Mapping flood resilience in rural Nepal

By Wei Liu, IIASA Risk and Resilience and Ecosystems Services and Management programs

Disasters caused by extreme weather events are on the rise. Floods in particular are increasing in frequency and severity, with reoccurring events trapping people in a vicious cycle of poverty. Information is key for communities to prepare for and respond to floods – to inform risk reduction strategies, improve land use planning, and prepare for when disaster strikes.

But, across much of the developing world, data is sparse at best for understanding the dynamics of flood risk. When and if disaster strikes, massive efforts are required in the response phase to develop or update information. After that, communities have an even greater need for data to help with recovery and reconstruction and further enhance communities’ resilience to future floods. This is particularly important for the Global South, such as the Karnali Basin in Nepal, where little information is available regarding community’s exposure and vulnerability to floods.

Karnali Basin in Nepal © Wei Liu | IIASA

Karnali Basin in Nepal © Wei Liu | IIASA

That’s why we are working with Practical Action in the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance to try to remedy this situation. Participatory Vulnerability and Capacity Assessment is a widely used tool to collect community level disaster risk and resilience information and to inform disaster risk reduction strategies. One of our first projects was to digitize a set of existing maps on disaster risk and community resources where the locations of, for example, rivers, houses, infrastructure and emergency shelters are usually hand-drawn by selected community members. Such maps provide critical information used by local stakeholders in designing and prioritizing among possible flood risk management options.

From hand-drawn to internet mapping
While hand-drawn maps are ideal for working in remote rural communities, they risk being damaged, lost, or simply unused. They are also more difficult to share with other stakeholders such as emergency services or merge with additional mapped information such as flood hazard. With the recent increase in internet mapping, platforms such as OpenStreetMap have made it possible for us to transfer existing maps or capture new information on a common platform in such a way that anyone with an internet connection can add, edit, and share maps. As this information is digital, it makes it easier to perform additional tasks, such as identifying households in areas of high risk or measuring the distance to the nearest emergency shelter, to support effective risk-reduction and resilience-building.

Practical Action Nepal, the Center for Social Development and Research and community members discuss the transfer of community maps to online maps © Wei Liu | IIASA

Practical Action Nepal, the Center for Social Development and Research, and community members discuss the transfer of community maps to online maps © Wei Liu | IIASA

From theory to practice
In March 2016, the Project team travelled to two Nepal communities in the Rajapur and Tikapur districts, to pilot the idea of working with a local NGO (the Center for Social Development and Research) and community members, to transfer their maps into a digital environment. The latter can easily be further edited, improved and shared within a broad range of stakeholders and potential users. Local residents in both communities were excited seeing their households and other features for the first time overlaid on a map with satellite imagery. The Center for Social Development and Research was also very enthusiastic about integrating their future community mapping activities with digital mapping, without losing the spirit of participation.

Hand drawn maps produced from community mapping exercises in Chakkhapur, Nepal © Practical Action

Hand drawn maps produced from community mapping exercises in Chakkhapur, Nepal © Practical Action


The resulting online maps in OpenStreetMap of Chakkhapur, Nepal, showing the location of drinking water, an emergency shelter and medical clinic. ©OpenStreetMap

The resulting online maps in OpenStreetMap of Chakkhapur, Nepal, showing the location of drinking water, an emergency shelter and medical clinic. ©OpenStreetMap

Increasing resilience through improved information management
The first stage pilot study in the Karnali river basin confirmed the great potential of new digital technologies in providing accurate and locally relevant maps to improve flood risk assessment to support resilience building at the community level. The next step is to further engage local stakeholders.  A wider partnership has been established between Practical Action, the Center for Social Development and Research, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and Kathmandu Living Labs to further build local stakeholders’ capacity in mapping with digital technologies, including a training workshop for NGO staff members in September, 2016.  The plan is to have more communities’ flood risk information mapped for designing more effective action plans and strategies for coping with future flood events across the Karnali river basin. A greater potential can be realized when this effort is further scaled up across the region and the results are placed into shared open online databases such as OpenStreetMap.

