Why are Catastrophe Bonds MIA in peer-reviewed water management literature?

Recently, climate experts and water planners have spent significant resources to understand if extreme events are increasing (or decreasing) and how to plan for the consequences to urban populations and infrastructure.  One piece of this puzzle is computing the likelihood of an event, which, depending on the location and degree of human impact on the watershed, could mean a historic (or future) trend influences how likely a flood, drought, etc, is to occur.  Trend analysis is a rigorous process, as persistence in a time series is often difficult to separate from an actual trend (Cohn & Lins, 2005). Nevertheless, suppose evidence suggests an increasing trend in the annual maximum flow series for example, sizing infrastructure and continuing urban development according to the existing 100-year floodplain would not protect against the true 100-year event, as these maps and boundaries need to be updated.

One question that emerges from this discussion is how insurance companies and others that calculate damage costs and bear the financial burden of loss actually compute the probabilities of extreme events? This topic is something we’ve heard about in popular media, but is not explored with near as much attention in the hydrology literature. Literally in the most well-known water resource planning/management/design journals, there is one article, Chen et al., 2013, that outlines how probabilities of events apply to catastrophe (CAT) bonds and impact planning for extreme floods (at least in English, there is one other paper published in Chinese! – Qiu, L. et al., 2008). Though there is a much richer literature on applications for earthquakes and examples from agriculture, these articles are still sparse compared with the plethora of research in the economics and insurance sectors, which detail the complex pricing distributions CAT bonds can follow. I am not claiming that we are ignoring CAT bonds, in fact many researchers in the risk and climate literature have written on their use and application to extreme events like Katrina and now Sandy, as well as popular media like pieces from Michael Lewis (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/26/magazine/26neworleans-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0). But instead I am concerned that there is an information gap occurring, that we are missing a learning opportunity between understanding how insurance/re-insurance companies compute the likelihood of an extreme event, and how we in hydro-statistics are planning/predicting these. With any hope there is the chance for these fields to learn from one another, and at least make sure we’re on the same page –  communicating – when it comes to making claims about trends in extreme events and their potential impacts on society.


Chen, J., Liu, G., Yang, L., Shao, Q., & Wang, H. (2013). Pricing and Simulation for Extreme Flood Catastrophe Bonds. Water resources management27(10), 3713-3725.

Cohn, T. A., & Lins, H. F. (2005). Nature’s style: Naturally trendy. Geophysical Research Letters32(23).

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Can we have our cake and eat it too?

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Source: Charles van Rees

On the Hawaiian island of Oahu, water is a sensitive issue. Not only is there a history of conflict over this culturally important resource, but Oahu’s rapid development increases human pressure on already scarce water resources and exacerbates environmental issues related to water.  Over-development on Oahu, Hawaii’s most developed island, threatens its unique ecosystems, contaminating water resources via runoff and destroying habitats for rare species.

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Source: Charles van Rees

Charles van Rees, a Biology Ph.D. student in the second cohort of Water Diplomacy students, thinks that the creation of artificial wetlands in strategic areas on the island has the potential to ameliorate many of these water crises on Oahu.  Among  many ecosystem services, a constructed wetland can remove or convert 80-90% of pollutants from the runoff filtering through it, sequester heavy metals, increase infiltration, and provide habitat for endangered waterbirds, whose migratory patterns will be the focus of Charles’s research in biology.

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A major challenge for such a project will be determining and weighing the interests of the wide range of stakeholders in order to select a suitable site for an artificial wetland. On an island where water has historically been a contentious issue, there is already tension between the many groups who have a vested interest in this resource. However, this does not need to be a zero-sum game; according to Charles, we can have the “same cake, better party” and create value by finding overlaps in ecological and societal water interests.  For example, a constructed wetland is not only useful as a habitat and a filtration system. Wetlands are beautiful, and their construction would create tourist value that appeals to business on Oahu. This mindset is an example of how Water Diplomacy students can establish incentives for cooperation and resolution of complex water resource allocation problems.

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Annual Conference of the Institute for Advanced Studies on Science, Technology and Society in Graz, Austria

On May 6th and 7th I had the opportunity to attend 12th Annual Conference of the Institute for Advanced Studies on Science, Technology and Society in Graz, Austria and present some of my research.  The conference was a fairly small, intimate conference, with lots of time for networking and discussions among participants.

