Exploring risk in development indicators

By Junko Mochizuki, researcher with the IIASA Risk and Resilience Program

IIASA researcher Junko Mochizuki writes about her recent research in which she and other IIASA colleagues developed an indicator to help identify vulnerable countries that should be prioritized for human development and disaster risk reduction interventions.

© Yong Hian Lim | Dreamstime.com

Working as part of an interdisciplinary team at IIASA, it is not uncommon for researchers to uncover disciplinary blind spots that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. This usually leads to a conversation that goes something like, “If only we could learn from the other disciplines more often, we can create more effective theories, methods, and approaches.”

My recently published paper with Asjad Naqvi from the IIASA Advanced Systems Analysis Program titled Reflecting Risk in Development Indicators was the fruit of such an exchange. In one afternoon, our coffee conversation hypothesized various reasons as to why the disaster risk discipline continued to create one risk indicator after another while the development community remained silent on this disciplinary advancement and did not seem to be incorporating these indicators into ongoing research in their own field.

Global ambitions such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction call for disaster mainstreaming, in other words, that disaster risk be assessed and managed in combination with any development planning efforts. For various reasons, we however continue to measure development and disasters separately. We know that globally the poor are more exposed to risk and that disasters hurt development, but there was not a single effective measure that captured this interlinkage in an easy-to-grasp manner. Our aim was therefore to demonstrate how this could be done using the information on disasters and development that we already have at our disposal.

The Human Development Indicator (HDI) is a summary measure of average attainment in key dimensions of human development – education, life expectancy, and per capita income indicators – that are used to rank countries into four tiers of human development. Using the HDI as an example, Asjad and myself compiled global datasets on human development, disaster risk, and public expenditure, and developed a method to discount the HDI indicator for 131 countries globally – just as others have done to adjust for income– and gender-inequality. Discounting the HDI indicator for education, for instance, involves multiplying it by the annual economic value of the average loss in terms of education facilities, divided by the annual public expenditure on education. We did this for each dimension of the HDI.

Conceptually, the indicator development was an intriguing exercise as we and our reviewers asked interesting questions. These included questions about the non-linearity of disaster impact, especially in the health sector, such as how multiple critical lifeline failures may lead to high death tolls in the days, weeks, and even months following an initial disaster event. Other issues we examined were around possibilities for the so-called build-back-better approach, which offers an opportunity to create better societal outcomes following a disaster.

Our formulation of the proposed penalty function hardly captures these complexities, but it nevertheless provides a starting point to debate these possibilities, not just among disaster researchers, but also among others working in the development field.

For those familiar with the global analysis of disaster risk, the results of our analysis may not be surprising: disasters, unlike other development issues (such as income- and gender inequalities for which HDI have been reformulated), have a small group of countries that stand out in terms of their relative burdens. These are small island states such as Belize, Fiji, and Vanuatu, as well as highly exposed low and lower-middle income countries like Honduras, Madagascar, and the Philippines, which were identified as hotspots in terms of risk-adjustments to HDI. Simply put, this means that these countries will have to divert public and private funds to pay for response and recovery efforts in the event of disasters, where these expenses are sizeable relative to the resources they have in advancing the three dimensions of the HDI indicator. Despite their high relative risk, the latter countries also receive less external support measured in terms of per capita aid-flow.

Our study shows that global efforts to promote disaster risk reduction like the Sendai Framework should be aware of this heterogeneity and that more attention in the form of policy support and resource allocation may be needed to support groups of outliers. Finally, although the cost of most disasters that occur globally are small relative to the size of most countries’ national economies, further sub-national analysis will help identify highly vulnerable areas within countries that should be prioritized for development and disaster risk reduction interventions.

Reference:

Mochizuki J & Naqvi A (2019). Reflecting Disaster Risk in Development Indicators. Sustainability 11 (4): e996 [pure.iiasa.ac.at/15757]

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Exploring urban-rural differences in health risks from extreme temperatures

By Kejia Hu, PhD Candidate at Zhejiang University, China and IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) 2016 participant 

Kejia Hu, an alumna of the IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program, discusses a recent study on how extreme temperatures affect the health risks experienced by urban and rural communities in China. 

