Water security and poverty in coastal Bangladesh: can modelling be of help?

Dr Edoardo Borgomeo, Consultant at the World Bank’s Water Global Practice, and Honorary Research Associate at Oxford University’s Change Institute, outlines recent research conducted as part of the Oxford-led REACH programme.

Ten years ago, cyclone Sidr struck coastal Bangladesh. The storm caused 3447 fatalities and at least as many more deaths due to the spread of waterborne diseases following the storm. Sidr also led to the evacuation of more than 500,000 people, large-scale economic damage, and loss of livelihoods. Yet cyclones like Sidr are not the only water curse experienced by people in coastal Bangladesh. Salt water gets into soils, making it more difficult for plants to grow, in turn reducing the crop yield that farmers get. Salinity also gets into drinking water, contaminating water supplies and compromising people’s health, especially that of pregnant women.

Protecting land and people from these impacts may sound like the obvious thing to do in coastal Bangladesh. This is why in the 1960s a series of embankments were constructed across Bangladesh’s coasts to protect fields and people from flooding and boost agricultural production. Despite these investments, more than 8 million people in coastal Bangladesh still live in poverty and suffer from water’s destructive impacts.

As with all water issues, addressing water security in coastal Bangladesh requires adaptation and learning. At the sharp end, this involves continuous support to populations affected by water’s impacts as well as engagement with government and international organizations to gain sustained political and economic support. In the backrooms of academia, addressing water security challenges often involves collecting data and developing models to improve our understanding of how water interacts with social and economic outcomes.

As the rise of big data and complexity has shown, when quantitative modelling approaches are combined with testable hypotheses, interesting and actionable results often emerge. Water modelling can be used to answer important questions on investments and resilience in coastal Bangladesh. In this study, water modelling is used to examine the dynamics between water and poverty, asking two questions (1) How do improvements in the way water infrastructure is operated and maintained reduce and prevent water’s destructive impacts? (2) How can these improvements benefit the poorest and marginalized members of the communities?

To answer these questions, we follow a series of step. First, we decide upon the scale of our model, this could be from a single household to the whole coastal zone. Then, we come-up with mathematical functions to represent reality. These functions form our model, which describes the multiple relationships between water-related factors, such as storms and salinity, and agricultural production and income for farmers. Third, we use data to validate our model. This means checking that our results give a fair representation of what we observe in reality. Finally, we change some of the conditions in the model, for instance increase the frequency with which water infrastructure is maintained. This allows us to see how farmers’ incomes change depending on the type of water management actions and investments we take. Eventually, this can be used to identify the type of investments that increase water security for the poor. In the study, these steps are followed to reveal how improvements in the way in which water infrastructure is operated and maintained can have non-marginal effects on the incomes of poor farmers. That is, the study shows how these improvements create benefits that go beyond simply protecting communities from flooding and salinity, to positively influence economic opportunities and well-being in the long-term.

In the end, the choice of which investment to make to enhance water security will not only be based on modelling. It will be based on community views, government priorities, financial resources, and many other factors. Water modelling can inform these important policy choices and contribute to improving water security for millions of poor people in coastal Bangladesh.

This blog is based on a journal paper written by REACH researchers and recently published in the International Journal of Water Resources Development. The paper can be downloaded here.

A version of this post originally appeared on the REACH website.

Water resource decoupling in the Jordan Basin

Dr Michael Gilmont shares insight from a new British Council funded report highlighting opportunities to enhance water security in the Jordan River Basin.

In Jordan, water scarcity and food insecurity are increasingly understood as existential threats to human security and the natural environment. Despite its water scarcity, over the past 2 decades, Jordan has demonstrated considerable ability to grow its economy and its agriculture without commensurately increasing water usage, thereby ‘decoupling’ economic and agricultural growth from increased water resource needs. Higher levels of agricultural water productivity (crop per drop) and wastewater reuse have been two crucial measures to decouple national water needs from available natural water supply, along with the import of much water-intensive food production (including 98% of national wheat needs), and economic growth concentrated in non-water intensive sectors of the economy. Jordan is not alone in these trends; others’ in the region have also made considerable progress in circumventing their water limits, with Israel demonstrating long term commitment and measurement of water allocation and productivity.

