Conversations in corridors: Attending the World Science Forum 2017

By Nemi Vora, participant of the IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) 2017 and PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Was it worth the flight?” asked my fellow alumna of the YSSP Karen Umansky, at the end of our first day of attending the World Science Forum in Jordan. The total journey from the USA to Jordan had taken 20 hours, layovers included. She was well aware of my travel anxiety, fear of immigration officials (an Indian passport doesn’t always make things easy), and fear of traveling alone on a militarized Dead Sea road at night (you can see the west bank on the other side). I had spammed her every day about it.

The IIASA delegation at the World Science Forum © IIASA

I didn’t have an answer; the panels I attended did not focus on anything new. We were all aware of issues: digitization without destruction, women in science, support for emerging scientists, meeting the sustainable development goals, and so on. However, every conference has a different key to unlock its potential and Jan Marco Müller, head of the IIASA directorate office and another recipient of my daily email spam, informed me that it was not the panels, but the corridor conversations that mattered here.

I soon found out that it was not just the corridors, but even the brief conversations in shuttles where the conference happened. I met a program manager for the US National Science Foundation who told me about research work on the food-energy-water nexus that they funded for the Nile, an area similar to my thesis. I met a regional director of UNESCO and a science minister from Colombia, who together set up new Africa-Latin America project partnerships during the shuttle ride.

One important part of each conversation was the significance of the place I was in, something I had previously missed completely. The ability of this small country, surrounded by conflict zones on each side, to arrange for such a large gathering of this kind, bringing together opponents and allies alike, and to take a stand for enabling peace through science, was remarkable.

True, the issues were not new, but the context was much more specific to the needs of a conflict-ridden world. For instance, discussing how to provide access to digital resources such as open data for policymaking or scientific journals for all the countries, promoting the achievements of Arab women scientists and those of the other developing regions amidst cultural and economic hardships, and fostering innovation in emerging scholars in the developing world where lack of resources was part of academic life.

Jordan also showcased the recently established SESAME facility: the Middle East’s first international science research center, a joint venture of a group of middle eastern countries, otherwise engaged in political conflicts. IIASA was representing a unique position here: originally founded as the bridge between East-West scientific collaboration during the Cold War, it served as an example, along with the fledgling SESAME, that geo-political boundaries did not hinder science and that such projects could be successful. Despite political tensions in individual countries, and having a passport that would not allow you to visit your colleague’s country, you could still work side-by side—a feat that SESAME scientists achieve every day.

As YSSPers, our goal was to talk about the benefits of global mentorship and how that could be leveraged to address the uneven distribution of resources. All of us came from different backgrounds: there was An Ha Truong from Vietnam, an energy economist studying optimization of biomass for coal power plants, there was Karen, the social scientist from Israel, studying emerging neo-Nazism in Europe, and then there was me—representing the USA and India as an environmental engineer.

Our co-panelists from the Berkeley Global Science Institute, also of diverse backgrounds, were engaged in setting up labs across the world, providing resources and mentorship to graduate students. While we had a lively session discussing our personal experiences, it wasn’t what we had to say but the session questions that struck a chord with us. The presence of conflicts add another layer of complexity to the already murky path of academia: how do you keep young scholars motivated to stay in the lab and work in a country threatened by war? How do you compete in cutting-edge science research when resources are scarce? How do you engage in public-private partnerships when your work may be more theoretical than applied?

The YSSPers taking part in a panel © IIASA

We need to collaborate more, provide access to the data and codes we use to carry out reproducible research, attempt to publish in open access platforms whenever feasible, and support our fellow scientists irrespective of their location or positions. This way, we would inch closer to solving some of these issues. Six months ago at IIASA, the HRH Sumaya bint El Hassan, co-chair of the World Science Forum, had asked me, “How do you eat an elephant?” Being a vegetarian, I couldn’t imagine ever eating one and I very naively told her so. On my way back from Jordan, with another long journey ahead of me, I realized the significance of her words: you eat it little by little.

Follow Nemi on twitter: @NemiVora

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.

 

Where are they now?

Lauren Hale, now professor of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine talks about her time at the IIASA Young Scientist Summer Program in 1996, and her new role as part of the IIASA US National Member Organization.

©Lauren Hale

As a professor at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, I study how sleep is a mechanism through which policy and social factors can affect mental and physical health. I find that differences in sleep patterns across the population are contributing to disparities in health and wellbeing.  My current study of nearly 1000 teens from across the USA seeks to understand the contributing factors (including school start times and screen-based media) of insufficient sleep and health concerns among the young. In addition, I serve on the board of directors of the National Sleep Foundation, and I’m the founding editor-in-chief of the academic journal, Sleep Health, which, ironically, has cut into my own sleep health.

Out of the thousands of colleges and universities in the USA where I could have ended up, it is a fortuitous coincidence that, just across the road, my initial IIASA mentor Warren Sanderson teaches in the Economics Department also at Stony Brook University.  He still visits IIASA for three months every summer and continues to play a supportive role in my professional life.