Hot and cold temperatures are associated with increased risks of cause-specific mortality, in other words, deaths that result from, for instance, cardiovascular and respiratory conditions. Due to the urban heat island effect – where an urban heat island is a city or metropolitan area that is significantly warmer than its surrounding rural areas due to human activity – it is commonly assumed that urban residents are at a higher risk of exposure to extreme heat than their rural neighbors are. Very few studies have explored the urban-rural differences of temperature-related health risks, often because of the lack of sufficient meteorological and health data in rural areas.

Today, 45% of the global population – nearly 3.4 billion people – still live in rural regions, and based on the UN’s World Urbanization Prospects 2018, there will still be more than 3 billion people living in these areas by 2050, despite current trends such as urbanization.

This made us wonder whether there could be a rural-urban gap in extreme temperature induced health risk. We decided to conduct a study to address this question in Zhejiang province in eastern China employing high spatial resolution data on temperature, death registrations, air pollution, and population density across 89 counties in Zhejiang from 2009 to 2015.

Based on an epidemiological analysis of more than 2 million death cases, we found that rural residents are more sensitive to both cold and hot temperatures than urban residents, and that extreme temperatures especially affect the elderly. Our results indicate that extreme cold temperatures increased the mortality rate by 98% for rural populations, and by 47% for urban populations, while extremely hot temperatures increased the mortality rate by 18% for rural populations and by 14% for urban populations. When considering both human exposure and vulnerability, the attributable deaths from cold and hot temperatures were 4.8 and 2.6 times higher in rural than in urban areas, respectively.

© Elwynn | Dreamstime.com

But why do rural populations tend to have higher mortality risks in the face of both cold and heat? Our results suggest that age, education, income, access to health care services and air conditioners, and the types of occupations that residents in these areas engage in, are among the potential sources. We found that counties with higher percentages of elderly and agricultural employment, lower levels of education, lower income levels, fewer hospital beds, and fewer air conditioners, had higher mortality risks related to both heat and cold. This could mean that socioeconomic vulnerability may play an important role – even more important than temperature in the determinants of temperature-related health risks.

Ours is the first study to find an urban–rural disparity in both heat and cold mortality risks. Importantly, it challenges the general assumption in previous studies in developed countries that urban residents are at a higher risk to extreme high temperatures. Our findings suggest that previous studies, which mostly investigated exposure-response associations using data from urban areas, may have underestimated the mortality burden for the entire population.

Although the Chinese government have standards in place regarding thermal comfort in residential buildings and highly recommend that they are implemented for rural houses, unfortunately, until now, this has only been enforced for urban apartments in China. In addition, due to lower income, rural households are more likely to fall into “fuel poverty” compared to urban households, which will limit the use of air conditioners for rural people. Targeted measures such as financial assistance for paying electricity bills will help build rural residents’ resilience to extreme temperatures.

Our findings have important implications for policy, particularly in developing countries. Overall, no single action will be enough to reduce the temperature-related mortality risks in rural areas. More efforts should be made to narrow the urban-rural gaps that persist in access to health care by, for example, increasing investment in health care facilities and health care professionals in rural areas. Improving rural people’s general awareness of temperature related risks, such as to popularize preventive knowledge and to develop early warning systems is also needed to prevent temperature-related deaths.

Reference:

Hu K, Guo Y, Hochrainer-Stigler S, Liu W, See L, Yang X, Zhong J, Fei F, et al. (2019). Evidence for Urban–Rural Disparity in Temperature–Mortality Relationships in Zhejiang Province, China. Environmental Health Perspectives 127 (3): e037001. [pure.iiasa.ac.at/15773]

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Eat healthy and sustainably, don’t leave yourself behind

By Barbara Willaarts, researcher with the IIASA Water Program

On World Water Day 2019, IIASA researcher Barbara Willaarts tells us more about how our dietary choices can contribute towards reaching the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6: Water for all by 2030.

