Running global models in a castle in Europe

By Matt Cooper, PhD student at the Department of Geographical Sciences, University of Maryland, and 2018 winner of the IIASA Peccei Award

I never pictured myself working in Europe.  I have always been an eager traveler, and I spent many years living, working and doing fieldwork in Africa and Asia before starting my PhD.  I was interested in topics like international development, environmental conservation, public health, and smallholder agriculture. These interests led me to my MA research in Mali, working for an NGO in Nairobi, and to helping found a National Park in the Philippines.  But Europe seemed like a remote possibility.  That was at least until fall 2017, when I was looking for opportunities to get abroad and gain some research experience for the following summer.  I was worried that I wouldn’t find many opportunities, because my PhD research was different from what I had previously done.  Rather than interviewing farmers or measuring trees in the field myself, I was running global models using data from satellites and other projects.  Since most funding for PhD students is for fieldwork, I wasn’t sure what kind of opportunities I would find.  However, luckily, I heard about an interesting opportunity called the Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) at IIASA, and I decided to apply.

Participating in the YSSP turned out to be a great experience, both personally and professionally.  Vienna is a wonderful city to live in, and I quickly made friends with my fellow YSSPers.  Every weekend was filled with trips to the Alps or to nearby countries, and IIASA offers all sorts of activities during the week, from cultural festivals to triathlons.  I also received very helpful advice and research instruction from my supervisors at IIASA, who brought a wealth of experience to my research topic.  It felt very much as if I had found my kind of people among the international PhD students and academics at IIASA.  Freed from the distractions of teaching, I was also able to focus 100% on my research and I conducted the largest-ever analysis of drought and child malnutrition.

© Matt Cooper

Now, I am very grateful to have another summer at IIASA coming up, thanks to the Peccei Award. I will again focus on the impact climate shocks like drought have on child health.  however, I will build on last year’s research by looking at future scenarios of climate change and economic development.  Will greater prosperity offset the impacts of severe droughts and flooding on children in developing countries?  Or does climate change pose a hazard that will offset the global health gains of the past few decades?  These are the questions that I hope to answer during the coming summer, where my research will benefit from many of the future scenarios already developed at IIASA.

I can’t think of a better research institute to conduct this kind of systemic, global research than IIASA, and I can’t picture a more enjoyable place to live for a summer than Vienna.

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.

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.

Disappearing Act: Bolivia’s second largest lake dries up

By Parul Tewari, IIASA Science Communication Fellow 2017

In 2016, Bolivia saw its worst drought in nearly 30 years. While the city of La Paz faced an acute water shortage with no piped water in some parts, the agricultural sector was hit the hardest. According to The Agricultural Chamber of the East, the region suffered a loss of almost 50% of total produce. Animal carcasses lay scattered in plain sight in the valleys, where they had died looking for watering holes.

Lake Poopo (Bolivia) before it dried up © David Almeida I Flickr

One of the most dramatic results of this catastrophic drought was that Lake Poopo, (pronounced po-po) Bolivia’s second largest lake was drained of every drop of water. Located at a height of approximately 1127 meters, and covering an area of 1,000 square kilometers, what remains of it now resembles a desert more than a lake. This event forced the fishing community of Uru Uru, which depended on the lake, to either migrate to other lakes or look for alternate livelihood options.

Lake Poopo is located in the central South American Altiplano, one of the largest high plateaus in the world (Bolivia’s largest lake, Titicaca, is located in the north of the region). Due to its unique topography, the highland faces extreme climatic conditions, which are responsible for difficult lives as well as widespread poverty among the people who live there.

While Titicaca is over 100 meters deep, Poopo had a depth of less than three meters. Combined with a high rate of evapotranspiration, erratic rainfall, and limited flow of water from the Desaguadero River, Poopo was in a precarious position even during the best of times. Whatever little water flowed in from the river is further depleted by intensive irrigation activities at the south of Lake Titicaca before the water makes it way down to Poopo.

