Citizen science for landslide risk reduction and disaster resilience building in mountain regions

Lead Research Organisation: University of Geneva
Department Name: Dep. of Earth and Environmental Sciences


Mountains are hotspot of natural disasters, in particular those related to landslides. At the same time, scientific understanding about the natural processes that cause these disasters is lagging behind, because of the complexity of the physical environment and the difficulties facing data collection. The impact of these disasters on society is very high, especially because mountain regions often host less developed infrastructure and vulnerable populations. As a result, there is an urgent need to improve our understanding about how natural disasters in mountain regions occur, how they can be mitigated, and how people at risk can be made more resilient.

This proposal will leverage recent technological and conceptual breakthroughs in environmental data collection, processing and communication to leapfrog resilience building in data-scarce and poor mountain communities in South Asia. In particular, we identify three convergent evolutions that hold great promise. First, technological developments in sensor networks and data management allow for participatory and grass-roots data collection and citizen science. Second, web- and cloud based ICT makes it possible to build more powerful analysis and prediction systems, assimilating heterogeneous data sources and tracking uncertainties. Lastly, this enables a more tailored and targeted flow of information for knowledge co-creation and decision-making.

These evolutions are part of a trend towards more bottom-up and participatory approaches to the generation of scientific evidence that supports decision making on environmental processes, which is often referred to as "citizen science". We believe that a citizen science approach is particularly promising in remote mountain environments, because improving resilience and humanitarian response in these regions are inherently polycentric activities: a wide range of actors is involved in generating relevant information and scientific evidence, in decision-making and policy building, and in implementing actions both during a hazard and before and after. It is therefore paramount to strengthen the flow of information between these centres of activity, to make best use of existing knowledge, to identify the major knowledge gaps, and to allocate resources to eliminate these gaps.

We will use the Karnali basin in Western Nepal as a pilot study. The Karnali basin is a remote and understudied basin that suffers from a complex interplay of natural hazards, including hydrologically-induced landslides and cascading hazards such as flooding. Over the last years, these hazards have caused serious damage to local infrastructure (e.g., roads, irrigation canals, houses, bridges) and affected livelihoods (e.g., 34760 families in the August 2014 floods).

Using cost-effective sensor technologies, we will implement grass-roots monitoring of precipitation, river flow, soil moisture, and geomorphology. We will use those data to analyse meteorological extremes, and their impact on spatiotemporal patterns of landslide risk. By merging these data will other data sources such as satellite imagery, we aim to generate landslide risk maps at unprecedented resolution.

At the same time, our participatory citizen science approach will enable us to design and implement a framework for bottom-up and polycentric community disaster resilience, based upon knowledge co-generation and sharing.

Lastly, we will build upon the existing community-based flood early warning system implemented by our partner Practical Action Nepal, to create a comprehensive multi-hazard early warning system and knowledge exchange platform. For this, we will leverage recent developments in open-standards based, decentralized data processing and knowledge dissemination, such as mobile phones and web-interfaces.

Planned Impact

We aim to maximise impact creation through the following strategies:

* tight integration with national and local stakeholders:

Our consortium is designed to maximise links with relevant stakeholders and policy-makers at all levels. As a Nepal-based organisation, Practical Action Nepal has more than a decade of experience working in the Karnali basin working with local communities, NGOs, and government institutes. They long-standing and successful collaboration between Practical Action Nepal and IIASA ensures local buy-in, as well as the goodwill required to ensure attendance to workshops, training, participatory monitoring, and related activities. At a national level, Practical Action, as well as SOHAM and Tribhuvan University give us direct links into several government entities. For instance, Co-PI prof. Nayava of SOHAM is past director of the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, Ministry of Science, Technology & Environment. Lead PI Buytaert has collaborated for several years with SOHAM and Prof. Nayava, ensuring a smooth and productive collaboration.

Our strong local network is evidenced by the number of letters of support from the following partners:

- Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, Ministry of Science, Technology & Environment, Government of Nepal
- Department of Water Induced Disaster Prevention (DWIDP) , Ministry of Irrigation, Government of Nepal
- Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development, Government of Nepal
- Kathmandu Living Lab (a Nepal based SME)
- Snowland Integrated Development Centre (Local NGO)
- Women Peace Society Nepal (Local NGO)

At an international level, our collaboration with UNESCO's Communication and Information Sector (Co-PI Neupane) and Buytaert's existing contacts with the Cross Cutting Thematic Unit for Disaster Risk Reduction at UNESCO (Dr Makarigakis), will enable maximum impact at the international policy level.