© Katarzyna Bialasiewicz | Dreamstime.com

The theme chosen for World Water Day 2019 is “Leaving no one behind”. As the UN emphasizes, this year is very much about reminding ourselves that there are still considerable efforts required to provide clean water, sanitation, and hygiene for all people across the globe.

While there is no question about the fact that we should push our governments and decision makers to pursue the fundamental human right of access to clean water, bringing forward the sustainable development water agenda – specifically Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 : Water for all by 2030 – requires that action is taken on multiple fronts. Securing access and sanitation, is a top priority, but how we manage the water we have access to, is also fundamental.

The first key message here is that a lot of the actions that are required to overcome many of the global water challenges like water scarcity, pollution, and ecosystem degradation, actually do not require expensive government interventions. Many rely on us, on the choices that we make as citizens and consumers in our day-to-day activities. What we wear, how we eat, or what we buy and where we buy it, are daily personal decisions, and these can make a huge difference when it comes to achieving the sustainable development agenda and in particular, SDG6.

In the past years I have conducted various research projects looking into the footprints of our lifestyles, particularly in western societies. The aim behind these investigations was not only to quantify impacts to raise awareness, but also to use this information to define benchmarks for sustainable consumption.

Being Dutch, it is not strange that I have developed my professional career in the water sector, and living in Spain (the most arid country in the EU) for many years has only deepened my interest in looking into drivers of and solutions to global water scarcity. Anyone working in this field will quickly agree that exploring solutions to water scarcity problems very often implies looking at solutions related to the way we produce and consume agricultural products.

There is a bunch of interesting literature out there assessing solutions to increase the efficiency of agricultural production systems and pathways to reduce its environmental footprint. Approaching the food problem from a consumption perspective, however, is an arena that researchers only recently started to explore. This is promising because, firstly, the benefits of improving consumption patterns might outweigh those achieved through efficiency gains. Secondly, this science often conveys messages that are easy to grasp and implement, for example, eat meat only once a week, buy local, and eat five a day of vegetables and fruits. Lastly, it also empowers citizens as the main actors of the social change that is required to meet the sustainability agenda.

With that said, I would like to reflect on a recent study led by colleagues from the Polytechnic University of Madrid and the Food and Agricultural Organization, that I was involved in. The research in question is about the water and nutritional implications of shifting diets, and we used Spain as a case study. The choice of the case study was driven by the fact that Spain, like other Mediterranean countries, is often recognized and valued for its fresh, locally grown, and healthy diets. The reality is however that, while it has been so for many years, things across the Mediterranean, and particularly in Spain, have changed substantially after the 70s as a result of a number of drivers including increasing migration to cities, incorporation of more women into the labor force, work-life imbalance, and food trade openness.

According to the results of our study, the dietary shift in Spain is such that current diets resemble an inverted food pyramid, with households eating 15% more meat, beverages, and sugar products and 37% less fruits and vegetables on a daily basis than what is actually recommended by the Mediterranean dietary guidelines. The effect of this shift is that today, Spain ranks fifth in the EU of countries with the highest prevalence of obesity and overweight.

These dietary shifts have all sorts of nutritional and environmental implications. From a nutritional perspective, current diets contain 17% more kilocalories (Kcal) – meaning units of energy – than the recommended intake, as well as a 36% higher content of macro-nutrients like fats and proteins.  On the other extreme, the intake of essential micro-nutrients like vitamins and minerals has decreased sharply by 40%.

From a water perspective, the observed dietary shifts have increased the water footprint of food consumption by 34%, which is equivalent to seven times the daily per capita consumption of domestic water. An interesting finding here is that current dietary patterns are not just more water intense, but also more international, since over 40% of water “eaten” is from imported food products. This basically means that the Spanish food basket is no longer local but is increasingly being filled with foreign land, biodiversity, and water resources.

Spain is not a unique case and it is very likely that similar trends are occurring across other European and developed countries. This clearly evidences that what we eat matters a lot – to our health and to our environment. Most importantly, you and I have the capacity to make the difference. Eat healthy, eat sustainably, and don’t leave yourself behind!

