By Prakash Khadka, IIASA Guest Research Assistant and Wei Liu, Guest Research Scholar in the IIASA Equity and Justice Research Group
Prakash Khadka and Wei Liu explain how unbridled, unplanned infrastructure expansion in Nepal is increasing the risk of landslides.
Worldwide, mountains cover a quarter of total land area and are home to 12% of the world’s population, most of whom live in developing countries. Overpopulation and the unsustainable use of these fragile landscapes often result in a vicious cycle of natural disaster and poverty. Protecting, restoring, and sustainably using mountain landscapes is an important component of Sustainable Development Goal 15 ̶ Life on Land ̶ and the key is to strike a balance between development and disaster risk management.
Nepal is among the world’s most mountainous countries and faces the daunting challenge of landslides and flood risk. Landslide events and fatalities have been increasing dramatically in the country due to a complex combination of earthquakes, climate change, and land use, especially the construction of informal roads that destabilize slopes during the monsoon.
According to Nepal government data, 476 incidents of landslides and 293 fatalities were recorded during the 2020 monsoon season – the highest number in the last ten years, mostly triggered by high-intensity rainfall – a trend which is increasing due to climate variations. According to one study, by mid-July 2020, the number of fatal landslides for the year had already exceeded the average annual total for 2004–2019.
Figure 1: A map of landslide events in Nepal from June to September 2020. Source: bipadportal.gov.np
Landslides are not a new phenomenon in the country where hills and mountains cover nearly 83% of the total land area. While being destructive, landslides are complex natural processes of land development. The Gangetic plain, situated in the foothills of the Himalayas, was formed by the great Himalayan river system to which soil is continually added by landslides and deposited at the base by rivers. Mountain land changes via natural geo-tectonic and ecological processes has been happening for millions of years, but fast population growth and climate change in recent decades substantially altered the fate of these mountain landscapes. Road expansion, often in the name of development, plays a key role.
Many mountain areas in Nepal are physically and economically marginalized and efforts to improve access are common. Poverty, food insecurity, and social inequity are severe, and many rural laborers opt to migrate for better economic opportunities. This motivates road network expansion. Since the turn of the century, Nepalese road networks has almost quadrupled to the current level of ~50 km per 100 km2, among which rural roads (fair-weather roads) increased more than blacktop and gravel roads.
Figure 2: Mountains carved just above Jay Prithvi Highway in Bajhang district of Sudurpaschim province to build a road
Nepalese mountain roads are treacherous and subject to accidents and landslides. Rural roads, which are often called “dozer roads”, are constructed by bulldozer owners in collaboration with politicians at the request of communities (also as part of the election manifesto in which politicians promised road access in exchange for votes and support to win), often without proper technical guidance, surveying, drainage, or structural protection measures. In addition, mountains are sometimes damaged by heavy earthmovers (so-called “bulldozer terrorism”) that cut out roads that lead from nowhere to nowhere, or where no roads are needed, at the expense of economic and environmental degradation. Such rapid and ineffective road expansion happens throughout the country, particularly in the middle hills where roads are known to be the major manmade driver of landslides.
To tackle these complexities, we need to rethink how we approach development in light of climate change. This has to be done with sufficient investigation into our past actions. The Nepalese Community forestry management program, which emerged as one of the big success stories in the world, encompasses well defined policies, institutions, and practices. The program is hailed as a sustainable development success with almost one-third of the country’s forests (1.6 million hectares) currently managed by community forest user groups representing over a third of the country’s households. Another successful example is the innovation of ropeways and its introduction in the Bhattedanda region South of Kathmandu. The ropeways were instrumental in transforming farmers’ lives and livelihoods by connecting them with markets. Locals quickly mastered the operation and management of the ropeway technology, which was a lifesaver following the 2002 rainfall that washed away the road that had made the ropeway redundant until then.
These two examples show that it is possible to generate ecological livelihoods for several households in Nepal without adversely affecting land use and land cover, which in turn contributes to increased landslide risk in the country, as mentioned above.
A rugged landscape is the greatest hindrance to the remote communities in a mountainous country like Nepal. It cannot be denied that the country needs roads that serve as the main arteries for development, while local innovations like ropeways can well complement the roads with great benefits, by linking remote mountain villages to the markets to foster economic activities and reduce poverty. Such a hybrid transportation model is more sustainable economically as well as environmentally.
