Increasing Freshwater Availability in the Eastern Nile Basin: In the Pursuit of Actionable Niches

By Agustín Botteron

A niche is a hole, a space to put something, or a room where one can hide and feel safe. A niche is also a gap, a break in the continuum where a hand or tool sneak in to modify, create, or transform. As part of the Water Diplomacy | IGERT program at Tufts University, I am looking for what I call “actionable niches” in the Nile River Basin of North Africa to come up with creative solutions for water resource management, and help alleviate the potential water crisis.

The Nile River Basin (NRB) covers an area of 3.2 million square kilometers. This is one-tenth of the African continent, and is equivalent to the area covered by the eleven continental states of the U.S. that lie beyond the 104th meridian West. The Nile River flows about 6.7 thousand kilometers from its headwaters in central Africa to its mouth on the Mediterranean Sea, where the worldwide-known Delta arises. Eleven countries lie on this river basin and benefit from it to differing extents.

An intergovernmental organization fostering development in the region since its inception in 1999, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) subdivides the basin into two regions in order to better promote and set forth projects. The Eastern Nile subsidiary program spans Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, and Egypt, while the Equatorial Lakes subsidiary program covers the rest of the region.

My research is focused on the Eastern Nile Basin (ENB) (Figure 1), which covers 2 million square kilometers (60% of the NRB). This “basin” does not follow the traditional scientific definition according to pure hydrology, as even though it drains out the falling rain, it has an input streamflow on the Southern border coming from the Equatorial Lakes. However, the NBI has come to manage this region under that condition for three primary reasons: more than 80% of the Main Nile streamflow comes from this region over 3-4 months of the year and is characterized by seasonal and inter-annual variability; the Ethiopian Highlands offer massive hydropower generation and water-saving potential; and last but not least, the geographical layout of the countries allows for interconnecting infrastructures such as power, roads, and canals.  

 Figure 1. Eastern Nile Basin (dark gray) and rest of the Nile River Basin (light gray).

Figure 1. Eastern Nile Basin (dark gray) and rest of the Nile River Basin (light gray).

Why study this area?

There are concerns among the international community and local stakeholders about a potential water crisis arising in the region, mostly because of climate change and population increases. One study by the World Resources Institute (2013) identified five different water risk indicators for this region: Ethiopia and Sudan are at high risk in terms of seasonal variability of water and flood occurrence, whereas Egypt features high risk under drought severity. Looking at the basin as a whole, even though it is far from falling into water stress, it shows high risk under the three indicators mentioned at the country levels.

When combining the climate scenario with the fact that the ENB hosts a population of 156 million people, growing at an annual rate of 2.8%—more than twice the global average—in low/middle income countries (World Bank), with a low/medium Human Development Index (UN), and socio-political instability, the panorama calls for hands-on action.

This is the moment where, as water diplomat, I start raising questions. Some of these are: Where is the water coming from and going to? Who is using the water, and for what? Is there enough water for all uses? Is it needed all at once? Is there a cost associated with this water?

I believe that the management of water resources (as with many other natural resources) is a complex problem where there are many variables interconnected in a very convoluted way, making behavior patterns and cause-effect relationships hard to find. Nevertheless, I still want to be actionable, so I strive toward sweeping the picture to let the patterns emerge, in order to effectively act and contribute to the resolution of the problem in context.

The charts in Figure 2 help depict this context. Ethiopia is a perfect source of renewable water resources, but hardly benefits from them. Conversely, Egypt relies heavily on water coming from outside its borders, and withdraws a relatively enormous share of the total renewable resources in the region. Both Sudan and South Sudan find themselves in intermediate positions. Are there not issues of sustainability and equity going on here? 

 Figure 2a) Internal/external renewable water resources in the Eastern Nile Basin countries.

Figure 2a) Internal/external renewable water resources in the Eastern Nile Basin countries.

 Figure 2b) Water withdrawals by sector in billion cubic meters (BCM) in the same countries. Graphs based on data retrieved from  FAO-AQUASTAT  in August 2015.