Reference:

Blas A, Garrido A, Unver O, & Willaarts B (2019). A comparison of the Mediterranean diet and current food consumption patterns in Spain from a nutritional and water perspective. Science of the Total Environment 664: 1020-1029.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

This is not reality

By Sibel Eker, IIASA postdoctoral research scholar

© Jaka Vukotič | Dreamstime.com

Ceci n’est pas une pipe – This is not a pipe © Jaka Vukotič | Dreamstime.com

Quantitative models are an important part of environmental and economic research and policymaking. For instance, IIASA models such as GLOBIOM and GAINS have long assisted the European Commission in impact assessment and policy analysis2; and the energy policies in the US have long been guided by a national energy systems model (NEMS)3.

Despite such successful modelling applications, model criticisms often make the headlines. Either in scientific literature or in popular media, some critiques highlight that models are used as if they are precise predictors and that they don’t deal with uncertainties adequately4,5,6, whereas others accuse models of not accurately replicating reality7. Still more criticize models for extrapolating historical data as if it is a good estimate of the future8, and for their limited scopes that omit relevant and important processes9,10.

Validation is the modeling step employed to deal with such criticism and to ensure that a model is credible. However, validation means different things in different modelling fields, to different practitioners and to different decision makers. Some consider validity as an accurate representation of reality, based either on the processes included in the model scope or on the match between the model output and empirical data. According to others, an accurate representation is impossible; therefore, a model’s validity depends on how useful it is to understand the complexity and to test different assumptions.

Given this variety of views, we conducted a text-mining analysis on a large body of academic literature to understand the prevalent views and approaches in the model validation practice. We then complemented this analysis with an online survey among modeling practitioners. The purpose of the survey was to investigate the practitioners’ perspectives, and how it depends on background factors.

According to our results, published recently in Eker et al. (2018)1, data and prediction are the most prevalent themes in the model validation literature in all main areas of sustainability science such as energy, hydrology and ecosystems. As Figure 1 below shows, the largest fraction of practitioners (41%) think that a match between the past data and model output is a strong indicator of a model’s predictive power (Question 3). Around one third of the respondents disagree that a model is valid if it replicates the past since multiple models can achieve this, while another one third agree (Question 4). A large majority (69%) disagrees with Question 5, that models cannot provide accurate projects, implying that they support using models for prediction purposes. Overall, there is no strong consensus among the practitioners about the role of historical data in model validation. Still, objections to relying on data-oriented validation have not been widely reflected in practice.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Survey responses to the key issues in model validation. Source: Eker et al. (2018)

According to most practitioners who participated in the survey, decision-makers find a model credible if it replicates the historical data (Question 6), and if the assumptions and uncertainties are communicated clearly (Question 8). Therefore, practitioners think that decision makers demand that models match historical data. They also acknowledge the calls for a clear communication of uncertainties and assumptions, which is increasingly considered as best-practice in modeling.

One intriguing finding is that the acknowledgement of uncertainties and assumptions depends on experience level. The practitioners with a very low experience level (0-2 years) or with very long experience (more than 10 years) tend to agree more with the importance of clarifying uncertainties and assumptions. Could it be because a longer engagement in modeling and a longer interaction with decision makers help to acknowledge the necessity of communicating uncertainties and assumptions? Would inexperienced modelers favor uncertainty communication due to their fresh training on the best-practice and their understanding of the methods to deal with uncertainty? Would the employment conditions of modelers play a role in this finding?

As a modeler by myself, I am surprised by the variety of views on validation and their differences from my prior view. With such findings and questions raised, I think this paper can provide model developers and users with reflections on and insights into their practice. It can also facilitate communication in the interface between modelling and decision-making, so that the two parties can elaborate on what makes their models valid and how it can contribute to decision-making.

Model validation is a heated topic that would inevitably stay discordant. Still, one consensus to reach is that a model is a representation of reality, not the reality itself, just like the disclaimer of René Magritte that his perfectly curved and brightly polished pipe is not a pipe.

