Parched: The war for water in Mexico City

By Parul Tewari, IIASA Science Communication Fellow 2017

Mexico City has been experiencing a major water crisis in the last few decades and it is only getting worse. To keep the water flowing, the city imports large amounts of water from as far as 150 kilometers.

Not only is this energy-intensive and expensive, it creates conflict with the indigenous communities in the donor basins. Over the last decade, a growing number of these communities have been protesting to reclaim their rights to water resources.

The ancient city of Tenochtitlan as depicted in a mural by Diego Rivera
(cc) Wikimedia Commons

As part of the 2017 Young Scientists Summer Program at IIASA, Francine van den Brandeler studied the struggle that Mexico City is facing as it tries to provide water to its growing population and expanding economy. Local aquifers have been over-exploited, so water needs to be imported from distant sources, with high economic, social, and environmental impacts. Van den Brandeler’s study assesses the effectiveness of water use rights in promoting sustainable water use and reducing groundwater exploitation in the city.

“A few centuries back, Tenochtitlan, the place where Mexico City stands today, was known as the lake city,” says Van den Brandeler. The Aztecs had developed a sophisticated system of dikes and canals to manage water and mitigate floods. However, that changed quickly with the arrival of the Spaniards, who transformed the natural hydrology of the valley. As the population continued to grow over the next centuries, providing drinking water became an increasing challenge, along with controlling floods. As the lake dried up, people pumped water from the ground and built increasingly large infrastructure to bring water from other areas.

Communities from lower-income groups, living in informal settlements on the outskirts of the metropolitan region are more vulnerable to this scarcity. Many live on just few liters of water every day, and do not have access to the main water supply network, instead relying on water trucks which charge several times the price of water from the public utility.

“In wealthier areas people consume much more than the average European does every day. It is a question of power and politics,” says van den Brandeler. “The voices of marginalized communities go unheard.”

Many people rely on delivery service for drinking water.
© Angela Ostafichuk | Shutterstock

The more one learns about the situation, the more complicated it becomes. The import of water started in the 1940’s. But with a massive increase in population in the last couple of decades, the deficits have become much worse.

The government’s approach has been to find more water rather than rehabilitating or reusing local surface and groundwater sources, or increasing water use efficiency, says van den Brandeler. Therefore wells are being drilled deeper and deeper—as much as 2000 meters into the ground—as the water runs out.

Some people have started initiatives to harvest rainwater, but it is not considered a viable solution by those in charge. “A lot of it has to do with their worldview and general paradigm. The people working at the National Water Commission and the Water Utility of Mexico City have been trained as engineers to make large dams and put pipes in the ground. They don’t believe in small-scale solutions. In their opinion when millions of people are concerned, such solutions cannot work,” says van den Brandeler.
Although the city gets plenty of rain during the rainy season, it goes directly into the drainage system which is linked to the sewage system. This contaminates the water, making it unusable. At the same time, almost 40% of the water in Mexico City’s piped networks is lost due to leakages.

Policy procedures and institutional functioning also remain top-down and opaque, van den Brandeler has found. One of the policy tools for curbing excess water use are water permits for bulk use, for agriculture, industry, or public utilities supplying water. Introduced in the 1940s, lack of proper enforcement has created misuse and conflicts.
For example, while farmers also require a permit that specifies the volume of water they may use each year, they do not pay for their water usage. However, it is difficult to monitor if farmers are extracting water according to the conditions in the permit. Since they do not pay a usage fee, there is also less incentive for the National Water Commission to monitor them. As a result, a huge black market has cropped up in the city where property owners and commercial developers pay exorbitant prices to buy water permits from those who have a license. Since the government allows the exchange of permits between two willing parties, they make it appear above-board. However, it has contributed to the inequalities in water distribution in the city.

With the water crisis worsening every year, Mexico City needs to find a solution before it runs out of water completely. Van den Brandeler is hopeful for a better future as she studies the contributing factors to the problem. She hopes that the water use permits are better enforced and users are given stronger incentives to respect their allocated water quotas. Further, if greater efforts are made within the metropolis to repair decaying infrastructure and scale up alternatives such as rainwater harvesting and wastewater reuse, the city won’t have to look at expensive solutions if adopted in a decentralized manner.

About the Researcher

Francine van den Brandeler is a third year PhD student at the University of Amsterdam in Netherlands. Her research is on the spatial mismatches between integrated river basin management and metropolitan water governance – the incompatibility of institutions and biophysical systems-, which can lead to fragmented water policy outcomes. Fragmented decision-making cannot adequately address the issues of sustainability and social inclusion faced by megacities in the Global South. She aims to assess the effectiveness of policy instruments to overcome this mismatch and suggest recommendations for policy (re)design. At IIASA she was part of the Water Program and worked under the supervision of Sylvia Tramberend and Water Program Director Simon Langan.