Further information

  • Flood Resilience Portal
  • Geo-Wiki Risk 
  • McCallum, I., Liu, W., See, L., Mechler, R., Keating, A., Hochrainer-Stigler, S., Mochizuki, J., Fritz, S., Dugar, S., Arestegui, M., Szoenyi, M., Laso Bayas, J.C., Burek, P., French, A. and Moorthy, I. (2016) Technologies to Support Community Flood Disaster Risk Reduction. International Journal of Disaster Risk Science, 7 (2). pp. 198-204.

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.

Boosting resilience for African cities

Chibulu Luo, PhD Student in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Toronto, and a 2016 participant in the IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program

We cannot think about sustainable development without having a clear agenda for cities. So, for the first time, the world has agreed – under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the New Urban Agenda  – to promote more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive cities. Achieving this ambitious target is highly relevant in the context of African cities, where most future urban growth will occur. But it is also a major challenge.

Of the projected 2.4 billion people expected to be added to the global urban population between now and 2050, over half (1.3 billion) will be in Africa. The continent’s urban communities will experience dramatic shifts in living and place significant pressure on built infrastructure and supporting ecosystem services. As many cities are yet to be fully developed, newly built infrastructure (estimated to cost an additional US$30 to $100 billion per year) will impact their urban form (i.e. the configuration of buildings and open spaces) and future land use.

In order to realize the SDGs, African cities, in particular, need an ecosystem-based spatial approach to urban planning that recognizes the role of nature and communities in enabling a more resilient urban form. In this regard, more comprehensive understanding of the dynamics between urban form and the social and ecological aspects of cities is critical.

Unfortunately, research to investigate these relationships in the context of African cities has been limited. That’s why, as a Young Scientist at IIASA, I sought to address these research priorities, by asking the following questions: What is the relationship between urban form and the social and ecological aspects of African cities? How has form been changing over time and what are the exhibiting emergent properties? And what factors are hindering a transition towards a more resilient urban form?

Fundamentally, my research approach applies a social-ecological system (SES) lens to investigate these dynamics, where resilience is defined as the capacity of urban form to cope under conditions of change and uncertainty, to be able to recover from shocks and stresses, and to retain basic function. At the same time, resilience is characterized by the interplay between the physical, social, and ecological performance of cities.

Resilient urban forms are spatially designed to support social and ecological diversity, such as preserving and managing urban greenery Photo Credit: Image of Lusaka, Zambia, posted on #BeautifulLusaka Facebook Page

Resilient urban forms are spatially designed to support social and ecological diversity, such as preserving and managing urban greenery
Photo Credit: Image of Lusaka, Zambia, posted on #BeautifulLusaka Facebook Page

Currently, Africa’s urbanization is largely unplanned. Urban expansion has led to the destruction of natural resources and increased levels of pollution and related diseases.  These challenges are further compounded by inadequate master plans – which often date back to the colonial era in many countries – and capacity to ensure equitable access to basic services, particularly for the poorest dwellers. Consequently, over 70% of people in urban areas live in informal settlements or slums.

My summer research focused on the specific case of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Lusaka, Zambia – two cities with very different forms, and social and ecological settings. I used the SES approach to develop a more holistic understanding of the local dynamics in these cities and emerging patterns of growth. My findings show that urbanization has resulted in high rates of sprawl and slum growth, as well as reductions in green space and increasing built-up area. This has ultimately increased vulnerabilities to climate-related impacts such as flooding.

Densely built slum in Dar es Salaam due to unplanned urban development Photo Credit:

Densely built slum in Dar es Salaam due to unplanned urban development
Photo Credit:

Using satellite images in Google Earth Engine, I also mapped land cover and urban forms in both cities in 2005 and 2015 respectively, and quantitatively assessed changes during the 10-year period. Major changes such as the rapid densification of slum areas are considered to be emergent properties of the complex dynamics ascribed by the SES framework.  Also, urban communities are playing a significant role in shaping the form of cities in an informal manner, and are not often engaged in the planning process.