University of Oxford, in partnership with Jordan’s WANA Institute, and the regional NGO EcoPeace, has been working to deepen our understanding of water resource ‘decoupling’ in Jordan Basin. The research, funded by the British Council, applies the conceptual model below (Fig 1).

Figure 1: Revised water resource decoupling model (developed from Gilmont 2014, 2015), incorporating four mechanisms of decoupling.

In July 2017, the project partners published a report highlighting the potential volumetric gains that could be achieved in Jordan and the Palestinian Territories if they moved towards regional best practice in terms of agricultural water productivity and wastewater reuse. The study also highlights where Israel could learn from its neighbours, particularly in rainfed tree-crop production. The analysis also draws on the role that strategic enhancement of food imports can play in mitigating national water scarcity, and allowing water resources to be targeted at the highest economic and social returns.

The project team used data on agricultural production and water application to assess, as national averages, water needs per unit ton of food production for 14 key crops including banana, dates, olives and tomatoes. The crops were chosen on the basis of their national importance, high total water use, or potential for improved relative water productivity. National average data was ground-truthed through a series of interviews with farmers, with data collected on water application, crop yields, relationships between farmers and government agricultural institutions, and crop market conditions. The interviews focused on areas of direct climatic comparability between the three jurisdictions, and confirmed many of the trends revealed through national average data, as well as highlight areas of uncertainty.

On the basis of national average data, our analysis for Jordan suggests that current production tonnages could be produced with 168 million cubic meters (MCM) per year less water than is presently used. This represents a close to 30% reduction in agricultural water applied at the farm. Our analysis has also shown instances of regional best practice in water productivity by Jordan in date and olive production, effectively supplementing rainfall with irrigation to high economic returns in the North Jordan Valley. An additional 50MCM saving could be achieved through increased imports of already import-dependent crops, subject to further research into economic and social impacts.

Current wastewater recovery is comparable to Israeli volumes in terms of water metered and paid for in the domestic sector, at about 60%. However, 50% losses through water theft and leakage in the domestic sector mean that actual recovery of water supplied is around 30%. Increased wastewater supply to agriculture will therefore be conditional upon reduced non-revenue water in the domestic sector.
For the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza, the research was constrained by limited secondary data on agricultural water productivity, and a diversity of responses from farmers on water use. The analysis did however demonstrate that up to 115MCM/yr could be recovered as recycled wastewater on the basis of regional best practice.

For Jordan, achieving highlighted agricultural productivity gains represent a considerable opportunity to improve agricultural knowledge and best practice, and deliver investment in the Jordanian agricultural sector through both technical and management improvements. The investments would enable current production tonnages to be maintained with less water, These investments would both enhance the rural economy and livelihoods, and simultaneously deliver improved water security for Jordan. If combined with other instruments in the 2016 Jordanian National Water Plan, our identified savings, reallocated across the Jordanian water economy, could help eliminate the anticipated remaining deficit between actual and policy-mandated supply by 2025, while allowing for growth in agricultural output and urban water supply. Strategic import substitution could enable the elimination of over-pumping of renewable groundwater resources, and important step towards advancing the restoration of Jordan’s water resources to sustainable levels of use. Proactively enhancing Jordan’s decoupling trends, enabling reallocation of water and enhancement of the agricultural sector, presents the opportunity to become an exemplar of advanced water security in the Arab world.

The research was led by Professor Steve Rayner at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, and coordinated by Dr Michael Gilmont at the Environmental Change Institute, both University of Oxford.

Reference: Gilmont, M., Rayner, S., Harper, E., Nassar, L., Tal,N., Simpson, M., Salem, H. (2017) Decoupling national water needs for national water supplies: insights and potential for countries in the Jordan Basin. WANA Institute, Royal Scientific Society in Amman, Jordan.

How Sustainable Land Management can improve lives in the Ethiopian Highlands

Alice Chautard, Communications and Knowledge Exchange Manager of Oxford University’s REACH programme, shares her experience of a recent field visit to Amhara.