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.

Myths are not true… or are they?

By Gerid Hager, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program

©Gerid Hager | IIASA

In July, Miranda Lakerveld, a music drama artist and founder of the World Opera Lab, visited IIASA to run two storytelling workshops with young actors in civil society and youth policy, as well as with YSSP students and IIASA staff. Miranda first came to IIASA in September 2016 as part of the Citizen Artist Incubator.

After the workshops in July, Miranda and I sat down for a chat.

Gerid: Miranda, in the workshop you shared how you approach storytelling in your artistic practice. You said: “I’m looking for moments that feel true, I pick them up and weave them together into new stories.” Then, a participant exclaimed: “Stories are not true!” It seems a contradiction, but possibly this is the very nature of stories. They might not be true, giving accurate accounts of past events, but they carry truths in them, which we so often can’t capture otherwise. You’ve been working with myths for a long time: What value do you see in them today, as we’re trying to navigate between “alternative facts” and often incomprehensible scientific writing?

Miranda: Yes, this was a short reflection on the methodology I have developed and applied in many different contexts over the last eight years. It uses comparative mythology as a starting point. The aim of the method is to create a meaningful creative exchange that can involve people from all walks of life. Myths are examined from the perspectives of different cultures, and through this intercultural lens, we find symbols and archetypes that resonate as ‘true across cultures.

The ‘post-truth’ era made us extra aware of the divides between communities and I believe such an embodied practice of mythology can be an inspiring place for people to meet. I think the renunciation of facts and scientific insight is a symptom of people feeling left out and angry. Using myths and stories can be one way to bring people together and find common truths.

This workshop was part of the Systems Thinking for Transformation project and we wanted to search for “systems stories” in ancient narratives. We arrived at a very personal story of endurance and adaptation, pondered the power of great nature and cyclical behavior on a very large scale, and discussed economic justice and its relation to sustainable development. How does one story from Greek mythology – the Hymn to Demeter – lead to such diverse considerations?

The development of myths and folk stories has very specific characteristics, which I like to compare to ecosystems. Symbols and characters create organisms in constant interaction with their environments. Through time, myths change, in fertile circumstances the stories flourish, and layers of meaning are added.

Participants relate the Greek myth to myths from their own cultural backgrounds, and then to their personal histories. Interestingly, in the encounter between the myth and a group, some deeply felt preoccupations spring up from under the surface. I am still not sure how this happens. It probably has to do with a combination of embodiment of the characters, the richness of the archetypes, and the mise en scène, which represents the people inside the larger system.

Majnun & Leyla- World Opera Lab 2016- photo by Fouad Lakbir

One integral part of systems thinking is to be able to consider and explore multiple perspectives on a problem or situation. How does the embodiment exercise come in to this?

Slipping into different characters from the story is an essential part of the process. It unlocks the creative imagination and is related to action in society. The Greek root-word for drama is “dran”, which means “to act”. Through embodiment we can take the position of another character or force in the system. The performing arts make this possible: we can take on different roles, understand new parts, and at the same time experience the whole system from a new perspective.

There are other examples of how art and science meet through storytelling. A researcher at Berkeley University teamed up with story artists from PIXAR to help researchers create better stories about their research. What interests you in working with scientists and what is the role of storytelling?

I think the collaboration between art and science could go far beyond creating stories about research. We see very different approaches of creating and transmitting knowledge. So we have to deal with this tension but an inclusive society also means we should value these differences. The academic world has created an intricate system of validating knowledge leading to very specialized fields of research. Artists work on larger ideas, but the output cannot necessarily be validated. We are trying to grasp truths about the same river, but we work from opposite river banks. I think we can build bridges and increase our ability for insight and action by telling stories together.

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.

Bringing satellite data down to Earth

By Linda See, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program

Satellites have changed the way that we see the world. For more than 40 years, we have had regular images of the Earth’s surface, which have allowed us to monitor deforestation, visualize dramatic changes in urbanization, and comprehensively map the Earth’s surface. Without satellites, our understanding of the impacts that humans are having on the terrestrial ecosystem would be much diminished.

The Sentinel-2 satellite provides high-resolution land-cover data. © ESA/ATG medialab

Over the past decade, many more satellites have been launched, with improvements in how much detail we can see and the frequency at which locations are revisited. This means that we can monitor changes in the landscape more effectively, particularly in areas where optical imagery is used and cloud cover is frequent. Yet perhaps even more important than these technological innovations, one of the most pivotal changes in satellite remote sensing was when NASA opened up free access to Landsat imagery in 2008. As a result, there has been a rapid uptake in the use of the data, and researchers and organizations have produced many new global products based on these data, such as Matt Hansen’s forest cover maps, JRC’s water and global human settlement layers, and global land cover maps (FROM-GLC and GlobeLand30) produced by different groups in China.

