Opportunities and trade-offs between the SDGs for food, welfare and the environment in deltas.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Faculty of Engineering & the Environment


The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are offered as a comprehensive strategy to guide and promote sustainable development, nationally and internationally. Furthermore, through the development of indicators associated with each goal and sub-goal, the SDGs support the notion of monitoring, evaluation and adaptive management, underpinned by aspirations of social justice, equity and transparency. As such, the strategic value of the SDGs is well founded. However, possible synergies, conflicts and trade-offs between individual SDGs and development pathways have received limited attention.

The overall aim of the project is to analyse the synergies and conflicts between the SDGs in complex socio-ecological systems (SES) and explore the resulting opportunities and trade-offs in policy. We use deltas as an example SES, as delta systems well illustrate the complex challenge of Agenda 2030. Collectively, they are home to 500 million people who are often poor with a strong dependence on rural livelihoods. At the same time, they are subject to multiple drivers of change operating at multiple scales. Examples include global climate change and sea-level rise, deltaic subsidence and reducing sediment inputs, extensive land use conversion from agriculture to aquaculture due to global seafood demand, and widespread migration and urbanisation. The resultant trade-offs, systemic shifts and critical thresholds in biophysical, economic or social dimensions are hard to foresee and often difficult to reverse. Linear 'command and control' plans and policies for development are inadequate to plot a course towards sustainable development. Instead, more dynamic and adaptive management approaches are needed to navigate this complexity. Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) provide a whole-system tool that promotes multi-disciplinary approaches to explore the dynamics of complex systems and allows extensive participatory engagement in their development and application. This project will collaboratively develop a participatory IAM to explore critical sustainability challenges and interactions between the SDGs of no poverty, zero hunger, reduced inequalities, climate action and life on land and below water (corresponding to SDGs 1, 2, 10, 13, 14 and 15). The Ganga delta, West Bengal, India will be used as a case study, comprising the North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas Districts, which include part of Greater Kolkata, and are home to ~18 million people.

The project team has access to an extensive highly relevant base data for the site, available from the DECCMA project. The IAM will be developed and applied to explore plauible futures, and impacts for the selected SDGs, including extensive participatory engagement and consideration of scenarios and a range of policy options. There will be a focus on understanding the opportunities and trade-offs between the selected SDGs, as well as identifying key thresholds. Scientists and decision makers will combine their expertise on current policy challenges, together with data and models on hydrology, agriculture, fisheries (including aquaculture), poverty, livelihoods and ecology in the Ganga Delta to develop the IAM. Key knowledge gaps will be identified and filled with secondary data sources and a rapid fieldwork campaign as necessary. The timeframe of the SDGs is to 2030, which will be the major focus of our research. However, our analysis will also consider in more general terms changes to 2050 and beyond to examine how decisions within the SDG timeframe influence longer-term outcomes. The results will be explored through participatory workshops with key decision makers and agencies in West Bengal and India responsible for achieving and reporting on SDGs. The approach and the findings will also be shared with international audiences to demonstrate the application of this approach, the nature of SDG trade-offs in deltaic regions, and the challenges of operationalising and achieving the SDG targets.

Planned Impact

In assessing the SDGs, our methods will achieve transformative impact by applying and enhancing world-leading UK and Swedish research in close collaboration with Indian country partners to develop methods that analyse complex systems and inform difficult policy choices, including identifying policy opportunities and trade-offs. The research activities are designed to directly and positively impact the ~18 million residents of our study delta. This will occur via informed, intersectional and evidence-based management and policy development, emerging from an innovative research evidence base. Key to this is engagement with relevant stakeholders at multiple scales from delta planners in government, through NGOs, to community representatives, all embedded in the project execution as project partners (see letters of support). This participatory approach will promote evidence-based policy formulation, supporting direct impact and benefits on those for whom the policy is relevant. This approach contrasts with existing sectoral approaches based on narrowly informed and formulated policy and plans, which can often have a negative impact on delta populations. In contrast, there is a strong link between integrated evidence-based management and positive development outcomes. Deltas are strongly coupled systems and single interventions and changes can have unexpected effects both thematically and spatially, and in the short- and long-term. For example, traditional, single sector management might evaluate the local costs and benefits of investing in embankments in order to protect against river flooding. Alternatively, an integrated, multi-sectoral and multi-scalar approach considers how such infrastructure would interact with other delta activities and areas to identify wider impacts, potential maladaptation risks such as the flood impacts being transmitted downstream, and opportunities such as linking to other infrastructure development such as transport. Longer-term challenges, such as declining land elevation versus sea level, and demographic change must also be considered and assessed from a biophysical and societal perspective. The impact strategy of our research will thus require developing the institutional and scientific knowledge to address the spatial and scale-relevant evolution of delta systems under multiple interacting drivers, including how this will influence delta resident livelihoods. The poor will be a particular focus, combined with issues of equity, such as gender and socio-cultural context.

The research will assess the requirements to support better decision-making processes that underpin impact through policy formulation, implementation and monitoring at multiple levels. At the delta and intra-delta level, this requires the development of the skill sets that are required by both government agencies and civil society to support policy formulation. As such the philosophy of the research is that the sustainable management of delta systems can be enhanced and evolved through: 1) effective capacity building partnerships in policy formulation; 2) access to timely and relevant information and technical research support; 3) development of decision support tools; and 4) inter- and intra-delta engagements for learning, best practice and policy support. At an international level, the information derived from stakeholder engagement and commissioned research will provide impact through the unique contribution that deltas make to fulfil national commitments to international agreements such as the Sustainable Development Goals, UNFCCC commitments and Adaptation Funds (with deltas being major recipients). All this activity will be supported be a range of training activities and exchanges within the research, drawing on the consortium's extensive earlier experience of multi-disciplinary delta research, and innovations to fully exploit new opportunities such as virtual activities.


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