Approaches to address these challenges have been varied. On the one hand, initiatives such as the Future Resilience for African Cities and Lands (FRACTAL) project in Lusaka are working to address urban climate vulnerabilities and risks in cities, and integrate this scientific knowledge into decision-making processes.  One the other hand, international property developers and firms are offering “new visions for African cities” based on common ideas of “smart” or “eco“ cities. However, these visions are often incongruous with local contexts, and grounded on limited understanding of the underlying local dynamics shaping cities.

My research offers starting point to frame the understanding of these complex dynamics, and ultimately support more realistic approaches to urban planning and governance on the continent.


Cobbinah, P. B., & Darkwah, R. M. (2016). African Urbanism: the Geography of Urban Greenery. Urban Forum.

IPCC (b). (2014). Working Group II, Chapter 22: Africa. IPCC.

LSE Cities. (2013). Evolving Cities: Exploring the relations between urban form resilience and the governance of urban form. London School of Economics and Political Science.

OECD. (2016). African Economic Outlook 2016 Sustainable Cities and Structural Transformation. OECD.

The Global Urbanist. (2013, November 26). Who will plan Africa’s cities? Changing the way urban planning is taught in African universities.

UNDESA. (2015). Global Urbanization Prospects (Key Findings).

Watson, V. (2013). African urban fantasies: dreams or nightmares. Environment & Urbanization.

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.


Playing at flood resilience: Using games to help vulnerable communities

By Adriana Keating, research scholar in the IIASA Risk and Resilience Program.

People have been playing games for fun for many thousands of years. But recently some have been designed not to escape from reality, but to improve it. As the world is becoming more and more complex, and the future more and more uncertain, serious games can be used as innovative tools for learning, decision making, improving effective collaboration and developing strategies for success. With games, we can communicate complex realities and learn from our mistakes without costs.

Systems thinking is required to tackle the challenge of managing both flood risk and development: to live in harmony with floods. Games provide the perfect avenue for exploring these challenges. Games that engage participants have been shown to be very successful and powerful dissemination instruments—with broader outreach than traditional reports. In a team made up of myself, Piotr Magnuszewski from the Water Program, Adam French from the Advanced Systems Analysis and Risk and Resilience Programs, and collaborators from the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance, we have been developing a game that can help build flood resilience in developing countries.


© Adriana Keating

The game provoking discussion at a workshop in Jakarta. © Adriana Keating

Because games are experienced as something that feels real, more information is retained, learning is faster, and an intuition is gained about how to make real decisions. Critically, the IIASA Flood Resilience Game is designed to help participants— such as NGO staff working on flood-focused programs—to identify novel policies and strategies which improve flood resilience. In its current form it is a board-game played by at least eight players, who each take on a role as a member of a flood prone community. The direct interactions between players create a rich experience that can be discussed, analysed, and lead to concrete conclusions and actions. This allows players to explore vulnerabilities and capacities—citizens, local authorities and NGOs together—leading to an advanced understanding of interdependencies and the potential for working together.

The game draws on IIASA research on the deep-seated challenges in the typical approach to flood risk management. It allows players to experience, explore, and learn about the flood risk and resilience of communities in river valleys. It lets them experience the effects on resilience of investments in different types of “capital”—such as financial, human, social, physical, and natural. The impacts of flood damage on housing and infrastructure are also an important part of the game, as well as indirect effects on livelihoods, markets, and quality of life.

Adam French

Players in Peru. © Adam French.

Playing the game can also improve understanding of the influence of preparedness, response, reconstruction on flood resilience. Importantly, it demonstrates the benefits of investment in risk reduction before the flood strikes, such as via land use planning and flood proofing homes. The effects of institutional arrangements, such as communication between citizens and with government, also become clearer during the course of the game.

Finally, participants can explore the complex outcomes on the economy, society and the environment from long-term development pathways. This highlights the types of decisions needed to avoid creating more flood risk in the future, incentivizing action before a flood through enhancing participatory decision-making. All these complex ideas are experienced with simple, concrete game elements that participants can connect with their daily realities.

