Bringing some light into the dark

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.

© Topdeq | Dreamstime.com

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.

References:

[1] 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]

[2] Sieg T, Vogel K, Merz B & Kreibich H (2019). Seamless estimation of hydro-meteorological risk across spatial scales. Earth’s Future. https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EF001122

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.

What would an oil spill mean for the Arctic?

By Parul Tewari, IIASA Science Communication Fellow 2017

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.

©AllanHokins I Flickr

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.

Thick-billed Murre come together to breed in Svalbard, Norway. Nevalainen’s study so far suggests that birds are most likely to die of an oil spill as compared to other animals. © AllanHopkins I Flickr

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.

©katiekk I Shutterstock

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.

Nothing new under the sun?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

From the Himalayas to the Andes: Crowdsourced disaster risk mapping

By Wei Liu, IIASA Risk and Resilience Program

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

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

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

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

@ Wei Liu | IIASA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.