It is a pity that despite strong evidence of the cost-effectiveness of alternative local solutions, Nepal’s development is still mainly driven by “dozer constructed roads”. Mountain lives and livelihoods will remain at risk of landslides until development tools become more diverse and compatible.
By Tobias Sieg, IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program alumnus
IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program alumnus Tobias Sieg explains how risk assessments considering uncertainties can substantially contribute to better risk management and consequently to the prevention of economic impacts.
According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Landscape 2018, extreme weather events and natural disasters are ranked among the top three global risks. For many regions, hydro-meteorological risks – in other words, weather or water related events like cyclones or floods that pose a threat to populations or the environment – constitute the biggest threat. This calls for a comprehensive scientific risk assessment with a particular focus on large associated uncertainties.
Assessing the risk of hydro-meteorological hazards without considering these uncertainties, is like entering a pitch-dark labyrinth. You have no idea where you are and where you will end up. If you enter with a flashlight, you might still not immediately know exactly where you will end up, but at least you can assess your possibilities for finding a way out.
We should all care to see those possibilities and to identify uncertainties, since the consequences of hydro-meteorological hazards can have severe impacts on socioeconomic systems, and global- and climate change could favor the occurrence of floods. An increase in extreme weather events, such as heavy precipitation can be expected along with an increasingly warmer climate. In combination with uncontrolled socioeconomic development, these extreme weather events could potentially trigger more intense hazardous flood events in the future. Appropriate management of their consequences is therefore required, starting from today, while pro-actively thinking about the future. To that end, risk management policy and practice need reliable estimates of direct and indirect economic impacts.
The reliability of existing estimates is usually quite low and, what is maybe even worse, they are not communicated properly. This may signal a false sense of certainty regarding the prediction of future climate-related risks.
In two recent studies, my co-authors and I developed and applied a novel method, which specifically focuses on the communication of the reliability of economic impact estimates and the associated uncertainties. The proposed representation of uncertainties enables us to shed some light on the possibilities of how a specific event can affect economic systems. As a Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) participant with the IIASA Risk and Resilience Program, I applied the method together with my supervisors Thomas Schinko and Reinhard Mechler, to estimate the overall economic impacts of a major flood event in Germany in 2013.
The estimated overall economic impacts comprise both direct and indirect impacts. Direct impacts are usually caused by physical contact of the floodwater with buildings, while indirect impacts can also occur in regions that are not directly affected by a flood. For example, obstructions of the infrastructure can lead to delayed deliveries, in turn leading to negative impacts for the production of goods outside the flooded areas. The crucial novelty of this method is the integrated assessment of direct and indirect economic impacts. In particular, by considering how the uncertainties associated with the estimation of direct economic impacts propagate further into the estimates of indirect economic impacts.
Being able to reproduce what has happened in the past is essential to making credible predictions about what could potentially happen in the future. A comparison of reported direct economic impacts and model-based estimates reveals that the estimation technique already works quite reliably. The good news is that anyone can help to increase the predictive reliability even further. The method uses the crowdsourced OpenStreetMap dataset to identify affected buildings. The more detailed the given information about a building is, the more reliable the impact estimations can get.
Our study reveals that the potential of short-term indirect economic impacts (without considering recovery) are quite high. In fact, our results show that the indirect impacts can be as high as the direct economic impacts. Yet, this varies a lot for different economic sectors. The manufacturing sector, for instance, is much more affected by indirect economic impacts, since it is heavily dependent on well-functioning supply chains. This information can be used in emergency risk management where decisions have to be made about giving immediate help to companies of a specific sector to reduce high long-term indirect economic impacts.
We are now looking at different possibilities of how flood events could affect the economic system. Having a range of possibilities of the relation between these impacts makes them transferable between different regions with similar economic systems. Our results are therefore also relevant more broadly beyond the German case. This representation of uncertainties can help to get to a more credible and consistent risk assessment across all spatial scales. Thus, the method is able to potentially facilitate the fulfillment of some of the calls of the UN Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.
Detailed risk assessments considering uncertainties can substantially contribute to better risk management and consequently to the prevention of economic impacts – direct and indirect, both now and in the future.
 Sieg T, Schinko T, Vogel K, Mechler R, Merz B & Kreibich H (2019). Integrated assessment of short-term direct and indirect economic flood impacts including uncertainty quantification. PLoS ONE 14(4): e0212932. [pure.iiasa.ac.at/15833]
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.