References

  1. Eker S, Rovenskaya E, Obersteiner M, Langan S. Practice and perspectives in the validation of resource management models. Nature Communications 2018, 9(1): 5359. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-07811-9 [pure.iiasa.ac.at/id/eprint/15646/]
  2. EC. Modelling tools for EU analysis. 2019  [cited  16-01-2019]Available from: https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/strategies/analysis/models_en
  3. EIA. ANNUAL ENERGY OUTLOOK 2018: US Energy Information Administration; 2018. https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/aeo/info_nems_archive.php
  4. The Economist. In Plato’s cave. The Economist 2009  [cited]Available from: http://www.economist.com/node/12957753#print
  5. The Economist. Number-crunchers crunched: The uses and abuses of mathematical models. The Economist. 2010. http://www.economist.com/node/15474075
  6. Stirling A. Keep it complex. Nature 2010, 468(7327): 1029-1031. https://doi.org/10.1038/4681029a
  7. Nuccitelli D. Climate scientists just debunked deniers’ favorite argument. The Guardian. 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2017/jun/28/climate-scientists-just-debunked-deniers-favorite-argument
  8. Anscombe N. Models guiding climate policy are ‘dangerously optimistic’. The Guardian 2011  [cited]Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/feb/24/models-climate-policy-optimistic
  9. Jogalekar A. Climate change models fail to accurately simulate droughts. Scientific American 2013  [cited]Available from: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/the-curious-wavefunction/climate-change-models-fail-to-accurately-simulate-droughts/
  10. Kruger T, Geden O, Rayner S. Abandon hype in climate models. The Guardian. 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2016/apr/26/abandon-hype-in-climate-models

Finding community at the AGU Fall Meeting

By Lu Liu, postdoctoral research associate at Rice University, USA and IIASA YSSP 2016 participant

I have been attending the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting since 2013 when I was working with the Joint Global Change Research Institute. Ever since then, the AGU Fall Meeting has become one of my most anticipated events of the year where I get to share my research and make new friends.

The first time I attended the AGU Fall Meeting, I was overwhelmed with the size and scale of this conference. There are more than 20,000 oral and poster presentations throughout the week, and the topics cover nearly 30 different themes, from earth and space science, to education and public affairs. I was thrilled to see my research being valued and discussed by people from various backgrounds, and I was fascinated by other exciting research and rigorous ideas that emerged at the meeting.

Lu Liu at 2018 AGU poster session

Lu Liu at 2018 AGU poster session

At this year’s AGU, I presented my poster Implications of decentralizing urban water supply infrastructure via direct potable water reuse (DPR) in a session titled Water, Energy, and Society in Urban Systems. In a nutshell, my poster presents a quantitative model that evaluates the cost-benefits of direct potable water reuse in a decentralized water supply system. The concept of decentralization in an urban water system has been discussed in previous literature as an effective approach towards sustainable urban water management. Besides the social and technical barriers in implementing decentralization, there is a lack of analytical and computational tools necessary for the design, characterization, and evaluation of decentralized water supply infrastructure. My study bridges the gap by demonstrating the environmental and economic implications of decentralizing urban water infrastructure via DPR using a modeling framework developed in this study. The quantitative analysis suggests that with the appropriate configuration, decentralized DPR could potentially alleviate stress on freshwater and enhance urban water sustainability and resilience at a competitive cost. More about this research and my other work can be found here: https://emmaliulu.wixsite.com/luliu.

At the AGU Fall Meeting, I engaged in various opportunities to reconnect with old colleagues and build new professional relationships. What’s better than running into my former YSSP supervisors and IIASA colleagues after two years since I left the YSSP? Although my time spent at IIASA was short, I hold IIASA and the YSSP very close to my heart because the influence this experience has had on my professional and personal life is profound.

I will continue to attend the AGU Fall Meeting for the foreseeable future. After all, we all want to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance in a community, and I am glad I already found mine.

 

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Opening up creative spaces for critical thinking

By Nour Barakeh, Alpbach Learning Program Co-manager, European Forum Alpbach, Austria

“I don’t want this war to end. I grew up carrying my weapon and fighting. I have lost everything. I can’t remember the shape of my life, my dreams, before war.”