Sattelite images of Lake Poopo

Changes in water levels of Lake Poopo over 30 years © U.S. Geological Survey, Associated Press

The lake’s existence had been threatened several times in the past. However, the 2016 drought was one of the most devastating ones. According to the Defense Ministry of Bolivia, early this year the lake started recovering after several days of heavy rain, restoring as much as 70% of the water. However, since the lake is a part of a very fragile ecosystem, there have been some irreversible changes to the flora and fauna in addition to the losses to the fishing communities living around the lake.

Charting a better future

Claudia Canedo, a participant of the 2017 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) at IIASA, is exploring the impact of droughts and the risk on agricultural production in the light of this event, after which Bolivia declared a state of water emergency. Canedo was born and raised in the city of La Paz and experienced water shortages while growing up close to the Altiplano. This motivated her to investigate a sustainable solution for water availability in the region. With the results of her study she is hoping to ensure that such a situation doesn’t arise again in the Altiplano – that other communities directly dependent on ecosystem services, like that of Lake Poopo, do not have to lose everything because of an extreme weather event.

For a region where more than half the population is dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods, droughts serve as a major setback to the national economy. “It is not just one factor that led to the drought, though. There were different factors that contributed to the drying up of the lake and also contribute to the agricultural distress,” she says.

“The southern Altiplano lies in an arid zone and receives low precipitation due to its proximity to the Atacama Desert. Poor soil quality (high saline content and lack of nutrients) makes it unsuitable for most crops, except quinoa and potato in some areas,” adds Canedo. Residents also lack the knowledge and the monetary resources to invest in newer technology, which could possibly lead to better water management.

A woman from one of the drought affected communities in Bolivia © EU – Photo credits: EC/ECHO/Laurence Bardon I Flickr

One of the most critical factors in the recent drought was the El Nino- Southern Oscillation, the warming of the sea temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, which in turn carries the warmer oceanic winds and lowers the rate of precipitation in the highland leading to increased evapotranspiration. In 2015 and 2016, the losses due to this phenomenon were devastating for agriculture in the Altiplano, says Canedo.

In her quest to find solutions, the biggest challenge is the lack of recorded data from local weather stations for the past years. Although satellite data is available, it is too generic in nature to do a local analysis. Therefore combining ground and satellite data could enhance the present knowledge and provide consistent results of the climate and vegetation variability. If done successfully, Canedo hopes to identify a correlation between precipitation and vegetation. With this information, she can improve climate forecasting that could help the local people adapt to droughts powerful enough to turn their lives upside down.

With weather forecasts and early warning systems for extreme weather events like droughts, farmers would know what to expect and would be able to plant resilient varieties of crops. This might not earn them the same profits as in a normal year, but would not result in a failed crop. Claudia aims to come up with a drought index useful for drought monitoring and early warning, which will integrate short-term and long-term meteorological predictions.

Perhaps, in the future, with this newfound knowledge, the price for extreme weather events won’t be paid in terms of lost ecosystems like that of Lake Poopo, robbing people of their lives and livelihoods.

About the Researcher

Claudia Canedo is a participant in the 2017 IIASA YSSP. She is pursuing a doctoral program in water resources engineering at Lund University, Sweden. She is interested in studying the hydrological and climatological conditions over small basins in the South American highlands. The aim of her research is to define water resources availability and find strategies for sustainable water management in the semi-arid region.

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 risk reduction infrastructure to integrated watershed governance in Peru

By Adam French – Peter E. de Jánosi Postdoctoral Scholar Risk and Resilience and Advanced Systems Analysis Programs

In mid-January, I found myself calling upon rusty rock climbing skills to scramble up a steep side canyon of Peru’s Rimac River valley. I was with a group of engineers and local municipal officials on the way to assess disaster reduction infrastructure that had been installed in early 2016 against the threat of a strong El Niño-enhanced rainy season. The Swiss-made barriers we were going to see, which resembled giant steel spider webs stretched across the streambeds, had been constructed in multiple locations in the Rimac watershed to reduce the destructive impacts of the region’s recurrent but unpredictable huaicos—powerful debris flows that form when precipitation runoff mixes with loose rock and other material on unstable slopes. The 2015-16 El Niño did not live up to its forecasted intensity in Peru, and the barriers went untested until heavy rains in early 2017 unleashed a series of huaicos on the Rimac valley, damaging homes and flooding roadways. Where the barriers were installed, however, no major impacts had been reported, and we were eager to see if the infrastructure had made a difference.