The conference provided a great opportunity for me to learn more about the field of “STS,” or “Science, Technology and Society,” a term widely used in Europe, although there are also many programs in the US (but these tend to use the term Science and Technology Studies).  The field is relatively new and draws heavily on history of science studies.  In terms of broader disciples, it is most closely associated with Sociology, although the nature of its subject lends the field to be highly interdisciplinary.  While I was familiar with many of the topics and literature addressed at the conference, I had not placed them previously in the framework of STS, and it was helpful to understand how my research fit within this field.

I presented in a session on agriculture and food security.  My presentation focused on the results of two of the case studies I conducted last summer in collaboration with the GEF (projects in Ethiopia and Peru) because both of these projects had a strong agriculture focus.  I addressed the wide range of technologies being promoted by the projects, and some of the unique challenges that agricultural adaptation may pose for the technology transfer process.  My presentation was well-received, and I had many interesting follow-up conversations, including with a former technology transfer in agriculture expert at Nestle and an Austrian agrofood company.  He shared some great insights into technology transfer challenges he had faced (including very successfully introducing strawberries to Morocco!)

There were many interesting presentations throughout the conference, but one of the most relevant for me was a keynote address on the role of public procurement for driving innovation.  Although the presentation was in the context of European domestic public procurement, it offered some valuable insights into potential framing of the role of development projects in promoting technology transfer and innovation for adaptation.

Graz is a really beautiful city, although unfortunately it was raining most of the time I was there, so I didn’t get much of a chance to explore.   Although it is Austria’s second largest city, it is quite small, with a population of 265,000, making it easy to get around on foot (they also have a well-developed tram and bus network too though).  The center of the city has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and we had the opportunity to view the city from the balcony of the city council at a special lunch hosted by the mayor for the conference.

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Transboundary Water and Adaptation Workshop in Geneva

One of the advantages to doing research in Switzerland is the ease of access to interesting international meetings.  On February 20th and 21st, I had the opportunity to attend a meeting of the Core Group on Pilot Projects for Transboundary Water Adaptation in Geneva.

This meeting was hosted by the UNECE (United Nations Economic Commission for Europe).  The UNECE serves as the Secretariat for the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (known as the Water Convention).  This little-known treaty began as a regional treaty addressing transboundary waters in Europe in 1992.  Interestingly, in 2003, it was amended to allow non-European parties to join the treaty.  This amendment just entered into force (February 6th 2013), making the treaty truly a global water treaty.

One of the programs of work under the Convention addresses climate change adaptation, and a number of transboundary pilot projects on adaptation are underway.  This meeting was the 4th meeting of the pilot projects to share progress, challenges and lessons learned on developing transboundary adaptation plans, and implementing transboundary adaptation measures.  It was also a very interesting meeting because it was the launch of the Global Network on Transboundary Water and Adaptation.

In addition to the well-established transboundary cooperation in such groups as the Rhine Commission (9 countries) and the Danube River Commission (14 countries), a number of basins in Eastern Europe and Southeastern Europe, as well as several African basins (including the Sahara and Sahel Aquifer, and the Congo Basin), the Mekong Basin in Asia, and the Upper Paraguay Basin in South America also attended.

Working in English, French and Russian, the workshop included presentations from each basin, as well as lots of time for small group discussion and problem-solving.  I was very fortunate to be invited to be an active participant in the small group workshops and planning exercises, where we worked though issues such as how to harmonize transboundary plans with national plans, how to prioritize among potential adaptation measures, and how to adapt monitoring systems to climate change.  A key challenge that was addressed was how to integrate data from different countries in a basin, particularly when the countries may have different levels of development, as well as how to develop adaptation plans in the face of data scarcity.

The workshop atmosphere was informal and cooperative, with delegates openly sharing challenges, lessons learned and insights from past experiences with other basins.   I personally gained great insight into the different types of adaptation planning challenges faced by different regions, particularly due to different institutional and capacity standpoints.  It was also fascinating to learn more about European adaptation planning, as this is not a region I have previously focused on, but which is clearly on the forefront of thinking about adaptation planning.  The work being done on water and adaptation under the Convention has the potential to be some of the most innovative work on adaptation planning being done globally, and it will be very interesting to see how this global network on transboundary water and adaptation evolves.

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Research at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology

This spring I have the opportunity to be a visiting researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag).  I arrived on February 1st, and will be here through June.  Eawag is a large research institute working on a wide range of water issues.  Much of the work is in the basic sciences and engineering, but there is also a small Environmental Social Sciences Department, with approximately 25 members, which is where I am housed.  This interdisciplinary department has a number of research clusters, and I am working with the Cirus team, Innovation Research for Utility Sectors.  The team is doing very interesting research on socio-technical innovation systems for sustainable urban water systems.   Research projects currently focus on urban water systems in Europe, Australia and China.