Children of Aba Gerima. Image: Alice Chautard/REACH

In June 2017, Dr Katrina Charles and I travelled to the REACH programme’s Aba Gerima site, located in western Ethiopia, some 25km from Bahir Dar. As we flew to Bahir Dar from the capital Addis Ababa, we passed over hundreds of streams and rivers, stretching as far as the eye could see beneath us. This is the source of the Blue Nile, and at first sight, it is hard to imagine that the highlands of Ethiopia could ever struggle for water.

However, in the Ethiopian Highlands, water security isn’t just a matter of how much water is available throughout the region. The area suffers from severe land degradation, caused in part by farming practices that make the soil prone to being washed away during heavy precipitation events in the rainy season. It is estimated that the Ethiopian Highlands lose about 1.5 billion tons of topsoil annually. Beyond the loss of fertile land, soil erosion also contributes to increased sedimentation in streams and to poor water infiltration. This can lead to reduced agricultural productivity and growth: a serious issue in the Highlands where agriculture constitutes a vital part of the economy.

Soil erosion. Image: Alice Chautard/REACH

There is hope, however, that the situation will improve. The government of Ethiopia has adopted a sustainable land management (SLM) approach to protect vulnerable environmental systems and stabilise the income and livelihoods of the poor. Since 2012, the Water and Land Resource Centre (WLRC) has been working in six Learning Watersheds to help farmers implement SLM practices that encourage better infiltration, such as terracing and the construction of soil bunds. These help recharge groundwater and increase water availability from streams and wells during the dry season, providing greater water security for both households and agricultural water users. Valuable grasses and trees can also be grown on soil bunds so farmers can harvest fodder for animals, and compensate the reduction in planting area. SLM increases soil moisture, which is an essential input for agricultural production and contributes to improving food security.

So far, the results have been positive, with an increase in stream baseflow during the dry season, improved food production, and an 80% reduction in soil loss. Farmers who had relied on surface water sources in the past are increasingly gaining access to groundwater via handpumps and to improved drinking water at the same time. As part of the initiative, the installation of small-scale irrigation technology has also led to the planting of high-value crops such as bananas, mangos, avocados and coffee.

Ensuring that these developments contribute to poverty reduction at the household level and to supporting human development is not a straightforward endeavour. In Ethiopia in particular, there has been limited work assessing the impacts of SLM approaches and the benefit of the bio-physical improvements for poverty reduction. Building on WLRC’s work on Sustainable Land Management in Aba Gerima, the REACH programme, with WLRC and in partnership with the International Food Policy and Research Institute (IFPRI), and the IRC aims to shed light on the complex relationships between poverty dynamics and water security, from both the natural science and social science perspectives. Understanding the gender differences in access to and control over water is a key component of this work. REACH will be engaging and working with key government and practitioner stakeholders, such as the Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Electricity (MoWIE) and the MoANR, throughout the programme to inform water management and policy decisions around SLM and ensure research outputs lead to practical improvements on the ground.

Young ploughboy. Image: Alice Chautard/REACH

As part of REACH, WLRC and IFPRI have designed a survey exploring the impacts of SLM on poverty and how changes in water security benefit women, men, girls and boys. The survey was completed in July, with over 500 respondents from the two learning watersheds. Some of these initial results will be presented at a high-level symposium with MoWIE and MoANR in September 2017.

You can find out more about our Sustainable Land Management Observatory here.

Present and future flood vulnerability, risk and disadvantage

New Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, led by Environmental Change Institute researcher, outlines the link between flooding and social vulnerability in the UK.

Two-thirds of cities experiencing relative economic decline face above average flood disadvantage according to new research led by Paul Sayers, Honorary Research Associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. The report, commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, entitled ‘Present and future flood vulnerability, risk and disadvantage: A UK assessment’ highlights how floods interact with social vulnerability across the UK to create flood disadvantage, an issue which will be exacerbated by climate change.