* Research on participatory methods, resilience building, and disaster governance

We will not only collaborate closely with relevant actors, but at the same time contribute to the scientific basis of impact-oriented research. Our Work Package 3 focuses on an analysis of knowledge co-generation & risk governance in data-scarce and multi-actor systems. This will include a thorough analysis of social learning, contextualization of decision-making, and the development of participatory methods of knowledge sharing within the Karnali basin. Together with Work Package 4, which deals with the implementation of developed tools for operational disaster risk reduction and resilience building, it will enable a direct and continuous feedback between the natural science activities (work package 1 on hydrometeorology and work package 2 on earth-surface processes) to ensure that the generated knowlege is scientifically sound, practically useful, and policy relevant.

* Capacity development and training

Based on our interactions with relevant stakeholders, we have identified specific training courses, the details of which are given in the Pathways to Impact document. Past experience with similar projects (e.g., Buytaert's ESPA-funded Mountain-EVO project) has also highlighted the value of employing locally-based researchers and enabling research visits to UK and European counterparts. Through consortium member Tribhuvan University, we aim to hire 4 Nepalese researchers (see Justification of Resources). We have allocated resources for research visits for each of these researchers, for Nepal-based investigators, and for relevant project partners (e.g., Amatya of the Nepalese Department of Water Induced Disaster Prevention, whose CV is included).
Description In recent decades, landslide disasters in the Himalayas, as in other mountain regions, are widely reported to have increased. While some studies have suggested a link to increasing heavy rainfall under a warmer climate, others point to anthropogenic influences on slope stability, and increasing exposure of people and assets located in harm's way. A lack of sufficiently high resolution regional landslide inventories, both spatially and temporally, has prevented any robust consensus. Focusing on Far-Western Nepal, we have drawd on remote sensing techniques to create a regional inventory of 26350 single landslide events, of which 8778 date for the period 1992-2018. These events serve as a basis for the analyses of landslide frequency relationships and trends in relation to precipitation and temperature datasets. Our results show a strong correlation between the annual number of shallow landslides and the accumulated monsoon precipitation. Furthermore, warm and dry monsoons followed by especially rainy monsoons produce the highest incidence of shallow landslides. However, we find strong spatial variability in the strength of these relationships, which is linked to recent demographic development in the region. This highlights the role of anthropogenic drivers, and in particular road cutting and deforestation, in amplifying the seasonal monsoon influence on slope stability. In parallel the absence of any long-term trends in landslide activity, despite widely reported increase in landslide disasters, points strongly to increasing exposure of people and infrastructure as the main driver of landslide disasters in this region of Nepal, and no climate change signal is evident.
Exploitation Route Our findings will be expanded and integrated with the outcomes from the other project work packages as a basis for better preparing communities to prepare and respond to landslide disasters in the Karnali basin. Community engagement and other stakeholder activities are planned throughout the remaining duration of the project, and will the key mechanism through which our results feed into local on-ground action. This is strongly facilitated though the local project partners. At the academic level, one further publicatoin is under review, and international conferences will be attended during 2021.
Sectors Environment

Description Results from the landslide hazard modelling have been used to create hazard maps for communities in Western Nepal. These hazard maps are translated into local language and serve as a basis for disaster risk management.
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Education,Environment
Impact Types Societal

Title Landslide Inventory for Karnali Basin, 2000 - 2017. 
Description A comprehensive inventory of ca. 25,000 landslides has been generated for the Karnali Basin - the project study region. Each landslide is dated to the preceding monsoon season and standard geomorphological attributes have been calculated. For the himalayan region, we believe this database will provide an unprecedented empirical basis for basin-scale landslide susceptibility modelling. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Impacts will be generated over coming 12 months, as inventory will now serve as important basis for understanding past landslide activity in the region, and for susceptibility modelling. 
Description Landslide mapping collaboration with Tribhuvan University 
Organisation Tribhuvan University of Nepal
Country Nepal 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution University of Geneva have undertaken extensive landslide mapping for the study region based on high resolution satellite imagery. This data compliments the field-based mapping being undertaken by Tribhuvan University.
Collaborator Contribution Colleagues at Tribhuvan University are undertaking field-based landslide and geological mapping, which will be used to validate and improve the landslide susceptibility mapping being undertaken by University of Geneva.
Impact In preparation.
Start Year 2017