I might never have pursued postgraduate work had it not been for my early experiences at IIASA. I had the unique opportunity to join IIASA for the Young Scientists Summer Program while still an undergraduate (long story). It was an incredible opportunity, as a college junior, to find myself within a week of my arrival in the summer of 1996, seated around a table with the world’s top demographers at an international workshop on world population projections. I credit Wolfgang Lutz for being so inclusive with the YSSPers. I found everything about systems dynamics and population modeling novel and exciting. For my summer project, I modeled the dynamics of tourism and fish populations off the coast of the Yucatan. Thankfully, I had enormous guidance and support from my mentor Warren Sanderson, and co-YSSPer Patricia Kandelaars. Patricia and I were both Aurelio Peccei scholars and invited back for a second summer, during which we pretended we were still in the YSSP program, joining for many heurigen evenings and other memorable weekend excursions.

Class of 1996 Young Scientists Summer Program © IIASA

Thanks to my positive experiences at IIASA, I entered a PhD program at Princeton University to pursue population studies, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at the RAND Corporation, in Santa Monica, California. Although population sleep health research seems far afield from the interplay between fish and tourism in Mexico, I see a link to my experiences at IIASA, which is where I was introduced to systems thinking with policy relevance. Recently, I was honored to be invited to join the US National Member Organization for IIASA. Once again, I sought advice from Warren Sanderson, who encouraged me to accept the opportunity. I’m looking forward to giving back and reconnecting with IIASA.

Further info: Other YSSP stories.

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.

Kick-starting proactive management of climate-related disasters

By Thomas Schinko, research scholar in the IIASA Risk and Resilience Program.

The hurricanes that swept across the Atlantic in the last few months had terrifying, and in Irma’s case record-breaking, power. They flattened homes and destroyed electricity grids, flooded schools and even threatened the integrity of whole nations. Could some of that immense power provide the impetus we need to switch from talking about climate-related risks and damages to doing something about them proactively?

On top of the hurricanes, in just the last two months the world has seen major flooding in Asia, and scorching heatwaves in southern Europe. While climate-related risks are shaped by many factors, the science shows that climate change is loading the dice, making certain extreme events more likely, and providing more favorable conditions for their formation.

Many are pessimistic about our abilities or inclination to heed the wake-up call. They worry that current political divisions and governance structures will leave us dead in the water.

I have hope. I have been working with colleagues on a way forward on managing climate-related risks that defuses the political nature of the debate and helps forging a stakeholder compromise. At all governance levels and all across the globe, disaster risk management has a long and proven track record for dealing with climate-related and other geophysical extremes, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. This established and politically uncontroversial setting is the point of departure for the concept of ‘climate risk management’. This new concept aims to deal with disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation at the same time, providing a way to circumvent the political hurdles and strengthen global ambitions to tackle climate-related risks.

Aligning climate change adaptation and disaster risk management

In the medium to long term, climate change and adaptation must be incorporated into all kinds and levels of decision and policy making. We can achieve this by increasing understanding of the risks of climate change, and adjusting policy and practice over time according to the latest knowledge and expertise. The importance of climate change is already being recognized in diverse decisions and policies. Just recently, for example, Hong Kong Airport announced that the project to build a third runway incorporated sea level rise projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and based on that will include the construction of a sea wall, standing at least 21 feet above the waterline.

Broad stakeholder participation

Putting climate risk management into practice requires balancing the perceptions of climate-related risks of all involved. This calls for a process that involves the participation of those in politics, public administration, civil society, private sector and research.

Putting climate risk management into practice requires balancing the perceptions of climate-related risks of all involved. © Aleksandr Simonov

This may sound excessively time consuming, or even impossible, but it’s not. I know that because I am involved in helping to apply climate risk management in the context of flood risk in Austria. We are only just embarking on the process, and it is lengthy, involving extensive collaboration with relevant ministries, departments, and the private sector—such as insurance companies—but ultimately it can help to co-create a strong policy for the future.

Despite considerable uncertainties in establishing a strong causal link to anthropogenic climate change as risk driver, by employing climate-relevant science to decision making on existing short-term risks we were able to kick-start a process to act on flood risk in the country. This includes critically reflecting on existing policy tools, such as the Austrian disaster fund, and injecting aspects of climate-related risk into long-term budget planning processes.

New solutions to tackle increasing levels of climate risk

As risks increase, however, moving beyond incremental adjustments of existing policy tools is imperative, and totally new solutions will have to be found. Tackling erosive and existential climate-related risks, which lead to the complete loss of people’s and communities’ livelihoods, would require truly transformational action. Such risks are currently discussed under the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts, which was established in 2013 at the 19th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

For the case of increasingly intolerable flood risk this could mean that in the future raising dikes might not suffice and governments may need to start supporting alternative livelihoods (for example, switching from farming to services sectors); providing climate-resilient social protection schemes; or assisting with voluntary migration. This requires climate risk management to be a learning process itself; flexible towards adjusting to any ecological, societal or political transformations.