In addition to the interesting research being done at Eawag, which I will write more about later, particularly as it relates to my own research on technology transfer and innovation for climate change adaptation, the building itself is very interesting.  In this post, I will share with you a few of the interesting innovations regarding this building.

The building is designed to be very low energy, and uses four times less energy than a conventionally designed building.  As a result, it uses passive heating  and cooling (which means on very cold days, it is not particularly warm!).   Hot tea and sweaters are a common solution!  It is actually surprisingly comfortable most of the time though- between the heat from the sun, computers and body heat, the temperature is quite reasonable.  All lighting is high efficiency and the lights are on sensors to shut off when they are not being used.  There are large blue glass panels on the walls of the building that automatically rotate direction depending on sun and wind conditions in order to maximize the efficiency of the heating and cooling systems.  There is also a large glass-windowed atrium in the building to maximize the absorption of sunlight into the building.  The reinforced steel frame of the building is designed to store heat or cooling, and the clay and gypsum materials with which the interior walls are made help to regulate the humidity.

In addition to being low energy, the building is also low-water consuming.  One of the most interesting features are the toilets.  The toilets have a mechanism to separate the urine from the rinsing water and solids, allowing the urine to be stored in concentrated form (known as No-Mix Toilets, a technology developed at Eawag).  When you sit on the toilet, it closes the water valve, ensuring that only urine enters the pipes.  Also, the building collects rainwater from the roof, and uses this water for rinsing and flushing the toilet.  As a result, no drinking water is consumed by the toilets.

According to the Eawag website, the additional costs to build the building in this sustainable manner were only 4.7% of the construction costs, a price which will offer a rapid payback period due to cost savings in heating, cooling and water use.

Blue glass panels on the Eawag building that rotate to capture sunlight

The Eawag building in Dubendorf, Switzerland

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Peru Wastewater Treatment Plant and Education Project

As part of an Active Citizen Scholarship grant from Tisch College and an on-going Engineers Without Borders project through the Greater Austin Chapter, I traveled with a team to the Central Andes in Peru for an assessment and education trip.  Our team hosted two workshops open to the community to engage members on water use and sanitation in the region.  We used activities like three-pile sorting and pocket diagrams to solicit opinions on water and start an open dialogue within the group.  Participants also filled out a survey, mapped the community water resources, and engaged in focus group discussion.



Our other task on the trip was to assess the feasibility of reusing wastewater for irrigation of a community land.   We had meetings with the local mayor, engineer, and community board of directors on how best to move forward with the project and who the active parties in the project would be, and have determined that significant work needs to be done to improve the effluent of the treatment plant before pursuing it as an irrigation source.  We have moved forward on locating springs as an alternate water source and conducted biological samples, which show low levels of fecal coliform and e.coli.  Our next steps are to present these springs to the community for approval and sign Memorandum of Understandings (MOU) with the community and municipal government defining our roles in the project. We plan to educate the community on sanitation and wastewater, create an operations manual and schedule for the treatment plant, and build infrastructure to provide irrigation water to the community land.

From this point, we focus on education and writing grants to fund the infrastructure improvements to the treatment plant and for the irrigation system.  We’ll return in January for a follow up trip!

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Reflections on Rio: Reframing Environmental Negotiations

In the weeks post-Rio, wide consensus has emerged that the agreement reached is not ambitious and lacks creativity.  In light of this outcome, and the lack of progress witnessed in climate negotiations, it is important to reflect whether we are negotiating the right agreements.  I had the opportunity to attend the Rio+20 Conference, and take part in a panel discussion organized by the Fletcher School and the Tufts Institute of the Environment on reframing environmental negotiations.  You can read more about the side event and our panelists here.

The concept for the panel emerged from a paper written by Bill Moomaw and Mihaela Papa on reframing the climate negotiations in terms of energy access. My role in the panel was to discuss adaptation to climate change and how this can be reframed from a burden to an opportunity for resilient development.  Other panelists discussed clean energy and health.  In this post, I present a brief overview of some of the main arguments for shifting from burden-bearing to opportunity-sharing in negotiations.  Although many of these issues were addressed during the panel, each panelist brought their own ideas, and I don’t try to summarize all of the discussions of the panel here.  Hopefully, however, it will provide a flavor of the discussions we had during the panel, and throughout our time at Rio+20.