Figure 2b) Water withdrawals by sector in billion cubic meters (BCM) in the same countries. Graphs based on data retrieved from FAO-AQUASTAT in August 2015.

To further contextualize the problem, I point out four key facts that shape water resources exploitation in the region. In 1959, Egypt (then the United Arab Republic) and Sudan signed the Agreement for the Full Utilization of the Nile Waters, allocating the annual flow of the Main Nile river at Aswan without any consideration for the rest of the riparian countries. Yes, it’s true that the political configuration back then was quite different than it is currently, as the African colonies were undergoing an intensive independence process, and thus there were not many sovereign nations worrying about water rights. However, even though Ethiopia was indeed a free nation, the agreement was bilaterally written and signed, and still remains in force today. A second fact is the rise of South Sudan as the newest country in the world. After many years of civil war and an interim period of peace enacted in 2005, in 2011 the South-Sudanese people formally declared themselves an independent nation. Thirdly, also in 2011, the Ethiopian government announced and began the construction of one of the largest hydropower projects, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile River (the prime tributary of the Main Nile River), bringing new colors to the hydro-political canvas of the region. Finally, in early 2015 after talks, discussions, and threats, the three countries involved in the Blue Nile river—namely Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia—signed a Declaration of Principles, thereby recognizing the importance of the Nile River as a source of life and a vital source for the three nations’ development.

So what is the path forward, when Egypt needs more water to irrigate their land to feed their people; Ethiopia is eager to harness its hydropower potential and write its name on the list of industrialized countries; Sudan sees the opportunity to further develop its agricultural sector by having adequate water granted in realtime upstream; and South Sudan is flagged as the new “breadbasket” of North Africa and the Middle East because of its agricultural potential?

I agree with the UN Water/Africa statement that “water is clearly a major factor in socio-economic recovery and development in Africa. The continent appears to be blessed with substantial rainfall and water resources. Yet, it has severe and complex natural and human-made problems that constrain the exploitation and proper development of its water resources potential." Building on this, I believe creative strategies are needed to put all the pieces together. There is potential to “create more water” in the Eastern Nile Basin, and this potential has been neither comprehensively explored, nor summarized into actionable deliverables. I further hypothesize that it’s possible to shift the anchored conversation from the 84 billion cubic meters (BCM) identified by the 1959 agreement towards a more promising angle. The whole Nile Basin receives 2,000 BCM annually from precipitation—so what about changing the human relationships with and practices around water? I believe it’s possible to better use conventional water resources and fuel—the three “I's” around non-conventional water resources: increase, improve, introduce. I also think that actions should be deployed which consider both short- and long-term outcomes in order to ensure both equity and sustainability—the two irrevocable principles our Water Diplomacy framework treasures. Is it possible to create 100 BCM? Is this possible by keeping the eggs in different baskets?

I know some niches to work on

A small country, Singapore hosts 3.4 million people inside 720 square kilometers of territory (similar to New York City). This “big city” overcame water shortage by implementing the “4 National Taps” program, after 50 years of research and planning. Nowadays, the country is flagged as a cutting-edge example of water resource management, by covering its demand through the use of rainwater harvesting, treated wastewater, desalination technology, and water import from Malaysia. Is there anything to learn from Singapore and other places in the world that could be applied in Cairo and Khartoum?

 Figure 3. Singapore. View of the Marina Reservoir, one of the reservoirs created by damming the estuary to storage harvested rainwater. Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Figure 3. Singapore. View of the Marina Reservoir, one of the reservoirs created by damming the estuary to storage harvested rainwater. Source: Wikimedia Commons

More than 80% of the freshwater demand in Egypt is for watering land, most of which is done by surface irrigation techniques. This technique is highly inefficient, as most of the water is lost either through evaporation or infiltration. Drainage water is collected and re-utilized several times. Its quality, though, diminishes along the process due to salinization, mostly from fertilizers. Irrigation practices tend to be too internalized in farmers’ culture, thus they are hard to reverse in the short term. However, an interesting fact comes up when noticing that 57% of the farm land in Egypt is owned by 96% of the farmers. This indicates the remaining 4% of farmers owns a significant portion of the irrigated land. Is this a niche to foster change and save water?

