUS-solutions related to the agricultural use of treated wastewater

    Background: The integrated management of environmental resources, as exemplified in wastewater reuse in agriculture representing an application of a water-soil-waste nexus approach, is increasingly accepted and promoted from a scientific viewpoint and respective scholars. However, the implementation of respective policies (e.g. implementation of traditional or new types of technologies) can come along with a large number of policy impacts which have hardly been conceptualized by NEXUS scholars. This hinders practitioners to systematically evaluate the usefulness of NEXUS-policies in various contexts (e.g. costs and benefits for overarching policy goals such as the SDGs in developing and emerging countries, water scarce regions etc.). A thorough operationalization and analysis of Nexus solutions is to strengthen intelligent policy-making on the ground.

    Objectives: The main objective of this PhD work is to develop and apply a theoretical framework on the complex impacts of policy solutions within the WATER-SOIL-WASTE NEXUS in general, and the agricultural use of treated wastewater, in particular.

    Topic proposal DPIM1708: Development of a Web-Based Decision Support System for Wastewater Reuse in Agriculture

    Background: For many regions in developing countries facing water scarcity, wastewater is the only reliable source of water available for agricultural purposes. As of now, about 10% of the world’s crop production relies on wastewater irrigation. Ideally wastewater should be used for agricultural purposes after treating but the reality is far from that. This makes untreated wastewater irrigation a source of contamination affecting crops and also the safety of groundwater and hence public health. This situation demands for actions to be taken to ensure the safe use of wastewater by not only raising awareness but also making appropriate tools enabling the evaluation of risks and benefits of wastewater use available. These kinds of tools can assist decision-makers, institutions and practitioners in selecting the best options available for sustainable and safe use of wastewater in agriculture.

    Objectives: The main objective of this PhD work is to develop and apply a conceptual model for predicting the safe use of wastewater in agriculture. The overall goal is the development of a web-based tool that evaluates the risks of wastewater irrigation based on model scenarios.

    Topic proposal DPIM1709: Management of water- and soil-related ecosystem services in dryland areas of NW China

    Background: Dryland areas include arid, semi-arid and semi-humid areas; they occupy about 50% of the global land surface, and are often sensitive and prone to change because of limitations to water and/or nutrients. The Loess Plateau in NW China is one such region. Centuries of improper management resulted in degraded ecosystems, and thus in a poor local economy. To control erosion, various large-scale soil conservation programmes have been implemented by the Chinese government since the 1950s. These programmes have been quite successful in terms of reducing soil erosion, but the planted forests are unstable on dry sites because of soil water limitation. Moreover, the massive afforestation led to drastic water yield reduction which aggravates the inherent severe water shortage for both local and down-stream development. As a consequence, a more water-conserving management for balancing soil erosion control and water demand needs to be established for the Loess Plateau region.

    Objectives: The main objective of this PhD work is to develop and apply a framework that supports the implementation of a more balanced use of environmental resources and securing relevant ecosystem services in dryland areas as the Loess Plateau region. This includes a model-based assessment of how different management practices balance the Nexus of environmental resources.

    Topic proposal DPIM1710: Latitudinal gradients in effects of climate change on freshwater reservoirs: implications for adapted management

    Background: impacts of climate change on aquatic ecosystems have been studied extensively for lakes, but mostly confined to the temperate region and paying less attention to reservoirs (with few exceptions). Under conditions of climate change and growing demand for water storage infrastructure for integrated management of water for various uses, it becomes increasingly important to assess current and projected effects of climate change on water quantity and quality in reservoirs under different climate conditions. Many reservoirs are currently planned or rehabilitated. For effective planning it will be crucial to evaluate which management options would be feasible and effective under which conditions.

    Objectives: To assess impacts of climate change on freshwater reservoirs under different climatic conditions (latitudinal gradient) and evaluate management options concerning their suitability to mitigate and adapt to these effects.

    Access to monitoring data is critical. Comparative data from European reservoirs are available. The ideal candidate is supported in terms of data access by governmental agencies and/or research institutions involved in environmental monitoring.

  • Admissions criteria

    We are pleased to invite qualified applicants in the following two categories to apply for our joint PhD degree programme:

    • Those who have already secured sponsorships and scholarships;
    • Those who are qualified and need pre-admission to apply for other scholarships (e.g. DAAD).

    Please note that we have two application collections windows each year: February 1-28 and August 1-31. Applications sent outside of these two windows will not be accepted. Please refer to the following sections for details about the programme and the application process.

    Applicants are required to have basic knowledge in undergraduate level physics, chemistry and mathematics with a Bachelor’s degree in one of the following fields:

    • Engineering
    • Natural Sciences
    • Social sciences
    • Other closely related field

    All applicants are also required to have a research-based Master’s degree related to environmental resources management.

    Experience related to the nexus of water, soil and waste or environmental resource management will be considered an asset.

    Since the programme is offered in English, applicants have to demonstrate proficiency in English. Recognized tests are:

    – IELTS: required level 7.0

    – TOEFL: required level for paper based test 600 points, internet based test 100 points

    Tuition and fees

    • This joint degree programme is tuition-free.
    • Applicants are responsible for living and other costs.
    Application Window Category Status
    August 2016 Funding secured
    Requiring pre-admission for fund-raising
  • Curriculum

    The PhD programme includes mandatory and elective courses. The courses can further be categorized into thematic courses (to be taken in the first and second semester) and methodological courses. In addition, students have the opportunity to take courses at the recently established Graduate Academy of TUD. Courses and workshops offered in the framework of the Graduate Academy are of short duration (typically 1-2 days) and without credits.

    Students devote the first semester to learning the basic concepts of the nexus of water, soil and waste as well as important aspects of governance and capacity development. The PhD students will also start working on their research topics during the first semester. Half of the second semester is again course-based while the other half is devoted to the preparation of the final dissertation proposal and its defence. In agreement with the Dissertation Supervisor, PhD students are allowed to choose additional courses focusing on specific skills required for their research topics. From the third semester onwards, PhD candidates will concentrate fully on their research topic.

    Download the Curriculum here.