From a researcher’s perspective, observing game play deepens our understanding of stakeholder motivations in relation to flood resilience. The game also contributes to better understanding and use of IIASA research via the Zurich flood resilience measurement tool, a ground-breaking approach to resilience measurement.

After several field tests in Jakarta and Lima with staff from the NGOs Practical Action, Red Cross Indonesia, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Mercy Corp, Plan and Concern Worldwide, the game is now being refined. The next version will be released soon, and the possibility of a mobile application to allow players to handle more complex dynamics while interacting in the workshop is being explored.

The game was developed in collaboration with the Centre for Systems Solutions, Poland, and with funding from the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance.

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.

The city resilient – some systems thinking

By Bruce Beck, Imperial College London and Michael ThompsonIIASA Risk, Policy and Vulnerability (RPV) Program.

What do Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium in London, the now glorious heritage of Islington’s housing stock, and the cable-car system in Kathmandu for getting milk supplies to that city, all have in common?

An aerial view of the Emirates Stadium and surrounding area (credit: Peter McDermott/CC BY-SA 2.0)

They are (or were) all transformative in their own way. All are commendable outcomes from the process of city governance that we argue will be essential for Coping with Change, the subject of our working paper for the Foresight Future of Cities project. Each is a primary case study in the analysis of our paper. We call this kind of governance ‘clumsiness’. It is something that does not evoke any sense of the familiar attributes of suaveness, elegance, and consensuality implied and valued in most other kinds of governance. So what, then, makes this thing with such an awkward, provocative name so relevant to the future of cities?

Before and after: Islington’s clumsy and resilient resurgence.

Imagine the city being buffeted about by all manner of social, economic, and natural disturbances over time. There will be times for taking risks with the city’s affairs, and times for avoiding them, or managing them, even just absorbing them – 4 mutually exclusive ways of apprehending how the world works, as it were, and 4 accompanying styles of coping.

In the financial industry, this risk typology has been referred to as the 4 seasons of risk. These are strategically and qualitatively different macroscopic regimes of system behaviour; coping with change between one and another of them is every bit as strategically significant. Conventionally, we recognise only 2 of these regimes: those giving rise to boom and bust in the economy. They reflect just 2 of the 4 ways of understanding the world and acting within it. The nub of the distinctive advantage of clumsiness over other forms of governance for coping with change and transformation is the richness of its (fourfold) diversity of perspective, from which may derive resilience and adaptability in the city’s response to any disturbance – big or small, economic, social, or natural.

Clumsiness is most assuredly deeply participatory. Its process is assiduously supportive of robust, noisy, disputatious debate: witness the gyrations in the Arsenal, Islington, and (especially so) Kathmandu case studies. This is exactly as one should expect of any meaningful engagement among the city’s stakeholders: the public-sector agencies, community activists, private-sector businesses, and so on, all with their own vested interests. The 4 ways of seeing the world are mutually opposed; each is sustained in its opposition to the others, as will be the shaping of their aspirations for the future. Each needs the challenges from the others, not least to avoid the ‘group-think’ in governance that is of such considerable concern to government in managing financial risk.

At the peak of deliberative quality in governance, all 4 outlooks are granted access and responsiveness in the debate, in the process of clumsiness, in other words, in coming to a decision or policy — with ever higher social consent. And in the clumsiest of outcomes, each opposing group gets more of what it wants, and less of what it does not want, at least for a while, until everything about the city’s affairs is revisited once again, as the various seasons of risk come around, each holding sway in turn. As we say in our working paper, clumsiness is why village communities in the Himalayas and Swiss Alps have remained viable over the centuries, without destroying either themselves (‘man’) or their environments (‘nature’) – sustainability par excellence, in other words.

So now we must ask: can cities be viable and sustainable in the same way as these mountain villages? In particular, how can the city’s built environment – the infrastructure that mediates between nature and man, the natural and human environments – be made resilient and adaptable, especially in an ecological sense? Thus might we possess this much prized attribute of systems behaviour in each of the natural, built, and human environments, and in a mutually reinforcing manner. What role might clumsiness have in all of this?