With the finalization of the GERD in 2017, the Nile River Basin will become the first basin in the world with two large inter-annual reservoirs located in different countries, and no reservoir cooperation rules agreed upon. There is an overall consensus among scholars and stakeholders within the water management community of the NRB that moving water storage from the dry desert in Lake Nasser (Egypt) to the wet highlands in Ethiopia will be beneficial for the watershed as a whole, as evaporation losses would be lower and there would be more water available for other uses. How much water could be saved? Is there opportunity for such cooperation in the region?

Last but not least, both short- and long-term strategies are desired in this region. The Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System is thought to be the largest volume of freshwater in the world. With a spatial extension of 2.2 million square kilometers underneath Egypt, Sudan, Chad, and Libya, this fossil aquifer might be an alternative to help cover demand gaps in the region. A volume of 8,000 BCM is estimated underneath Egypt and Sudan. Is it possible to draw some of this water while figuring out long-term strategies for the region?

I am exploring opportunities for action in these niches, looking forward to assessing them using metrics yet to be defined, and categorizing them into the complexity space shown in Figure 4.

 Figure 4. Degree of certainty and consensus. A lens to describe different types of decision making for different types of water problems (Source: Islam and Susskind, 2012).

Figure 4. Degree of certainty and consensus. A lens to describe different types of decision making for different types of water problems (Source: Islam and Susskind, 2012).

Should you have any ideas in this regard, feel free to drop me a message at


Research Opportunity for Undergraduates

Interested in a career in wildlife conservation, app design, bioinformatics, or database management?

Looking for a way to get involved and make an impact on real environmental issues?

Charles van Rees, a Ph.D. candidate in Biology at Tufts and member of the Water Diplomacy IGERT is recruiting undergraduate students with interests in these fields to work with the Hawaiian gallinule tracking project—a chapter of his Ph.D. thesis and collaborative research project between the Reed Research Group at Tufts University and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Two positions are currently available: one for a field assistant and one for a website manager/app designer.

The Hawaiian gallinule (Gallinula galeata sandvicensis) is an endangered subspecies of waterbird which are found only in coastal freshwater wetlands in Hawaii. These birds were once found on all of the Hawaiian Islands, but are now restricted to two populations on the islands of Kaua`i and O`ahu. O`ahu, Hawaii’s most developed island, has lost more than 75% of its Hawaiian gallinule habitat since human colonization, and gallinules there persist only in small patches of remnant habitat scattered across the landscape. The extinction risk of these populations may depend on their connectivity, that is, how easily birds can get from one habitat to the other and promote gene flow and population stability. If movement between habitats is limited, these populations may have higher extinction risk.

Almost nothing is known about the movement habits of this shy and elusive bird. Two years ago, the Reed Research Group and USFWS started a research project studying the movement of these birds in order to start understanding how continued urbanization on O`ahu may be affecting their habitat connectivity. A major part of this project is a mark-resight study, where individual gallinules are captured and marked with a unique combination of colored plastic leg-bands. These bands enable individuals to be monitored over time; whenever a bird with a particular band combination is observed in a particular place, that information is recorded and entered into a database. With enough resightings, researchers can estimate the movement behavior of individuals across time.

Charles and his colleagues capture and band additional gallinules on O`ahu every summer. They also organize and facilitate a group of citizen-scientist volunteers who submit sightings of banded birds around the island to a project website.

Undergraduate assistants are needed to help with two particular activities:

1) Field assistant – Travel to Oahu for a 2 month period during summer 2016; help trap, measure and band Hawaiian gallinules and assist with other ecological research.