Towards transformational climate risk management

To tackle the substantial challenges imposed by increasing climate-related risks, truly transformational thinking is needed. By accounting for underlying socioeconomic and climate-related drivers of risk, as well as for different stakeholder perceptions, climate risk management allows compromises to be achieved that translate into concrete but adaptable action.

Assam Integrated Flood and Riverbank Erosion Risk Management Investment Program in India. © Asian Development Bank

Transformational thinking requires reframing of the overall problem over time. Reframing, in this context, refers to a change in the collective view on climate-related risks and how to tackle those. Taking again flood risk as a case in point, comprehensive flood risk management plans that are based on broad stakeholder participation processes and that allow for adaptive updates over time could be created. In the short term, re-evaluating existing measures may lead to an incremental adjustment of existing flood risk management efforts. The transformative notion comes in over time via proactively discussing trends in climate-related risks, which might eventually lead to the design of new policies and implementation measures, potentially also requiring alternative governance structures.

What is needed next is to provide space and resources for putting climate risk management processes, such as outlined here, into action. It would be a wise decision to seize the historic chance provided by the current alertness to the issue and start taking proactive action on today’s and future losses and damages due to climate-related risks.

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.

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.

Cornelius Hirsch: Digging into foreign investment in agriculture

By Parul Tewari, IIASA Science Communication Fellow 2017

Two things are distinctly noticeable when you meet Cornelius Hirsch—a cheerful smile that rarely leaves his face and the spark in his eyes as he talks about issues close to his heart. The range is quite broad though—from politics and economics to electronic music.

Cornelius Hirsch

After finishing high school, Hirsch decided to travel and explore the world. This paid off quite well. It was during his travels, encompassing Hong Kong, New Zealand, and California, that Hirsch started taking a keen interest in economic and political systems. This sparked his curiosity and helped him decide that he wanted to take up economics for higher studies. Therefore, after completing his masters in agricultural economics, Hirsch applied for a position as a research associate at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research and enrolled in the PhD-program of the Vienna University of Economics and Business to study trade, globalization, and its impact on rural areas. Currently, he is looking at subsidies and tariffs for farmers and the agricultural sector at a global scale.

As part of the 2017 Young Scientists Summer Program at IIASA, Hirsch is digging a little deeper to analyze how foreign direct investments (FDI) in agricultural land operate. “Since 2000, the number of foreign land acquisitions have been growing—governmental or private players buy a lot of land in different countries to produce crops. I was interested in knowing why there are so many of these hotspots in the world— sub-Saharan Africa, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia—why are people investing in these areas?,” says Hirsch.

Farming in one of the large agricultural areas in Indonesia ©CIFOR I Flickr

Increased food demand from a growing world population is leading to an increased rate of investment in agriculture in regions with large stretches of fertile land. That these regions are largely rain-fed make them even more attractive for investors as they save the cost of expensive irrigation services. In fact, Hirsch argues that “the term land-grabbing is misleading. It should actually be water-grabbing as water is the foremost deciding factor—even more important than simply land abundance.”

Some researchers have found an interesting contrast between FDI in traditional sectors, such as manufacturing, and the ones in agricultural land. While investors in the former look for stable institutions and good governmental efficiency, FDI in land deals seems to target regions with less stable institutions. This positive relationship between corruption and FDI is completely counterintuitive. Hirsch says that one reason could be that “sometimes weaker institutions are easier to get through when it comes to such vast amount of lands. A lot of times these deals and contracts are oral and have no written proof—the contracts are not transparent anyway.”

For example in South Sudan, the land and soil conditions seem to be so good that investors aren’t deterred despite conflicts due to corrupt practices or inefficient government agencies.

One of the indigenous communities in Madagascar, a place which is vulnerable to land acquisitions © IamNotUnique I Flickr

One area that often goes unnoticed is the violation of land rights of indigenous communities. If a government body decides to sell land or give out production licenses to investors for leasing the land without consulting the actual community, it is only much later that the affected community finds out that their land has been given away. Left with no land and hence no source of livelihood, these communities are forced to migrate to urban areas.

A strain of concern enters his voice as Hirsch talks about the impact. “Land as big as two times the area of Ecuador has been sold off in the past—but it accounts for a tiny percentage of the global production area.” With rising incomes and greater consumption of meat, a lot of land is used to produce animal feed crops. “This is a very inefficient way of using land,” he says.

During the summer program at IIASA, Hirsch is generating data that will help him look at these deals in detail and analyze the main factors that are taken into consideration before finalizing a land deal. At the moment he is only able to give an overview of land-grabbing at the global level. With more data on the location of the deals he can look at the factors that influence these decisions in the first place such as the proximity between the two countries involved in agricultural investments and the size of their economies.

While there is always huge media coverage when a scandal about these land acquisitions comes out in the open, Hirsch seems determined to dig deeper and uncover the dynamics involved.

About the researcher
Cornelius Hirsch is a research associate at the Austrian Institute of Economics and Research (WIFO). At IIASA he is working under the supervision of Tamas Krisztin and Linda See in the Ecosystems Services and Management Program (ESM).

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.