Running global models in a castle in Europe

By Matt Cooper, PhD student at the Department of Geographical Sciences, University of Maryland, and 2018 winner of the IIASA Peccei Award

I never pictured myself working in Europe.  I have always been an eager traveler, and I spent many years living, working and doing fieldwork in Africa and Asia before starting my PhD.  I was interested in topics like international development, environmental conservation, public health, and smallholder agriculture. These interests led me to my MA research in Mali, working for an NGO in Nairobi, and to helping found a National Park in the Philippines.  But Europe seemed like a remote possibility.  That was at least until fall 2017, when I was looking for opportunities to get abroad and gain some research experience for the following summer.  I was worried that I wouldn’t find many opportunities, because my PhD research was different from what I had previously done.  Rather than interviewing farmers or measuring trees in the field myself, I was running global models using data from satellites and other projects.  Since most funding for PhD students is for fieldwork, I wasn’t sure what kind of opportunities I would find.  However, luckily, I heard about an interesting opportunity called the Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) at IIASA, and I decided to apply.

Participating in the YSSP turned out to be a great experience, both personally and professionally.  Vienna is a wonderful city to live in, and I quickly made friends with my fellow YSSPers.  Every weekend was filled with trips to the Alps or to nearby countries, and IIASA offers all sorts of activities during the week, from cultural festivals to triathlons.  I also received very helpful advice and research instruction from my supervisors at IIASA, who brought a wealth of experience to my research topic.  It felt very much as if I had found my kind of people among the international PhD students and academics at IIASA.  Freed from the distractions of teaching, I was also able to focus 100% on my research and I conducted the largest-ever analysis of drought and child malnutrition.

© Matt Cooper

Now, I am very grateful to have another summer at IIASA coming up, thanks to the Peccei Award. I will again focus on the impact climate shocks like drought have on child health.  however, I will build on last year’s research by looking at future scenarios of climate change and economic development.  Will greater prosperity offset the impacts of severe droughts and flooding on children in developing countries?  Or does climate change pose a hazard that will offset the global health gains of the past few decades?  These are the questions that I hope to answer during the coming summer, where my research will benefit from many of the future scenarios already developed at IIASA.

I can’t think of a better research institute to conduct this kind of systemic, global research than IIASA, and I can’t picture a more enjoyable place to live for a summer than Vienna.

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.

Nothing new under the sun?

An interdisciplinary research project explores glo-cal entanglements of power and nature in 18th century Vienna

By Verena Winiwarter, Guest Research Scholar, IIASA Risk and Resilience Program, and Professor, Centre for Environmental History, Alpen-Adria-Universitaet Klagenfurt.

Nowadays, rulers turn to primetime TV events to demonstrate their power, be it putting men on the moon, testing missiles, or building walls. When the kings of France, in particular Louis XIV and XV, built Versailles, they had the same goals: To claim their leading role in Europe and make their mastery of nature and their subjects visible for all.

In the 1700s, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had to pull off a comparable feat, in particular as Emperor Charles VI had a huge constitutional problem: His only surviving child, a smart and pretty daughter, was not entitled to the throne. Only men could be emperors of the Holy Roman Empire. So while eventually, an international agreement allowed young Maria Theresia to succeed him, her position was clearly weak and would become contested right after her father’s death.

The construction of Vienna’ Schönbrunn Palace, and the taming of the river that flows by it, served as an international declaration of power by the Habsburgs and helped secure Maria Theresia’s position. Vienna, the Habsburg capital, already sported a summer palace in the game-rich riparian area to the west of the city center, close to a torrential, but rather small tributary of the Danube, the Wien River. Here, the leaders decided, a palace dwarfing Versailles should be built. One of the most famous architects of his time, J.B. Fischer von Erlach originally designed a grandiose structure that could never have been carried out. But it staked a claim and when seven years later, a more realistic plan was submitted, it became the actual blueprint of what today is one of Vienna’s most famous tourist sites.

Fischer v. Erlach’s second, more feasible design for Schönbrunn Palace (Public Domain | Wikimedia Commons)

While the kings of France built in a swamp and overcame a dearth of water by irrigation, the Habsburgs’ choice offered another opportunity to show just how absolute their rule was: the torrential Wien River had damaged the walls of the hunting preserve with its then much smaller palace several times. Putting the palace right there, into a dangerous spot, allowed the house of Habsburg to prove that their engineers were in control.

The flamboyant new palace was deliberately placed close to the Wien River, necessitating its local regulation. This had repercussions for those living up- and downstream, as flood regimes changed. Not all such change was beneficial, as constraining the river’s power meant that it found outlets elsewhere. In this case, European power struggles affected the course of a river, putting a strain on locals for the sake of global status.