2) Software developer and outreach coordinator – Help maintain, redesign, and improve the project website, organize outreach online and through social media, and develop a mobile app for submitting gallinule sightings remotely.

Students can read more about these openings at the ROGUE (Research Opportunities for Graduate and Undergraduate Exchange) website for the Gallinule Tracking Project. Both of these opportunities are amenable to the inclusion of independent research projects in citizen science, ecology, conservation, computer science, and other fields, and can act as a jumping-off point for theses in the student’s major field.

Students should apply through the ROGUE program as early as possible to discuss funding and collaboration possibilities. Applications to funds available through the Tufts Summer Scholars program are due March 2, 2015 — students are encouraged to apply well in advance in order to have adequate time to prepare a solid proposal.

Reframing Complex Water Challenges

Forward by Michal Russo and George Beane

"The spirit of dialogue is the ability to hold many points of view in suspension, along with a primary interest in the creation of a common meaning. Fixed and rigid frames dissolve in the creative free flow of dialogue as a new kind of micro culture emerges." (Bohm 1996: 246-47)


How water-practitioners think about water challenges—the lenses through which they interpret or frame a challenge—effects where they look for solutions. These frames, which categorize and sort our experiences and disciplines, bring into focus some ideas while simplifying or reducing others. They are as ubiquitous as they are invisible. Frames shape action as practitioners internalize and realize their conceptualization of the world around them.

Traditionally, water challenges have been tackled in disciplines that focus on either a physical or social interpretation of the problem. Today’s water challenges are enmeshed in coupled human-natural networks and emerge from interconnected dynamics and system feedbacks that cannot be broken down and then re-assembled. Most water resource related disciplines, including hydrology, civil engineering, ecology, architecture, public health, city planning, and political science, acknowledge that new interdisciplinary frames are necessary to cope with existing complex water challenges.

The landscape of water-practitioners is dotted with rapidly forming interdisciplinary water groups - innovating new approaches, generating new insights, and encountering significant hurdles. These groups are collaborating to support frameworks that are more innovative, inclusive, and reflective. Their work aims to reach a new shared understanding – a new basis from which to think and act (Isaacs 1999). However, the exposure of their frame is in itself valuable, as tacit values and assumptions are put on the table for exploration (Innes and Booher 2010).

On May 1st and 2nd the MIT Water Club, Water Diplomacy program, MIT Science Impact Collaborative, and Institute of the Environment at Tufts co-sponsored a workshop to learn about the successes and failures of current-day innovative and interdisciplinary water sector practices. We set out to engage with real world experiments that have “reframed” complex water challenges to better understand challenges and explore possibilities. We did not attempt to test predetermined hypotheses, or build prescriptions for improved practice. Instead, we aimed to expose, through reflective insights, the working frameworks of practitioners and researchers who are actively engaged in different ways of learning and innovating.

The workshop brought together practitioners and researchers from around the country with a diverse collection of approaches – from consensus building to active control systems, poverty alleviation to predictive modeling, and local river restorations to regulation of regional water flows. In presenting on their work, each was asked to reflect on a recent case that showcased their current reframing of a water challenges by collaborating across multiple disciplines or innovating multi-disciplinary methods.


Salinity in the South West Region of Bangladesh and the Impact of Climate Change

By Wahid Palash

Bangladesh is thought to be one of the most vulnerable countries of the world to Climate Change and Sea Level Rise. There are a number of environmental issues and problems that are hindering the development of Bangladesh. Salinity is such an environmental problem which is expected to exacerbate by climate change and sea level rise in the future. The coastal area of the Ganges delta in Bangladesh is characterized by tides and salinity from the Bay of Bengal. Salinity intrusion due to a reduction of fresh water flow from upstream, salinization of groundwater and fluctuation of soil salinity are the major concern of the coastal area of the country. The higher salinity levels have adverse impacts on agriculture, aquaculture, and domestic and industrial water use and so. The present temporal and spatial variation of salinity is likely to deteriorate further as a consequence of the external drivers of change (IWM, 2014).