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
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.
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.
As climate change warms up the planet, it is the Arctic where the effects are most pronounced. According to scientific reports, the Arctic is warming twice as fast in comparison to the rest of the world. That in itself is a cause for concern. However, as the region increasingly becomes ice-free in summer, making shipping and other activities possible, another threat looms large. That of an oil spill.
While it can never be good news, an oil spill in the Arctic could be particularly dangerous because of its sensitive ecosystem and harsh climatic conditions, which make a cleanup next to impossible. With an increase in maritime traffic and an interest in the untapped petroleum reserves of the Arctic, the likelihood of an oil spill increases significantly.
Maisa Nevalainen, as part of the 2017 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP), is working to assess the extent of the risk posed by oil spills in the Arctic marine areas.
“That the Arctic is perhaps the last place on the planet which hasn’t yet been destroyed or changed drastically due to human activity, should be reason enough to tread with utmost caution,” says Nevalainen
Although the controversial 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound was quite close to the Arctic Circle, so far no major spills have occurred in the region. However, that also means that there is no data and little to no understanding of the uncertainties related to such accidents in the region.
For instance, one of the significant impacts of an oil spill would be on the varied marine species living in the region, likely with consequences carrying far in to the future. Because of the cold and ice, oil decomposes very slowly in the region, so an accident involving oil spill would mean that the oil could remain in the ice for decades to come.
Yet, researchers don’t know how vulnerable Arctic species would be to a spill, and which species would be affected more than others. Nevalainen, as part of her study at IIASA will come up with an index-based approach for estimating the vulnerability (an animal’s probability of coming into contact with oil) and sensitivity (probability of dying because of oiling) of key Arctic functional groups of similar species in the face of an oil spill.
“The way a species uses ice will affect what will happen to them if an oil spill were to happen,” says Nevalainen. Moreover, oil tends to concentrate in the openings in ice and this is where many species like to live, she adds.
During the summer season, some islands in the region become breeding grounds for birds and other marine species both from within the Arctic and those that travel thousands of miles from other parts of the world. If these species or their young are exposed to an oil spill, then it could not only result in large-scale deaths but also affect the reproductive capabilities of those that survive. This could translate in to a sizeable impact on the world population of the affected species. Polar bears, for example, have, on an average two cubs every three years. This is a very low fertility rate – so, even if one polar bear is killed, the loss can be significant for the total population. Fish on the other hand are very efficient and lay eggs year round. Even if all their eggs at a particular time were destroyed, it would most likely not affect their overall population. However, if their breeding ground is destroyed then it can have a major impact on the total population depending on their ability and willingness to relocate to a new area to lay eggs, explains Nevalainen.
Due to lack of sufficient data on the number of species in the region as well as that on migratory population, it is difficult to predict future scenarios in case of an accident, she adds. “Depending on the extent of the spill and the ecosystem in the nearing areas, a spill can lead to anything from an unfortunate incident to a terrible disaster,” says Nevalainen.
It might even affect the food chain, at a local or global level. “If oil sinks to the seafloor, some species run the risk of dying or migrating due to destroyed habitat – an example being walruses as they merely dive to get food from the sea floor,” adds Nevalainen. As the walrus is a key species in the food web, this has a high probability of upsetting the food chain.
When the final results of her study come through, Nevalainen aims to compare different regions of the Arctic and the probability of damage in these areas, as well as potential solutions to protect the ecosystem. This would include several factors. One of them could be breeding patterns – spring, for instance, is when certain areas need to be cordoned off for shipping activities, as most animals breed during this time.
“At the moment there are no mechanisms to deal with an oil spill in the Arctics. I hope that it never happens. The Arctic ecosystem is very delicate and it won’t take too much to disturb it, and the consequences can be huge, globally,” warns Nevalainen.
About the Researcher
Maisa Nevalainen is a third- year PhD student at the University of Helsinki, Finland. Her main focus is on environmental impacts caused by Arctic oil spills, while her main research interests include marine environment, and environmental impacts of oil spills among others. Nevalainen is working with the Arctic Futures Initiative at IIASA over the summer, with Professor Brian Fath as her supervisor and Mia Landauer and Wei Liu as her co-supervisors.
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.
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.