In the 19th century, effects of global events and structures played out in favor of local health, when it came to building sewers along the by then heavily polluted Wien River. The 1815 eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia led to unusually heavy rains during the otherwise dry season and the proliferation of cholera, which British colonial soldiers brought to Europe. A cholera epidemic hit Vienna in 1831/32, creating momentum to finally build a main sewer along Wien River. The first proposals for a sewer date back to 1792; they were renewed in 1822, but due to urban inertia, the sewer was not built. Thousands of deaths (18,000 in recurring outbreaks between 1831-1873) called for a response, and from 1831 onwards, collection canals were built.

A global constellation had first affected locals negatively, but with long-term positive outcomes of much cleaner water.

We uncovered these stories of the glo-cal repercussions of Wien River management during the FWF-funded project URBWATER (P 25796-G18) at Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt with the joint effort of an interdisciplinary team. We have shown in several publications how urban development was intimately tied to the bigger and smaller surface waters and to groundwater availability, telling a co-evolutionary environmental history.

The overall development of the dammed and straightened, then covered river can be seen in science-based videos by team member Severin Hohensinner for 1755. At 2:00 in the video, the virtual flight nears Schönbrunn on the right bank, with the regulation measures visible as red lines. A comparison between 1755 and 2010 is also available. Both videos start with an aerial view of downtown Vienna and then turn to the headwaters of the Wien, progressing towards the center with the flow.

More on the project, including links to publications and images are available at  http://www.umweltgeschichte.uni-klu.ac.at/index,6536,URBWATER.html

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.

From the Himalayas to the Andes: Crowdsourced disaster risk mapping

By Wei Liu, IIASA Risk and Resilience Program

What do Rajapur, Nepal; Chosica, Peru; and Tabasco, Mexico all have in common? Flooding:  these areas are all threatened by floods, and they also face similar knowledge gaps, especially in terms of local level spatial information on risk, and the resources and the capacities of communities to manage risk.

To address these gaps, I and my colleagues at IIASA, in collaboration with Kathmandu Living Labs (KLL) and Practical Action (PA) Nepal are building on our experiences in Nepal’s Lower Karnali River basin to support flood risk mapping in flood-prone areas in Peru and Mexico.

Recent developments in data collection and communication via personal devices and social media have greatly enhanced citizens’ abilities to contribute spatial data, called Crowdsourced Geographic Information (CGI) in the mapping community. OpenStreetMap is the most widely used platform for sharing this free geographic data globally, and the fast growing Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team has developed CGI in some of the world’s most disaster-prone and data-scarce regions. For example, after the 2015 Nepal Earthquake, thousands of global volunteers mapped infrastructure across Nepal, greatly supporting earthquake rescue, recovery, and reconstruction efforts.

Today there is excellent potential to engage citizen mappers in all stages of the disaster risk management cycle, including risk prevention and reduction, preparedness and reconstruction. In this project, we have successfully launched a series of such mapping activities for the Lower Karnali River basin in Nepal starting in early 2016. In an effort to share the experience and lessons of this work with other Zurich Global Flood Resilience Alliance field sites, in March 2017 we initiated two new mapathons  in Kathmandu, with support from Soluciones Prácticas (PA Peru) and the Mexican Red Cross, to remotely map basic infrastructure such as buildings and roads, as well as visible water surface, around flood-prone communities in Chosica, Peru and Tobasco, Mexico.

@ Wei Liu | IIASA

March 17th, 2017, staff and volunteers conducting remote mapping at Kathmandu Living Labs @ Wei Liu | IIASA

Prior to our efforts very few buildings in these areas were identified on online map portals, including Google Maps, Bing Maps, and OSM. Through our mapathons, dozens of Nepalese volunteers mapped over 15,000 buildings and 100 km of roads. The top scorer, Bishal Bhandari, mapped over 1,700 buildings and 6 km of roads for Chosica alone.

Having the basic infrastructure mapped before a flood event can be extremely valuable for increasing flood preparedness of communities and for local authorities and NGOs.  During the period of the mapathons, the Lima region in Peru, including Chosica, was hit by a severe flood induced by coastal El Niño conditions. Having almost all buildings in Chosica mapped on the OSM platform now makes visible the high flood risk faced by people living in this densely populated area with both formal and informal settlements. These data may support conducting a quick damage assessment, as suggested by Miguel Arestegui, a collaborator from PA Peru during his visit to IIASA in April, 2017.

Recognizing the value of crowdsourced spatial risk information, we are working closely with partners, including OpenStreetMap Peru, to mobilize the creativity, technical know-how, and practical experience from the Nepal study to Latin America countries. Collecting such information using CGI comes with low cost but high potential for modeling and estimating the amount of people and economic assets potentially being affected under different future flood situations, for improving development and land-use plans to support disaster risk reduction, and for increasing preparedness and helping with allocating humanitarian support in a timely manner after disaster events.