In closing our working paper, where we “connect the systemic dots” of our entire argument, we touch upon a computational foresight study in seeking a smarter urban metabolism for London. The fourfold typology of clumsiness is employed to define future target aspirations for the city (quantitatively expressed, under gross uncertainty). These should be the distant outcomes of the fourfold narratives of how the world is believed to work and what it is that each attaching vested interest much wants – and decidedly does not want. An inverse sensitivity analysis (redolent of a computational backcasting) identifies what is key (and what redundant) to the ‘reachability’ (or not) of each of the 4 sets of aspirations for the distant future. Imagine then the urine-separating toilet (UST) as the clumsy solution to a smarter metabolism for London – a smarter way, that is, of the city’s processing of the resource flows of water, energy, carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus passing through its social-economic life. Rather more grandly put, imagine instead the UST as a “privileged, non-foreclosing policy-technology innovation” for today!

Well now … if clumsiness is such a jolly good thing, what else might it do for us and our cities? We submit it promises the prospect of greater resilience and adaptability in the governance of innovation ecosystems, extending thus the lines of evidence recounted for re-invigoration of the industrial economy of NE Ohio in Katz & Bradley’s recent (2013) book Metropolitan Revolution. ‘Resilience’ and ‘ecosystem’ are (for now) ubiquitous in our everyday language. But no-one, as far as we are aware, has thought of applying the immensely rich notion of ecological resilience to orchestrating the creative and clumsy affairs of an innovation ecosystem. We are currently examining this.

Read the full report

Featured image by Peter McDermott. Used under Creative Commons.

For further information on the Foresight Future of Cities project visit:

How can research help achieve resilience?

By Elisabeth Suwandschieff, Research Scholar, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program


Vienna, Austria

We live in a world that is fluid and diverse. Yet policymakers have to find solutions to problems that are definitive and effective, able to adapt to uncertain, changing, and challenging environments. How can research help policymakers to achieve such resilience?

At last week’s 4th Viennese Talks on Resilience and Networks, I listened to a number of talks on this topic from prominent figures in politics, military, research, and the private sector who came together to discuss future potential pathways for Austria. Speakers from politics emphasized the importance of social solutions such as greater investment in education. Meanwhile researchers from IIASA and other institutions brought perspective from systems analysis methods and explained how research on dynamic systems can inform policy making.

System dynamics view
From the research perspective, IIASA’s Brian Fath and others brought a systems analytical view of complex systems and their dynamics. They explained that complex systems such as organizations, businesses, and cities go through different stages in their “ecocycle.” Understanding the cycle and process is key to influencing its development.

FAS.research Director Harald Katzmair argued that life, as a complex system, can be seen as a process of growth, stagnation, destructurization and reorganization. In a recent research project, Katzmair found that the main factor in achieving resilience was the ability of the system to remain flexible through improvisation, collaboration, behavioral change and openness. If we apply this to our understanding of the world it becomes necessary to rethink our approach to leadership in every aspect.

“Our world is not a closed system; it does not consist of one choice, one idea, one currency,” said Katzmair.

Fath said that resilience is achieved by successfully managing each stage of the life cycle, explaining that even collapse can be seen as a key feature of system dynamics, because it results in developmental opportunities. Through disturbance and adaptive change in the landscape, new landscapes can be shaped.

Applying research to resilience
Many of the research talks were mathematical and complex. How can such research help in achieving resilience on a practical level? The issue for policymakers is that they have to provide definitive solutions when actually we live in a world that is fluid and diverse – therefore we need a diversified portfolio of problem solving. That is, solutions must be broad without losing focus. They must be effective, but remain flexible and open.

Research can bring different experiences together, provide a platform and a common language that can be shared. Systems thinking is a powerful way to condense the different ways of thinking and produce a portfolio of options rather than provide rigid solutions.

The adaptive cycle (Burkhard et al. 2011)

The adaptive cycle (Burkhard et al. 2011)

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.