Figure 1: South West region and the Sundarbans forest of Bangladesh


The salinity level in the western part of the South West region (Figure 1) remains higher than the eastern part. This is because the Gorai River, distributary from the Ganges, is the only significant upstream fresh water source in the western part of the region, suffers a serious decline in dry season freshwater inflows under post Farakkha condition. The eastern part of South West region remains less saline as it receives freshwater flow from the Padma and lower Meghna River through Arial Khan, Bishkhali and Buriswar River (IWM, 2014). As a result, salinity levels in the region decrease from west to east as well as from south (the Bay of Bengal) to north.

Seasonal distribution of salinity concentration in the region completely follows the seasonality of the region’s hydrology. Average salinity concentrations at the coast are higher in the dry season than in the monsoon, due to lack of freshwater flows from upstream. The salinity normally builds up from October to the late May, and it remains higher during the dry season, usually from February to May. At the end of May, salinity level drops sharply due to upstream flows and rainfall (IWM, 2014).  

The salinity conditions have been deteriorated in the last few decades because of the decrease in flow of the Ganges and empoldering effect. The role of freshwater inflows through the Gorai River to push back the salinity intrusion from the Bay has been reported in many journal papers and project reports. One of such study, carried out by IWM and CGIAR (IWM, 2014), reported that,

“In 1975, India commissioned Farakka Barrage on the Ganges at about 17 km upstream of the Indo-Bangladesh border to divert about 40,000 m3/s of flow into Bhagirathi-Hoogly river system. As a consequence of such a large-reduction of the available flow, the Ganges dependent area in Bangladesh was exposed to serious fresh water shortage. The withdrawal of freshwater flow has resulted in landward movement of salinity front in the Ganges dependent coastal area of Bangladesh. In 1996, Bangladesh and India signed Ganges Water Treaty (GWT) for Ganges water sharing between the two countries. The treaty ensured minimum flow in the Ganges River in Bangladesh during dry season, which improved the salinity condition in the South West of Bangladesh. However, during dry season the Gorai intake is almost cut off from the Ganges and there is no freshwater flow through this river. As result salinity water comes through the major rivers namely Pussur, Jamuna, Malancha and Sibsa in the western part of southwest region and increases the salinity level in the dry period. In 2012, Gorai dredging restored the dry season flow temporarily into the area decreasing the salinity level slightly.”

Hence, the mitigating role of Gorai inflows to control the salinity intrusion in the western part of South West region is very much understandable. Figure 2 shows this perfectly by plotting salinity concentration at Khulna on the Rupsha River against the upstream inflows through the Gorai River.


Figure 2: Monthly Salinity variation at Khulna on the Rupsha River with upstream freshwater flow


The plot also reveals the effect of Gorai dredging where it shows pre-dredged near zero flow through the Gorai offtake (in 2011 dry season) and post-dredged improved flow condition (in 2012 and 2013 dry season).

Meanwhile, the IWM and CGIAR study warns about other external drivers, some of them have already made the salinity problem worse, and some will trigger the problem further in the future. This is why earlier mentioned report also stated that,

“The other external drivers such as population growth and increased water use, climate change are expected to worsen the situation. Land-use change will also have important impacts on the surface water resources. To improve the situation proper water management options, water governance and water infrastructure development (including Ganges Barrage and river restoration schemes) can be implemented.”


Present Salinity Intrusion Scenario

The water is not usable for domestic purposes if salinity is higher than 1ppt, though it is still favourable for crop and livestock agriculture unless salinity exceeds 2ppt. Some freshwater aquaculture is still possible when the salinity is below 4ppt. However, in the south and western part of the study region salinity is higher than 4ppt during the dry season which has intrigued brackish water shrimp farming in Satkhira, Khulna and Bagerhat districts (IWM, 2014).