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Having the basic infrastructure mapped before a flood event can be extremely valuable for increasing flood preparedness of communities and for local authorities and NGOs.  During the period of the mapathons, the Lima region in Peru, including Chosica, was hit by a severe flood induced by coastal El Niño conditions. Having almost all buildings in Chosica mapped on the OSM platform now makes visible the high flood risk faced by people living in this densely populated area with both formal and informal settlements. These data may support conducting a quick damage assessment, as suggested by Miguel Arestegui, a collaborator from PA Peru during his visit to IIASA in April, 2017.

Recognizing the value of crowdsourced spatial risk information, we are working closely with partners, including OpenStreetMap Peru, to mobilize the creativity, technical know-how, and practical experience from the Nepal study to Latin America countries. Collecting such information using CGI comes with low cost but high potential for modeling and estimating the amount of people and economic assets potentially being affected under different future flood situations, for improving development and land-use plans to support disaster risk reduction, and for increasing preparedness and helping with allocating humanitarian support in a timely manner after disaster events.

Flood-inundated houses and local railway in Chosica, Peru, 18/03/2017 @ Miluska Ordoñez | Soluciones Prácticas

The United Nation’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction states that knowledge in “all dimensions of vulnerability, capacity, exposure of persons and assets, hazard characteristics and the environment” needs to be leveraged to inform policies and practices across all stages of the disaster risk management cycle. CGI has a great potential to involve citizens from around the world to help fill this critical knowledge gap. These pilot mapathons conducted between Nepal and Latin America are promising examples of supporting community flood resilience through the mobilization of CGI via international partnerships within the Global South.

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.

Learn from the past, prepare for the future

By Roman Hoffmann, Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital (IIASA, VID/ÖAW and WU), Vienna Institute of Demography, Austrian Academy of Sciences

Flooded street in Meycauayan, Bulacan, Philippines (credit: Kasagana-Ka Development Center Inc., 2016 )

Floods, droughts, and tropical storms have significantly increased, both in frequency and intensity in recent years. The burden of these events—both human and economic—falls in large part on low and middle-income countries with high exposure, such as coastal and island nations. In a recent study, with IIASA researcher Raya Muttarak, we found that education significantly contributes to increasing disaster resilience among poor households in the Philippines and Thailand, two countries which are frequently affected by natural calamities.

In these countries, public disaster risk reduction is important, yet public measures, such as investments in structural mitigation for large buildings or infrastructure, implementation of early warning systems, or planned evacuation routes and shelters, may not be enough to sufficiently protect communities from the devastating impacts of natural calamities. In addition, the undertaking of individual preparedness measures by households, such as stockpiling of food and water, strengthening of house structures, and having a family emergency plan, is crucial. Yet, even in areas which are heavily exposed to disasters, people often do not take any precautionary measures against environmental threats.

How people can be motivated to take precautionary action has been a fundamental question in the field of risk analysis. In the new study, which was based on face-to-face interviews in both Thailand and the Philippines, we found that prior disaster experience, which is influenced by geographical location of the home, is one of the key predictors of disaster preparedness. For those who were affected by a disaster in the recent past, education does not seem to play a significant role—they have already learned by experience.  However, among those who had not previously been affected, educational attainment becomes a key determinant. Even without having experienced a disaster, the educated are more likely to make preparations. In fact, educated people who haven’t experienced a disaster have preparedness levels that are as high as those of households who were only recently affected. Since education improves abstract reasoning and abstraction skills, highly educated individuals may not need to experience a disaster to understand that they can be devastating. This suggests that education, as a channel through which individuals can learn about disaster risks and preventive strategies, may effectively serve as a substitute for (often harmful) disaster experiences as a main trigger of preparedness actions.

In additional analyses, we investigated through which channels education promotes disaster preparedness by looking at the relationship between education and different mediating factors such as income, social capital and risk perception, which are likely to influence preparedness actions. We found that how education promotes disaster preparedness is highly context-specific. In Thailand, we found that the highly educated have higher perceptions of disaster risks that can occur in a community as well as higher social capital (measured by engagement in community activities) which in turn increase disaster resilience. In the Philippines, on the other hand, it appears that none of the studied mediating factors explain the effect of education on preparedness behavior.

Emergency shelter, San Mateo, Rizal, Philippines (credit: Kasagana-Ka Development Center Inc., 2013 )

Certainly, it remains important for national governments to invest in disaster risk reduction measures such as early warning systems or evacuation centers. However, our study suggests that public funding in universal education will also benefit precautionary behavior at the personal and household level. In line with recent efforts of the UN to promote education for sustainable development, our study provides solid empirical evidence confirming the important role of education in building disaster resilience in low and middle-income countries.