Engineers discuss hazard reduction infrastructure above Chosica, Peru. ©Soluciones Prácticas, Abel Cisneros (Click for more photos)

Most of the time, the Rimac valley looks more like a lunar landscape than a flood-risk hotspot. Yet with only a few millimeters of rain in the surrounding highlands, this arid region becomes extremely vulnerable to huaicos. Located between the sprawling cityscape of Lima—the planet’s second largest desert city—and the lush foothills of the central Andes, the middle reaches of the Rimac watershed have been settled rapidly over recent decades, often without effective zoning regulations to restrict occupation in even the most hazard-prone areas.

I had not planned to work in the Rimac basin when I moved to Austria to take up a postdoctoral position in late 2015. While my research includes the study of climate change-related risk in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca (the world’s most extensively glaciated tropical mountain range), I came to IIASA to focus on watershed-level governance and the implementation of the Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) paradigm. Yet as a Spanish speaker with extensive experience in Peru, I was well suited to get involved in IIASA’s activities in the Rimac valley as part of the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance Project. This project, which includes close collaboration with the NGO Practical Action in Peru and Nepal, supports measures to understand and address the underlying drivers of flood risk and to move beyond short-term disaster preparedness and response towards transformative actions that build long-term capacity and resilience.

As part of IIASA’s Flood Resilience team, my work in the Rimac valley has included activities ranging from evaluating El Niño preparations to conducting interviews with public authorities and local residents living in the Rimac basin. This fieldwork is just part of our project’s efforts to identify the systemic components of flood risk and vulnerability in the region and to promote productive exchanges between residents, policymakers, and the scientific community through participatory research and innovative approaches such as serious gaming.

“Flood Risk Zone,” Ate, Peru. ©Soluciones Prácticas. Click for more photos.

 

In addition to building expertise in a new setting, my involvement in this work has helped me better incorporate risk-focused systems thinking into my broader research agenda—a perspective that is too often overlooked in integrated resource planning. An example of how my research interests are converging within this project is through the promotion of a risk-management working group to advise the multi-sectorial watershed council in charge of IWRM planning in the Rimac valley. The establishment of this working group and the participation of project partners at Practical Action in its activities should mark an important step in bringing lessons from the Flood Resilience project regarding links between disaster risk reduction, economic development, and community resilience to bear on watershed planning in the Rimac basin. More broadly, we hope these insights will influence policy making in other settings in Peru and beyond that face similar challenges in handling risk management and economic development as intricately linked and co-dependent governance processes.

Returning to our January field inspection, we found that one of the new barriers had been put to the test. The structure had captured several tons of debris, protecting a neighborhood that had been devastated by a huaico in 2015, and local authorities were already discussing the potential to build additional barriers to guard their community. While I celebrated this outcome with them, as I look to the future and the goals of the Flood Resilience Alliance, I am hopeful that such infrastructural interventions will be just one aspect of comprehensive plans for hazard reduction, with long-term risk management actions increasingly seen as a vital component of watershed-level planning and governance.

More information
IIASA, Zurich, Wharton, Practical Action: Flood Resilience Partnership
Flickr photo album: Rimac River valley, Peru – Fieldwork
Flood Resilience Portal

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.

 

Mapping flood resilience in rural Nepal

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

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

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

Karnali Basin in Nepal © Wei Liu | IIASA

Karnali Basin in Nepal © Wei Liu | IIASA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Further information

  • Flood Resilience Portal
  • Geo-Wiki Risk 
  • McCallum, I., Liu, W., See, L., Mechler, R., Keating, A., Hochrainer-Stigler, S., Mochizuki, J., Fritz, S., Dugar, S., Arestegui, M., Szoenyi, M., Laso Bayas, J.C., Burek, P., French, A. and Moorthy, I. (2016) Technologies to Support Community Flood Disaster Risk Reduction. International Journal of Disaster Risk Science, 7 (2). pp. 198-204. http://pure.iiasa.ac.at/13299/

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.