Today some 6.4 million people live in flood prone areas, with around 1.5 million of these people living in vulnerable neighbourhoods (which include people on low incomes, with poor health and other factors that means floods are likely to have more negative impacts on people). According to the research, over 50% of the population exposed to flooding in the most vulnerable neighbourhoods can be found in just ten local authorities.

The number of people living in flood prone areas is set to increase to 10.8 million people by the 2080s, assuming a plausible but more extreme future scenario (of high population growth and a 4 degree centigrade increase in temperatures due to climate change).
Cities in relative economic decline experience levels of flood disadvantage above the UK average, suggesting floods could undermine economic growth in areas that need it most and lead to a spiral of decline if repeated floods occur.

Recent developments are also facing increasing risk. Of the 300,000 properties built in the most socially vulnerable neighbourhoods between 2008-14, nearly 14% are in areas prone to fluvial or coastal flooding. By the 2080s, those living in these developments will experience a disproportional increase in flood risk compared to new developments built elsewhere in the floodplain. This is especially the case where new developments have taken place in socially vulnerable coastal communities.

Spatial distribution of Expected Annual Damages (EAD)

The report highlights a series of recommendations for policymakers including:

  • Adopt new indicators to highlight the risks faced by the most socially vulnerable (including a new Neighbourhood Flood Vulnerability Index (NFVI), a Social Flood Risk Index (SFRI) and a measure of Relative Economic Pain (REP)
  • Use these new indicators to better target support for the most socially vulnerable in flood investment decisions.
  • Ensure flood risk management policy actively supports inclusive growth.
  • Better reflect the disproportionate long-term flood risks faced by vulnerable neighbourhoods in national and local planning policy.

​​​For further information contact Paul Sayers, email: paul.sayers@sayersandpartners.co.uk

Reference: Sayers, P.B., Horritt, M., Penning Rowsell, E., and Fieth, J. (2017). Present and future flood vulnerability, risk and disadvantage: A UK scale assessment. A report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published by Sayers and Partners LLP

Paul Sayers is Honorary Research Associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. He has over twenty years international experience in all aspects of flood and coastal risk management – including large scale strategic planning studies in the UK, China, Africa, Europe and the US.  Paul leads Sayers and Partners, a specialist consultancy focused on the management of the water environment and its associated risks.

Prof Edmund Penning-Rowsell is Pro Vice Chancellor for Research at Middlesex University. He is also part of the teaching staff on Oxford University’s Water Science, Policy and Management MSc.

Beyond evidence

Experts gather at Wolfson College to explore how knowledge practices inform the governance of environmental challenges.

There are few areas in modern life untouched by regulation. Recent regulatory disasters such as the VW Emissions Scandal, once again, raise the question of whether insufficient knowledge is the cause of such regulatory failures.

Last month, delegates gathered at Wolfson College, Oxford, to explore how evidence is used to inform environmental governance challenges, at a workshop hosted by Oxford University’s Centre for Socio-Legal Studies.

The workshop drew perspectives from across a variety of disciplines, including cultural and urban geographers, economists, political scientists, socio-legal researchers and academic lawyers. Among the speakers were Oxford Water Network members Bettina Lange (workshop convenor), Chris DeckerCatharina Landström and Kevin Grecksch,

Presentations explored how a range of knowledge practices from environmental science and economics inform the governance of contemporary environmental challenges. Speakers touched upon topics such as the regulation of water scarcity and drought in the UK, hydraulic fracking for shale gas, carbon accounting under the Paris Agreement, as well as a range of climate change adaptation measures in North-Western Germany.

The diversity of disciplinary perspectives made for a simulating discussion which considered the opportunities for, and limitations of, evidence in informing environmental regulatory decision-making. This debate touched upon a range of cross-cutting analytical themes, including the relevance of network metaphors, deep uncertainty of knowledge in the context of innovative technologies, as well as agency and scale for understanding the production and dissemination of evidence for the purposes of regulatory decision-making.

The workshop saw the development of a series of ‘law in action’ perspectives around these themes. These were informed by the participation of staff from the Environment Agency and the Competition and Markets Authority, and grounded in the research presented at the workshop.

A detailed workshop programme and abstracts are available from the Law Faculty website.