The current climate treaty focuses on burden-sharing, and negotiating to share burdens is unlikely to be successful.  No negotiator wants to go back to their capitol and say, “look, I got us this much burden.” If, instead, the negotiations could focus on opportunity-sharing, perhaps they will be more successful.  By focusing on sustainable development, there is potential to reframe the negotiations.  Three examples of issues that are currently framed in terms of burdens but may be reframed in terms of opportunities include mitigation, adaptation, and health.

The goal of reducing greenhouse gases immediately leads to a focus on burden-sharing- who has to reduce their emissions, and by how much? It is important to consider, however, why reducing emissions constitute such a burden.  It is because the services we desire, primarily energy services, are associated with emissions.  A more productive approach, therefore, could focus on how to provide those energy services without the associated emissions.  Providing energy services that are clean, reliable, and affordable is a major development objective, and an area where climate goals and poverty alleviation goals are closely aligned.  Clean energy technologies provide numerous advantages over traditional energy sources for poor, remote households, including the decentralized nature of many of these technologies, health benefits, labor-saving opportunities, and lack of reliance on high-cost fuels.  These advantages make clean energy ideally suited for providing access to energy services.  Focusing on these benefits, rather than on emissions directly, is likely to be a more successful strategy. For a deeper discussion of these concepts, see Moomaw and Papa’s paper.

Adaptation is typically framed as both a burden for vulnerable developing countries that have to adapt to negative climate impacts, and for developed countries that bear a responsibility to finance these adaptation measures.  However, if adaptation is viewed in terms of sustainable development, instead of focusing more narrowly on climate impacts, adaptation offers a lot of potential for optimism.  One reason for optimism is that adaptation is an inherently local process, and doesn’t suffer from the same need for global cooperation as mitigation.  Actions taken at a local level (even at the level of the household), can improve adaptive capacity successfully.  Another reason for optimism is that the incentives to adapt are high-people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake, so it is likely to be a high priority for individuals, particularly in the most vulnerable areas where people are already feeling climate impacts.

Adaptation is an area where the environmental agenda and the development agenda come together.  Particularly in light of the uncertainty associated with local climate impacts, one of the best ways to adapt is to build the resilience of individuals and communities and reduce vulnerability.  Although climate change adaptation may be a fairly new concept, many of the ways to implement adaptation are similar to approaches that have been successfully used in international development for years. While development and adaptation may look similar on the ground, there are a couple important advantages that an explicit focus on adaptation brings.  One is a focus on risk management. Helping households build assets and diversify their income is a common development strategy, but adaptation brings an explicit focus on risk management and the importance of diversification of livelihood options. Another advantage is that it provides the opportunity to reframe environmental goals in terms of development. By reframing natural resource management in terms of its ability to increase farmer’s resilience to drought, for example, households can begin to view natural resource management not as an environmental goal, but as a development strategy, increasing its relevance in their lives. A final benefit is that emphasizing adaptation can help shift the policy focus from disaster response and humanitarian interventions towards a focus on building resilience and sustainable development.  Instead of seeing disasters as inevitable, adaptation projects can help people recognize that they are both predictable and their impacts can be mitigated with proper planning.

A third example of reframing relates to health.  Health is often described as a sector that is influenced by climate change and unsustainable development.  Focusing only on health impacts provides few opportunities for health and health interventions to contribute to sustainable development.  However, from an adaptation standpoint, the health sector offers many opportunities.  Disease burden and illness are one of the greatest vulnerabilities that many households face, and poor health can lead to depletion of assets, reducing not just the immediate but also the long-term adaptive capacity of households.  Improving health and access to services like health insurance may be one of the most effective ways to adapt to climate change.


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More Updates from Water Diplomacy Students

In early summer 2012, several members of Tufts’ community headed to Brazil for the Rio+20 summit in Rio de Janeiro. This delegation included two Water Diplomacy students, Andrew Tirrell and Laura Kuhl.  You can read more information about the participants on Tufts Institute for the Environment’s website.

The delegation kept track of their adventures on a special blog: http://jumbosinrio.wordpress.com/

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Were the Side Events at Rio+20 Actually the Main Event?

One could easily have left the Rio+20 conference last month feeling pretty pessimistic. After all, the final text that was agreed to by the national delegations was at best a very small step forward, and at worst just a hodgepodge of language from past agreements thrown together so that conference organizers could have something to show for the massive amounts of time, money and energy (quite literally) that was put into the conference. The carbon expenditure alone (flying more than 40,000 people around the globe) demanded such accounting. Yet, despite the meager outcome of the “official” negotiations, optimists in need of a reason to believe could look to the side events for inspiration.

