Adaptive governance of mountain ecosystem services for poverty alleviation enabled by environmental virtual observatories (MOUNTAIN-EVO)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Sch of Geography, Earth & Env Sciences


The world's mountains host some of the most complex, dynamic, and diverse ecosystems. But these environments are under severe threats, ranging from local deforestation and soil degradation to global climate change. Global climate models project stronger warming at high elevations, with potentially disastrous consequences for its ecosystems services (ESS). For instance, melting glaciers alone will affect the water supply of millions people, while soil degradation and erosion put local agricultural practices in danger, but also cause water quality degradation and siltation of downstream reservoirs.

At the same time, the complexity of mountains also makes predicting the direction of future changes in ecosystem services extremely difficult. For instance, global climate models do not capture the local weather patterns, and traditional models of the natural and physical processes may not represent the extreme and region specific behaviour. This leads to large uncertainties in future predictions about mountain ESS.

Under such conditions, the value of day-to-day information about how local ecosystems behave increases sharply. Continuous monitoring of crucial ecosystem processes becomes paramount. It allows local decision-makers to flexibly change course in response to unexpected behaviour and large uncertainties. However, because of their remote location and difficult access, monitoring ESS in mountain regions tends the lag behind the rest of the world. The same remoteness and lack of access are also responsible for the propensity of mountain regions to host poor and underdeveloped communities compared to the surrounding lowlands. Lastly, mountain regions tend to be more prone to conflict, which further inhibits human development.

This project will analyse how monitoring and knowledge generation of ESS in mountain regions can be improved, and used to support a process of adaptive, polycentric governance focused on poverty alleviation. For this, we will blend cutting-edge concepts of adaptive governance with technological breakthroughs. The availability of cheap and robust sensors and communication technologies provides great opportunities for citizen science: bottom-up, user oriented data collection focused on local concerns. We will take citizen science to a next level, by integrating it in a broader framework of participatory data processing, knowledge generation and sharing. We do this by adopting the concept of Environmental Virtual Observatories (EVOs) and leverage it for poverty alleviation. We see the potential of EVOs to be decentralised and open technology platforms for knowledge generation and exchange that enable participation of marginalised and vulnerable communities bypassed by the traditional mechanisms.

Therefore, in this project we will analyse how EVOs can be used to generate knowledge and to alleviate poverty in 4 remote and poor mountain regions: the Ethiopian highlands around lake Tana, the Central Tien Shan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan, the Kaligandaki watershed in Northern Nepal, and the Andes of central Peru. In each location, we will collect evidence on the local decision-making processes on ESS and their local socio-economic context. At the same time, we will develop a technology toolset to enable EVO development for each case. Subsequently, the results of both processes will be brought together to implement tailored EVOs to support citizen science and local knowledge generation. We will create novel ways to interact with EVOs beyond the traditional Internet focussing on leaflets in the national language, community radios, and mobile phone applications. We will evaluate how the improved access to local observations fosters cross-scale linkages between the poor and external actors, as well as linkages between communities and marginal groups. Lastly, we will investigate how this can lead to better community awareness of environmental change and identification of pathways for poverty alleviation.

Planned Impact

Our project is designed to maximise local impact. We have a well-balanced research team, with the majority of research occurring in situ in the 4 locations. This will enable us to generate direct and locally relevant impact while minimising the required resources. Our impact strategy is based on 3 pillars of activity:

* Capacity building

The project will employ 6 local researchers (Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, Peru) and enable 1 Ethiopian student to pursue a PhD at a top UK University. They will have the opportunity to work for 3 years in a global, diverse and academically excelling research team including research visits to relevant consortium institutes. This will strongly benefit their research capacity. At the same time, they will be working on very local research questions with a high potential for improving local quality of life. These are optimal conditions to create a generation of researchers that will contribute actively to the local research and development landscape, instead of moving abroad and contributing to the local brain drain.
A second target group for capacity building are local NGOs, government agencies, and communities. Our main vehicle for impact creation is the organisation of two series of workshops, near the beginning and the end of the project, respectively. These workshops will include hands-on sessions with local technicians from the project partners. The local researchers will follow up on these sessions, providing further support and capacity building throughout the project.
Lastly, all the technologies developed in WP 3.1. (Facilitating access to EVOs) will generate capacity building opportunities that will extend well beyond the lifetime of the project (see technology transfer).

* Technology transfer

Given the substantial technological component of the research, we have specific mechanisms in place for technology transfer during the project (see also Data Management):
- Monitoring equipment will be administered and taken over by the local partners. Active capacity building (see above) and educational tools based on EVO technologies will be used to improve long-term sustainability.
- EVO technologies: In each of our study regions, we have identified a local actor with an existing web-platform for data management and dissemination interested in incorporating the newly developed technologies in their system (see their respective letters of support). (1) the Tana Subbasin office of the Abbay Basin authority in Ethiopia; (2) the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology of the Government of Nepal; (3) CEDEPA Norte, CONDESAN, and the National Water Authority in Peru; and (4) the Aga Khan Development Network.
Our setup will use standards-based cloud services, thus facilitating the adoption of the new technologies and services, and minimising incompatibilities with existing infrastructure.

* Internationalisation and South - South exchange

The international setup of the project provides excellent opportunities for international impact creation and South-South exchange. As explained in the case for support, we have planned several South-South exchange activities, including an active programme for virtual exchange and workshops. CONDESAN in particular has good experience with South-South exchange, for instance through their active role in the Mountain Partnership, which is a United Nations voluntary alliance of partners dedicated to improving the lives of mountain people.
Lastly, several of the project partners are actively involved in the Mountain Research Initiative (MRI) based at the University of Berne. MRI will provide linkages to several international programmes on the development of mountain regions, including their Integrated Analysis and Modeling Concerted Effort, Integrated Monitoring Concerted Effort, the alpine Long-Term Ecological Research Network, and the Research Coordination Network proposal.


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Description See Lead Research RO
Imperial College London
Exploitation Route See Lead Research RO
Imperial College London
Sectors Environment

Description See Lead Research RO Imperial College London NE/K010204/1
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Environment
Impact Types Societal

Description NERC SHEAR Directed Call
Amount £1,900,000 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/P00038X/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2016 
End 08/2020