Oxford scholars receive award for ‘Best Paper’ at XVI World Water Congress.

Geography DPhil student, Kevin Wheeler collects award for Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam research.

Water experts from around the world gathered in Cancun from May 29 to June 3 for the International Water Resources Association’s XVI World Water Congress. Delegates present included a number of Oxford scholars and alumni, including Kevin Wheeler, a current DPhil student at Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment, and alumnus of the Water Science, Policy and Management MSc (2012-2013) programme.

Kevin contributed to a special session exploring perspectives on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the future of water resources management and development in the Eastern Nile Basin, presenting work from his doctoral research. Later, a paper based on this research, ‘Cooperative filling approaches for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’, received the award for ‘Best Paper’ published in the IWRA’s journal Water International in 2016.

The research is the result of a collaboration with a number of regional experts, guided by Kevin’s Oxford supervisors, Professor Jim Hall, Director of the Environmental Change Institute, and Dr Simon Dadson, Associate Professor in Physical Geography at School of Geography and Environment.

The award is a great achievement and recognition of the significant contribution the research has made to the policy discourse around Nile River Basin governance.

You can find out more about the research in this article posted on the Oxford Water Network website last year. Alternatively, the paper is available open Access via Water International.

Reference: Wheeler, K. G., Basheer, M., Mekonnen, Z. T., Eltoum, S.O., Mersha, A., Abdo, G. M., Zagona, E.A., Hall, J.W., Dadson, S.J. (2016) Cooperative filling approaches for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Water International

Detecting water in space and why it matters

Miguel Pereira Santaella, Research Associate at the Oxford University Department of Physics, discusses his newly published work observing never before seen water transitions in space. He breaks down how the discovery will help scientists to answer big planetary questions and build a more accurate understanding of the universe.

From clouds to rivers, and glaciers to oceans, water is everywhere on Earth. What’s less well-known, though, is how abundant the molecule is in space.

Unlike on Earth, most of the water in space takes either the form of vapour or forms ice mantles stuck to interstellar dust grains. This is because the extremely low density of interstellar space – which is trillions of times lower than air, prevents the formation of liquid water. The birth of star formations can tell us about how the Universe behaves. But, since the only way to study them in such dust obscured environments is through the infrared light, detecting water transitions capable of detecting this light, is of vital importance.

Water molecules experience fluctuating quantum energy levels. This activity allows us to observe them and is known as a water transition. The term refers to the best point for scientific observation, which is the exact wavelength at which water molecules go from one quantum state to another, emitting light and increasing their visibility as they do so.

The majority of these transitions are not very energetic so they appear in the far-infrared and sub-millimetre ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum, with tiny wavelengths (ranging from 50 μm and 1000 μm (1 mm)). Observing these water transitions from the ground is very difficult because the thick vapour in Earth’s atmosphere almost completely blocks the emission from view.

Improvements in technology and the development of super telescopes offer an increasing gateway to the universe, and planetary insights are moving at rapid pace. We can now detect water transitions in ways that we just could not before. They are best seen from telescopic observatories situated at high-altitude, in extremely dry sites. Such as, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), which is located in the Atacama desert (Chile) at 5000 m above sea level.

In our study published in Astronomy & Astrophysics, we used ALMA and detected the (670 μm) water transition in space, for the first time. The molecules were spotted in a nearby spiral galaxy (160 million light years away) at a point where the Universe is vastly expanded, and the atmosphere is therefore at its most transparent (red-shifted at 676 μm).

The water vapour emission in this galaxy originates at its core, in its nucleus, where most star formation takes place. To give you an idea of how enormous this galaxy is, the nucleus contains an equivalent amount of water 30 trillion times that of Earth’s oceans combined, and has a diameter 15 million times the distance from Earth to the Sun.

So what sets this water transition apart from others observed in the past? Our analysis revealed that these water molecules intensify their rate of emission when they come into contact with infrared light photons. This increase in activity makes it easier for scientists to observe them. Water molecules are most attracted to photons with specific wavelengths of 79 and 132 μm, which, when absorbed, strengthen the transition’s outline, therefore increasing its visibility. For this reason, this specific water transition has the ability to show us the intensity of the infrared light in the nucleus of galaxies, at spatial scales much smaller than those allowed by direct infrared observations.