I attended two such side events that seemed to promise much more short-term progress than the diplomatic process could hope to deliver. The first, a joint side event hosted by the World Bank and the UK, announced a new initiative they have called the 50/50 program. The program aims to unite at least 50 countries and 50 private sector entities into a partnership to promote and develop a sophisticated system of natural capital accounting (NCA). The event was extremely well-attended, packing the room well beyond intended seating capacity. A very significant media presence was present as well. Rachel Kyte, a 2002 graduate of the GMAP program at the Fletcher School, and current Vice President for Sustainable Development at the World Bank, presided over the event, which included heads of state from Costa Rica, Norway, and Gabon, as well as representatives from private sector firms such as Unilever, Dow and Puma. Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister of the UK gave opening remarks, and was briefly interrupted by a protester wearing a mask of his likeness, and claiming that the UK and the World Bank were conspiring to sell the world’s ecological assets through the initiative. To the contrary, Ms. Kyte and speakers such as Prime Minister Stoltenberg of Norway claimed that NCA is the only way to hold the private sector truly accountable for the natural resources they consume or compromise. Moreover, NCA aims to correctly value the wealth held by countries who are undervalued by traditional metrics such as GDP, which do not account for eco-system services and other forms of natural capital. Thus far, the partnership has already exceeded its initial goal, having signed up 57 countries and 86 private companies for the initiative. According to Ms. Kyte, the time is right for such action, as “there is now overwhelming support for implementation across the world.” If she is right, this partnership could prove to be among the most significant developments to com out of Rio+20.

The second event was the launch of the U.S. Water Partnership, a consortium of government, private sector, academic and NGO partners committed to mobilizing expertise, resources and ingenuity to address global water challenges, with a special focus on developing countries where needs are greatest. Tuft’s own TIE has joined the partnership, which aims to improve access and quality of service for water, sanitation and hygiene, increase efficiency and productivity of water use, and improve governance through stronger public and private institutions, policies and processes. The launch not only brought together expert speakers to discuss the urgent issues that the partnership was created to overcome, but also witnessed significant financial commitments from two of the founding partners, Coca Cola and World Vision. Coca Cola committed more than $3M to water stewardship programs in several African countries, while World Vision committed more than $400M to a wide array of programs ranging from improved sanitation to access to safe drinking water. These two events displayed the power behind multi-sector partnerships, a power that traditional diplomacy struggles to harness. In time, side events such as these  may well prove to be more influential than the supposed  main event (the state-level negotiations) at environmental conferences like Rio+20.

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Exploring Technology Transfer for Climate Change Adaptation

I’m about to embark on a busy summer- in the next month and a half I will visit four countries in two continents, and hopefully conduct some really interesting research on technology transfer for climate change adaptation. I will be conducting fieldwork in Ethiopia, Colombia, and Peru, where I will be looking at the role of technology transfer in ongoing (or recently completed) adaptation projects.  Although there is strong consensus in the international community that technology transfer is critical to the international strategy for climate adaptation, there is very little evidence of the role that technology transfer is playing in projects on the ground.

For this project, I am collaborating with the Global Environment Facility (the GEF), which is responsible for managing several funds under the climate Convention.  The case studies we chose are among the more than 100 adaptation projects that the GEF has funded to date.  The three cases we choose represent a wide variety of approaches to adaptation, and a broad range of climate challenges.  The Ethiopia project focuses on coping with drought. The project is highlighted here  on the Adaptation Learning Mechanism website.  The Colombia project includes components on montane ecosystems, hydropower, health (dengue and malaria prevention) and fresh water access and sea level rise on the coast. It holds the distinction of being the first “on the ground” adaptation project funded by the GEF.  The Peruvian project is part of a regional Andean project including Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia addressing glacial melt, and looks at early warning and monitoring systems, as well as water management and small-scale irrigation systems.  You can read about the project partner CARE’s role in the project here.

In late June I will take a break from fieldwork to attend the Rio+20 Conference in Brazil.  This historic conference marks the 20th anniversary of the Rio Conference on Sustainable Development.  The original Rio Conference still holds the status of the international event at which the most heads of state were present in one place.  Although this event is not expected to be as momentous, it is still an important opportunity for the international community to reflect on progress on sustainable development made in the past 20 years and begin to chart a course moving forward.  A delegation from Tufts and Fletcher will be attending, and we will be hosting a side event panel discussion on “From Burden-Bearing to Opportunity-Sharing: Reframing Environmental Negotiations.”  I will be speaking on the panel on resilient development, adaptation and water, along with other panelists looking at energy services and health.

Look forward to updates throughout the summer- It’s sure to be an adventure!

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