Complementing Landsat, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Sentinel-2 satellites provide even higher spatial and temporal resolution, and once fully operational, coverage of the Earth will be provided every five days. Like NASA, ESA has also made the data freely available. However, the volume of data is much higher, on the order of 1.6 terabytes per day. These data volumes, as well as the need to pre-process the imagery, can pose real problems to new users. Pre-processing can also lead to incredible duplication of effort if done independently by many different organizations around the world. For example, I attended a recent World Cover conference hosted by ESA, and there were many impressive presentations of new applications and products that use these openly available data streams. But most had one thing in common: they all downloaded and processed the imagery before it was used. For large map producers, control over the pre-processing of the imagery might be desirable, but this is a daunting task for novice users wanting to really exploit the data.

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In order to remove these barriers, we need new ways of providing access to the data that don’t involve downloading and pre-processing every new data point. In some respects this could be similar to the way in which Google and Bing provide access to very high-resolution satellite imagery in a seamless way. But it’s not just about visualization, or Google and Bing would be sufficient for most user needs. Instead it’s about being able to use the underlying spectral information to create derived products on the fly. The Google Earth Engine might provide some of these capabilities, but the learning curve is pretty steep and some programming knowledge is required.

Instead, what we need is an even simpler system like that produced by Sinergise in Slovenia. In collaboration with Amazon Web Services, the Sentinel Hub provides access to all Sentinel-2 data in one place, with many different ways to view the imagery, including derived products such as vegetation status or on-the-fly creation of user-defined indices. Such a system opens up new possibilities for environmental monitoring without the need to have either remote sensing expertise, programming ability, or in-house processing power. An exemplary web application using Sentinel Hub services, the Sentinel Playground, allows users to browse the full global multi-spectral Sentinel-2 archive in matter of seconds.

This is why we have chosen Sentinel Hub to provide data for our LandSense Citizen Observatory, an initiative to harness remote sensing data for land cover monitoring by citizens. We will access a range of services from vegetation monitoring through to land cover change detection and place the power of remote sensing within the grasp of the crowd.

Without these types of innovations, exploitation of the huge volumes of satellite data from Sentinel-2, and other newly emerging sources of satellite data, will remain within the domain of a small group of experts, creating a barrier that restricts many potential applications of the data. Instead we must encourage developments like Sentinel Hub to ensure that satellite remote sensing becomes truly usable by the masses in ways that benefits everyone.

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.

Artist seeks scientist(s) for long-term relationship

By Chantal Bilodeau, playwright

This could have been the title of my application to the first Citizen Artist Incubator (CAI) hosted at IIASA September 4-30, 2016. I am a Canadian playwright and research artist based outside of New York City, whose work deeply engages with climate change. For me, IIASA was the ultimate dating pool.

Playrwright Chantal Bilodeau is working on a series of plays about the impact of climate change on the eight countries of the Arctic

Playrwright Chantal Bilodeau is working on a series of plays about the impact of climate change on the eight countries of the Arctic. Photo courtesy Chantal Bilodeau

My belief in art/science romance was further reinforced when IIASA Director General and CEO Professor Dr. Pavel Kabat told us – thirteen artists from Europe, the Middle-East, Africa and America ­– during one of our sessions, “You have a big responsibility, my friends.” He was referring to the need for artists to engage with pressing global issues, and help change negative narratives into positive narratives of opportunity and social innovation. Big responsibility, indeed. And all the more reason for artists and scientists to become bedfellows.

I came to IIASA to do research for a play about human and animal migration, set in Alaska. The play is part of a long-term project titled The Arctic Cycle. A series of eight plays that look at the social and environmental changes taking place in the eight countries of the Arctic, The Arctic Cycle seeks to 1) bring attention to the changes happening in the Arctic and the impact those changes are having on local communities; 2) encourage international and multidisciplinary collaboration across Arctic countries, and; 3) translate scientific data into personal stories.

Sila was the first of the eight plays in the Arctic Cycle. it focuses on Canada. A.R. Sinclair Photography

Sila was the first of the eight plays in the Arctic Cycle. it focuses on Canada. Credit: A.R. Sinclair Photography

I wanted to talk to scientists to get information for my play, but also to explore what might be possible. How can we join forces? How can my talent and skills and sphere of influence be combined with yours to create greater impact? I reached out to people in the Arctic Futures Initiative, the World Population program, and the Evolution and Ecology program. In addition to pointed questions about migration I asked questions like: “If there was one thing you would like people to understand about your field that I could communicate through my work, what would it be?” “Are there situations where having an artist’s perspective in addition to a scientist’s perspective would be useful?”