Infrared light is produced during events like the growth of supermassive black holes or extreme bursts of star-formation. These events usually occur in extremely dust obscured environments where the optical light is almost completely absorbed by dust grains. The energy absorbed by the grains increases their temperature and they begin to emit thermal radiation in the infrared. Capturing these events can tell us a great deal about how the Universe behaves, so detecting water transitions that can capture this infrared light, is vital.

Moving forward we plan to observe this water transition in more galaxies where dust blocks all the optical light. This will reveal what hides behind these dust screens and help us to understand how galaxies evolve from star-forming spirals, like the Milky Way, to dead elliptical galaxies where no new stars are formed.

A version of this article was originally posted on the Oxford Science Blog.

Strategic drought risk management – 8 golden rules

New research led by the Environmental Change Institute’s Paul Sayers provides guidance for water managers in a changing climate.

Major droughts are ever-present threat: one set to increase with climate change and rising water-demand. Historically droughts have been responded to ‘as they happen’ leading to incremental shifts in approach as lessons are learnt. Given the significance of the challenge now faced, this heuristic approach is no longer fit-for-purpose and a new approach is required.

One such approach is outlined in a new paper, recently published in the International Journal of River Basin Management, entitled ‘Strategic drought risk management: eight ‘golden rules’ to guide a sound approach’. The research led by Paul Sayers, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Environmental Change Institute, and conducted in collaboration with colleagues from WWF-UK and China and General Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Planning and Design at the China’s Ministry of Water Resources, draws from a series of expert workshops, international case studies and analysis of past droughts, to develop a framework for Strategic Drought Risk Management (SDRM).

The framework encourages a focus on long-term outcomes (for people, ecosystems and economies) and views drought as a water-related risk, not simply a hazard. SDRM is presented as a multi-scale endeavour, providing both local and regional solutions whilst addressing short and long-term challenges. It seeks to implement a diverse portfolio of measures during non-drought conditions as well in the run-up to, during and after a drought event whist recognising the critical interdependences between human systems and freshwater ecosystems.

The paper concludes by presenting eight ‘Golden Rules’ to guide a sound approach to successful SDRM, namely to:

1. Set multiple goals and objectives that promote positive long-term outcomes for society;
2. Encourage stakeholders from a variety of different sectors and realms to participate;
3. Implement a portfolio of measures to transition towards a drought resilient society;
4. Utilize limited resources efficiently and fairly to reduce risk and maximize opportunities;
5. Assess whole system behaviour and associated risks and uncertainties over the short- and long-term;
6. Communicate risks (and associated uncertainties) effectively and widely;
7. Understand inherent controversies and trade-offs;
8. Embed a continuous process of review and adaptation;

Golden rules for Strategic Drought Risk Management.

You can find our more about these 8 rules and the research here. For more information about Paul and his research, click here.

Reference: 

Paul B Sayers, Li Yuanyuan, Catherine Moncrieff, Li Jianqiang, David Tickner, Lei Gang & Robert Speed (2017) Strategic drought risk management: eight ‘golden rules’ to guide a sound approach, International Journal of River Basin Management, 15:2, 239-255, DOI: 10.1080/15715124.2017.1280812 

What about the people? Unlocking the key to socially sustainable and resilient communities

Oxford University anthropologist, Cathy Baldwin, and the World Resources Institute’s Robin King, summarise findings from their new report exploring how built environments shape community resilience.

Children play in flood waters after torrential rains in Kampung Melayu, Jakarta. Photo by Kate Lamb, Freelance journalist

Rapid urbanization, economic growth and climate change are putting increasing pressure on urban communities around the world. While strong physical structures are important, social relationships play a key role in determining urban communities’ resilience during adverse weather events.

Community resilience is influenced by the strength of neighborhood social networks and cohesion, two features that determine a community’s social sustainability (its viability, health and functioning). Interacting, getting along—with or in spite of social or ethnic differences—and collaborating on group initiatives help sustain communities in ordinary times and respond resiliently during times of crisis. These social factors can improve residents’ health, well-being, daily quality of life and collective capacity to cope with, and adapt to, disasters.