I still remember my shock when a 23-year-old man said these words to me while I was traveling from city to city in Syria to interview young people about their opinions on the present and their dreams for the future.

Nour Barakeh

In the decades long absence of a collective and free political atmosphere in the country, being critical about social issues, seeking knowledge for deep understanding despite the lack of real and reliable recourses, and doing research was immensely difficult, and at times even dangerous. I however firmly believe that the power of sharing ideas cannot be overestimated.

This brings us to the value of education. When I was younger, I was lucky enough to have been able to complete my academic studies in Syria – I am a trained pharmacist. Unfortunately, most people in Syria today have a very different experience. One only needs to look at the number of children living in camps around the country – children who have had to stop their education due to military conflict. Not to mention the number of young people involved in military life, and all of the others forced to suspend their education for any number of reasons.

In light of this, in 2013, a group of young activists and I who were living in Damascus, decided to change our work approach from what can be described as an emotionally supportive level to an approach focused on opening up creative spaces for critical thinking. Creative spaces for analyzing and exchanging thoughts, fears, and visions about our current situation. We organized art workshops during which we could work around political issues without the danger of being directly involved in them.

After three years of conducting these workshops, I noticed recurring themes. I started doing social research in an effort to predict the post-war period and the possibilities of rebuilding our country with realistic data aimed at addressing the causes of the underlying problems rather than just the consequences. That was how I started traveling around Syria and meeting people through my research.

It was also during this time that I discovered just how isolated we really were, each of us in our individual communities. We didn’t know each other. In addition, in the absence of the aforementioned collective and free political atmosphere in Syria, we were deprived of understanding our shared problems, which forced us to become involved in imagined conflicts based on assumed divisions.

This realization led me to a series of questions. If we could imagine that the war in Syria hadn’t yet started, how could the war have been avoided? Furthermore, how could we build sustained peace in our country? The emphasis here is of course on the word “build”, because peace cannot be imposed on societies. Achieving sustained peace is the fulfillment of revolutions aimed at rooted changes.

Migraspectives – a dance theater game © FFAB | IIASA

In my own life, sometime after doing those interviews in Syria, I was lucky enough to immigrate to Austria. Here, I see peace represented as a culture. I have experienced it through close contact with people, with their way of life, and their psychological structure. I am convinced that the fact that peace has been achieved in this country is the most important factor contributing to progress, not only on a general economic, political, and social level, but also on the level of human consciousness.

Therefore, for me, achieving peace has taken its place next to the rest of the Sustainable Development Goals as a main factor to close the circle of our interrelated world. An expression of interconnected problems that can only be solved on a global level.

In trying to realize the mechanisms of our interrelated world however, my interaction with the culture in Austria has forced me to re-evaluate concepts such as identity and nationality. Forced me to revisit these and other concepts that has been used to create conflicts and to break down awareness of our shared interests and shared pains as human beings.

All of this has motivated me to become more open to a broader sense of belonging, to global citizenship where we can see the full picture and everyone can contribute to the common good. Not as an idealistic dream, but rather, as a necessary condition for our survival.

We need to have one eye on the microscope and the other on the telescope. We need to combine all sectors to achieve the desired impact.

In my work with my partners and colleagues, this has meant combining scientific studies and artistic work through projects like the art-science performance Migraspectives* at the IIASA/JRC Evidence and Policy Summer School, to support the establishment of sustainable educational projects focused on empowering people to transcend the effects of war. It is a method of involving audiences in tricky topics such as migration, and realizing that data alone cannot be the only tool to reach people in making a change, and trying to bridge the gap between researchers, policymakers, and society.

*Migraspectives is a research project that involves artists and scientists in exploring the current debate on Migration through the lense of diverse and often conflicting world-views. The project culminated in a participatory performance during the Summer School for Evidence and Policy, organised by IIASA and the European Commissions Joint Research Center under the auspices of the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, where a new approach to solution finding with an audience of researchers and policymakers from 40 countries was tried out for the first time.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.