Reference
Hoffmann, R. & Muttarak, R (2017). Learn from the past, prepare for the future: Impacts of education and experience on disaster preparedness in the Philippines and Thailand. World Development  [doi:10.1016/j.worlddev.2017.02.016]

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.

From risk reduction infrastructure to integrated watershed governance in Peru

By Adam French – Peter E. de Jánosi Postdoctoral Scholar Risk and Resilience and Advanced Systems Analysis Programs

In mid-January, I found myself calling upon rusty rock climbing skills to scramble up a steep side canyon of Peru’s Rimac River valley. I was with a group of engineers and local municipal officials on the way to assess disaster reduction infrastructure that had been installed in early 2016 against the threat of a strong El Niño-enhanced rainy season. The Swiss-made barriers we were going to see, which resembled giant steel spider webs stretched across the streambeds, had been constructed in multiple locations in the Rimac watershed to reduce the destructive impacts of the region’s recurrent but unpredictable huaicos—powerful debris flows that form when precipitation runoff mixes with loose rock and other material on unstable slopes. The 2015-16 El Niño did not live up to its forecasted intensity in Peru, and the barriers went untested until heavy rains in early 2017 unleashed a series of huaicos on the Rimac valley, damaging homes and flooding roadways. Where the barriers were installed, however, no major impacts had been reported, and we were eager to see if the infrastructure had made a difference.

Engineers discuss hazard reduction infrastructure above Chosica, Peru. ©Soluciones Prácticas, Abel Cisneros (Click for more photos)

Most of the time, the Rimac valley looks more like a lunar landscape than a flood-risk hotspot. Yet with only a few millimeters of rain in the surrounding highlands, this arid region becomes extremely vulnerable to huaicos. Located between the sprawling cityscape of Lima—the planet’s second largest desert city—and the lush foothills of the central Andes, the middle reaches of the Rimac watershed have been settled rapidly over recent decades, often without effective zoning regulations to restrict occupation in even the most hazard-prone areas.

I had not planned to work in the Rimac basin when I moved to Austria to take up a postdoctoral position in late 2015. While my research includes the study of climate change-related risk in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca (the world’s most extensively glaciated tropical mountain range), I came to IIASA to focus on watershed-level governance and the implementation of the Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) paradigm. Yet as a Spanish speaker with extensive experience in Peru, I was well suited to get involved in IIASA’s activities in the Rimac valley as part of the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance Project. This project, which includes close collaboration with the NGO Practical Action in Peru and Nepal, supports measures to understand and address the underlying drivers of flood risk and to move beyond short-term disaster preparedness and response towards transformative actions that build long-term capacity and resilience.

As part of IIASA’s Flood Resilience team, my work in the Rimac valley has included activities ranging from evaluating El Niño preparations to conducting interviews with public authorities and local residents living in the Rimac basin. This fieldwork is just part of our project’s efforts to identify the systemic components of flood risk and vulnerability in the region and to promote productive exchanges between residents, policymakers, and the scientific community through participatory research and innovative approaches such as serious gaming.

“Flood Risk Zone,” Ate, Peru. ©Soluciones Prácticas. Click for more photos.

 

In addition to building expertise in a new setting, my involvement in this work has helped me better incorporate risk-focused systems thinking into my broader research agenda—a perspective that is too often overlooked in integrated resource planning. An example of how my research interests are converging within this project is through the promotion of a risk-management working group to advise the multi-sectorial watershed council in charge of IWRM planning in the Rimac valley. The establishment of this working group and the participation of project partners at Practical Action in its activities should mark an important step in bringing lessons from the Flood Resilience project regarding links between disaster risk reduction, economic development, and community resilience to bear on watershed planning in the Rimac basin. More broadly, we hope these insights will influence policy making in other settings in Peru and beyond that face similar challenges in handling risk management and economic development as intricately linked and co-dependent governance processes.

Returning to our January field inspection, we found that one of the new barriers had been put to the test. The structure had captured several tons of debris, protecting a neighborhood that had been devastated by a huaico in 2015, and local authorities were already discussing the potential to build additional barriers to guard their community. While I celebrated this outcome with them, as I look to the future and the goals of the Flood Resilience Alliance, I am hopeful that such infrastructural interventions will be just one aspect of comprehensive plans for hazard reduction, with long-term risk management actions increasingly seen as a vital component of watershed-level planning and governance.

More information
IIASA, Zurich, Wharton, Practical Action: Flood Resilience Partnership
Flickr photo album: Rimac River valley, Peru – Fieldwork
Flood Resilience Portal

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.