Everyone was extremely generous with their time and graciously answered my questions. I was pleased to find out there is genuine interest in investigating where art and science might intersect. The most obvious intersection, of course, is in “translating” scientific information into works of art that are then presented in traditional venues. But what about other intersections? Could artists facilitate conversations between scientists and stakeholders? Could a play (as I experienced once before) set the tone for an entire conference? What would be the value of having an artist embedded into a scientific program? Or a field trip?

Thanks to Gloria Benedikt, Merlijn Twaalfhoven, and their partners who invited me to participate in CAI, I came away from IIASA with concrete and up-to-date information for my play, and ideas for activities and programs that could bring art and science closer together around issues of climate change. I also left with a few email addresses and phone numbers. I am hoping this may be the beginning of a courtship that will lead to long and meaningful relationships.

Participants in the Citizen Artist Incubator 2016 ©Patrick Zadrobilek

Participants in the Citizen Artist Incubator 2016 ©Patrick Zadrobilek

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.

Should food security be a priority for the EU?

By David Leclère, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program

August was the warmest ever recorded globally, as was every single month since October 2015. It will not take long for these records to become the norm, and this will tremendously challenge food provision for everyone on the planet. Each additional Celsius degree in global mean temperature will reduce wheat yield by about 5%. While we struggle to take action for limiting global warming by the end of the century to 2°C above preindustrial levels, business as usual scenarios come closer to +5 °C.

However, we lack good and actionable knowledge on this perfect storm in the making. Despite the heat, world wheat production should hit a new record high in 2016, but EU production is expected to be 10% lower than last year. In France, this drop should be around 25-30% and one has to go back to 1983 to find yields equally low. Explanations indeed now point to weather as a large contributor. But underlying mechanisms were  poorly anticipated by forecasts and are poorly addressed in climate change impacts research.

©Paul Townsend via Flickr

©Paul Townsend via Flickr

Second, many blind spots remain. For example, livestock has a tremendous share in the carbon footprint of agriculture, but also a high nutritional and cultural value. Yet, livestock were not even mentioned once in the summary for policymakers of the last IPCC report dedicated to impacts and adaptation. Heat stress reduces animal production, and increases greenhouse gas emissions per unit of product. In addition, a lower share of animal products in our diet could dramatically reduce pollution and food insecurity. However, we don’t understand well consumers’ preferences in that respect, and how they can be translated in actionable policies.

How can we generate adequate knowledge in time while climate is changing? To be able to forecast yields and prevent dramatic price swings like the 2008 food crisis? To avoid bad surprises due to large missing knowledge, like the livestock question?

In short: it will take far more research to answer these questions—and that means a major increase in funding.

I recently presented two studies by our team at a scientific conference in Germany, which was organized by a European network of agricultural research scientists (MACSUR). One was a literature review on how to estimate the consequences of heat stress on livestock at a global scale. The other one presented scenarios on future food security in Europe, generated in a way that delivers useful knowledge for stakeholders. The MACSUR network was funded as a knowledge hub to foster interactions between research institutes of European countries. In many countries, the funding covered travels and workshops, not new research. Of course, nowadays researchers have to compete for funding to do actual research.

So let’s play the game. The MACSUR network is now aiming at a ‘Future and Emerging Technologies Flagship’, the biggest type of EU funding: 1 billion Euros over 10 years for hundreds of researchers. Recent examples include the Human Brain Project, the Graphene Flagship, and the Quantum Technology Flagship. We are trying to get one on modeling food security under climate change.

© Sacha Drouart

© Sacha Drouart

Such a project could leapfrog our ability to deal with climate change, a major societal challenge Europe is confronted with (one of the two requirements for FET Flagship funding).  The other requirement gave us a hard time at first sight: generating technological innovation, growth and jobs in Europe -but one just needs the right lens. First, agriculture already sustains about 44 million jobs in the EU and this will increase if we are serious about reducing the carbon content of our economy. Second, data now flows at an unprecedented speed (aka, big data). Think about the amount of data acquired with Pokemon Go, and imagine we would harness such concept for science through crowdsourcing and citizen-based science. With such data, agricultural forecasts would perform much better. Similarly, light drones and connected devices will likely open a new era for farm management. Third, we need models that translate big data into knowledge, and not only for the agricultural sector. Similarly, models can also be powerful tools to confront views and could trigger large social innovation.

To get this funding, we need support from a lot of people. The Graphene project claimed support from than 3500 actors, from citizens to industrial players in Europe. We have until end of November to reach 3500 votes, at least. If you think EU should give food security under climate change the same importance as improving the understanding of the human brain, or developing quantum computers, we need you. This will simply never happen without you! Please help us out with two simple actions:

  • Go the proposal, and vote for/comment it (see instructions, please highlight the potential for concrete innovations)!
  • Spread the word – share this post with your friends, your family, and your colleagues!

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.