Built environments that promote social interaction can contribute to socially sustainable, resilient communities. City policy makers, planners and designers can adopt “socially-aware planning:” the intention to promote positive social interaction and social impacts through the mindful planning, designing, construction and management of cities.

Urban development projects and built structures, such as housing, public spaces and transit stops, can influence people to think and behave in ways that are indicative of strong networks and cohesion. Psychologists label these behaviors, thoughts and feelings “pro-community,” meaning that they benefit their communities. An action as simple as greeting neighbors regularly means that during a crisis, the lines of communication are already open. A new report—What about the people? The socially sustainable, resilient community and urban development by Cathy Baldwin and Robin King— uses case studies to explore how built environments influence pro-community behaviors, thoughts and feelings, evaluating their impact on community resilience. We discuss three here:

1. Neighborhood Co-Design Projects Foster Socially Sustainable Communities

Khayelitsha, Cape Town. Stalls beside Khayelitsha Metrorail station. Photo by Stokperdjie

Two crucial elements—urban form and community participation in urban development—have the greatest influence on community behavior, thoughts and feelings.

In Khayelitsha, a township in Cape Town, South Africa, the Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading Programme (VPUU), has transformed its previously rundown and dangerous streets into a safer, vibrant and more attractive place. Through a survey and interactive events, residents and professionals co-identified crime-related problems, community needs and organizational patterns in urban spaces. To deter crime in these locations, residents helped implement new features, including paved pedestrian walkways and street lighting, providing “safe routes” through dense informal settlements. These new features made the community safer. In fact, the murder rate dropped by 39 percent between 2003 and 2010, the highest in a low-income community. Additional positive social impacts include employment opportunities for residents and trauma counselling for women. These solutions foster positive community behaviors such as collaboration and feelings of pride and safety.

2. Communities Experience Measurable Positive Social and Psychological Effects

Residents restore neighborhood squares in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Jan Semenza

While the Khayelitsha project provided distinctive social and economic benefits, a co-design project in Portland, Oregon, identified quantifiable clinical health benefits. The community conceived, designed, permitted and constructed three neighborhood pedestrianized squares with the objectives of improving participants’ social networks and mental wellbeing. With support from urban development professionals, residents implemented features such as community-designed street murals, benches, planter boxes, information kiosks with bulletin boards and hanging gardens. Psychologists systematically surveyed 265 participants before and after the intervention within a two-block radius of the sites. They measured mental health, sense of community, community capacity and social networks and recorded improvements seen through community empowerment, participation and collective action.

3. Built Environments Influence Community Behavior Before and During Disasters

In many informal settlements, such as in Surat, India, community resilience is inhibited by poverty, low-quality built structures and exclusion from city government disaster planning. Including these communities in neighborhood management is the most immediate factor to address.

Where residents have strong networks but are vulnerable to, for example, flooding, resettlement requires a nuanced understanding of the social relationships and organizational strategies that enable resilience. In Jakarta, Indonesia, the diverse residents of riverside neighborhoods (kampungs) have strong social networks and cohesion, partially due to the close proximity of low-quality housing, and formal organizations that enforce participation in neighborhood cleaning (kerja bakti) and security systems (ronda).

The kampung of Manggarai, Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo by Mario Wilhelm

During floods, residents use their informal communications networks as a warning system, pooling resources and participating in clean-up activities. Despite attempted relocation, some kampung residents may return to their original dwellings if their networks and support systems are not also transferred. Adequate housing is an urgent priority, but, before relocating populations, planners must research the spatial and organizational features of neighborhoods to maintain social communities.

Designing for Social Networks and Cohesion Is the Crux of Community Resilience

By examining urban development and disasters across 12 countries, the report reveals the behaviors and feelings that stem from social networks and cohesion, emerge under the influence of urban form and community participation and are common to communities that are both socially sustainable and resilient:

  • Feeling connected and emotionally attached to neighborhood and community
  • Feeling safe and secure
  • Monitoring the neighborhood
  • Residing long-term
  • Regularly interacting with neighbors and participating in events
  • Being socially cohesive
  • Having community spirit
  • Having a voice and influence in neighborhood planning and governance

Projects involved different creative steps to influence these behaviors, which urban planners can tap into for implementing socially-aware planning:

  1. Incorporate clear social objectives into planning
  2. Conduct social research to understand the local interpretation of the urban landscape, and document communities’ social needs and strengths
  3. Employ democratic and inclusive community engagement and participation
  4. Match the evidence of communities’ needs and strengths with sensitive planning and design decisions
  5. Allow communities to co-design, implement, construct and manage spaces and infrastructure
  6. Create off-shoot community and economic development opportunities
  7. Include communities in ongoing monitoring and evaluation, ensure social objectives are honored and generate future learning

Government sustainability and resilience plans tend to prioritize the “hardware” of cities, but change is needed. Adopting the socially-aware planning process will make cities more robust and responsive to the needs of their residents. The report offers a global perspective and evidence from 12 countries to show its’ relevance and applicability everywhere. As adverse weather events increase, people, as well as the planet, must be protected.

Cathy Baldwin is an applied anthropologist and consultant specialising in the social, cultural, health and well-being aspects of urban development, planning and infrastructure, energy production, environmental management, and adaptation to climate change. She is Research Associate at Oxford University’s Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology and Visiting Research Academic at the Faculty of Technology, Design and Environment, Oxford Brookes University.

The report can be downloaded from Oxford Brookes University website.

This blog was originally posted on TheCityFix, an online resource for learning about the latest in urban sustainability, produced by WRI’s Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, a program of the World Resources Institute.

Conceptualizing Chinese engagement in South-East Asian dam projects: evidence from Myanmar’s Salween River

New study by Julian Kirchherr, based on his doctoral research conducted at the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment, explores Burmese dam development.

A major boom in dam construction is underway in Myanmar, with the Burmese government planning up to build up to 45 dams in the near future. However, to date, these projects have been subject to limited scholarly research. One academic, who has worked redress this balance is Julian Kirchherr, Assistant Professor at Utrecht University’s Faculty of Geosciences and recent DPhil graduate from Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment.

The International Journal of Water Resources Development, recently published the latest paper from Kirchherr’s doctoral research. This work examines the motivations behind seven dams to be built on Myanmar’s Salween River, one of which, the Mong Ton Dam project, would be the largest dam in mainland Southeast Asia and the 6th largest dam worldwide if completed.

Previous scholarly work has described these dams as Chinese-led initiatives, offering limited side benefit to Myanmar – extractive endeavors designed to “suck resources (or is it blood?)” from Myanmar (Lamb and Nga Dao, 2015).

However, Kirchherr argues that most of the projects are actually Thai-led. He bases his argument on more than 70 interviews with dam developers, government officials, project-affected communities and NGOs in the region which he visited between 2015 and 2016.

“The interviews showed that the Thai government initiated most of these projects, hoping to export the dams’ electricity to Thailand. No dams can be built in Thailand these days due to the sweeping resistance of civil society”, Kirchherr explains. Indeed, 4 of the 7 Burmese dam projects feature electricity exports to Thailand, according to this research; 90% of the Mong Ton Dam’s electricity would be exported to Thailand.

He further argues that the Chinese were engaged by Thai players in order to make use of their significant expertise in mega-dam construction.

“The Chinese have accumulated significant experience over the years – they have constructed half of the world’s 45,000 large dams”, Kirchherr argues. “Mega-projects such as the Mong Ton Dam can only be carried out by Chinese players: Thai players lack the relevant experience.”

“Scholars tend to think that any dam project with Chinese involvement must also be a Chinese-led one”, says Kirchherr, ‘this is not the case.’

Kirchherr hopes that the work will encourage scholars to consider Chinese engagement in dam projects overseas on a case-by-case basis:

‘There is growing evidence that Chinese dam developers often act solely as contractors in large overseas dam projects, and not lead the overall development effort”.