The base or present salinity concentration map of the South West region is shown in Figure 3. The map was prepared using the results of South West salinity model, run for Oct 2011 to May 2012. The map is not a salinity concentration map of a particular day; rather it shows a maximum salinity concentration for every point of the region that would have experience during 2012 dry season. It has been mentioned earlier that the salinity usually builds up from October to the late May and it remains higher during the dry season, usually from February to May.


Impact of Climate Change and Upstream Freshwater Inflow

The overall impact of climate change with sea level rise and no upstream freshwater inflow are summarized in Table 1. On average, area of having portable water (0 – 1 ppt) at base condition will lose its 4 and 12 percent area during CC 2030 and CC 2050 condition, which is equivalent to 2 and 6 percent of total South West area, respectively. For Gorai zero flow condition, this could be as high as up to 19 percent loss from the base area and this is equivalent to 10 percent of South West region.


Table 1: Effect of climate change and the Gorai River flow on salinity intrusion in the South West region of Bangladesh


A side-by-side comparison of base, climate change and Gorai zero flow salinity maps have been shown in Figure 3. The maps clearly indicate the salinity front towards the northern direction of the region in each scenario. The Gorai dependent area will be more saline in the climate change condition, however, the situation could be worse if there is no dry season flow through the Gorai River, even in a base climatic condition (base sea level and rainfall condition).


Figure 3: Surface water salinity map of the South West region for base, climate change and the Gorai flow condition


The area of having suitable water for irrigation (0 – 2 ppt) at base condition will lose its 3 and 4 percent of the land, equivalent to 2 and 3 percent of entire South West, in CC 2030 and CC 2050 condition, respectively. For Gorai zero flow condition, this could be 13 percent loss from the base area that is equivalent to 8 percent of South West region.

The area of having suitable water for specific fish species (0 – 5 ppt) at base condition will lose its 3 percent of the land, equivalent to 2 percent of entire South West, in both CC 2030 and CC 2050 condition. For Gorai zero flow condition, this could be 7 percent loss from the base area that is equivalent to 5 percent of South West region. The results also show that the area that are suitable for shrimp farming (more than 5 ppt) will gain about 6 to 7 percent land from its base area due to climate change condition, which are equivalent to 2 and 3 percent of total South West area of Bangladesh.  

The percentage of area loss due to climate change and Gorai zero flow condition in each water quality category from base condition is shown in Figure 4. The left column chart of Figure 4 shows percentage of area loss over area of each quality group in base condition. The right chart of the figure the same, but the percentage of area loss is shown against total South West area.


Figure 4: Percentage of area loss due to climate change and Gorai River’s zero flow over base condition.


It is quite clear from this analysis that both climate change and reduction in freshwater inflow from the upstream will convert the present fresh water zones into saline zones and lower saline zones into more saline zones. The climate change will enhance the salinity problem of the region further. However, the effect of the reduced Gorai River flow will be higher than that of climate change for the western part of South West region.



IWM. 2014. Salinity in the South West Region of Bangladesh. Institute of Water Modelling, Bangladesh.

Excerpted from Chapter 7 of Surface Water Assessment of Bangladesh and Impact of Climate Change. Palash, W., Quadir, M.E., Shah-Newaz, S.M., Kirby, M.D., Mainuddin, M., Khan, A.S., Hossain, M.M. 2014.  Institute of Water Modelling, Bangladesh and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research, Australia.

The Impact of Flood Trend Model Selection on Climate Change Adaptation Outcomes

I am currently working on separately-funded research projects on (i) statistically modeling changes in floods, and (ii) providing decision support to communities making adaptation plans for uncertain future climate change. These two separate projects have piqued my interest in how trend model selection affects climate change adaptation decisions.

My first project focuses solely on modeling how floods have changed over time. For instance, this model can describe how much the magnitude of a flood with a given frequency (e.g., once every ten years on average) has changed due to environmental perturbations, such as climate or land use change, at a given location on a river.  One major preliminary finding from my research is that accounting for trends in the variability of annual peak flows can yield substantially high flood estimates downstream of urbanizing areas than more commonly used models that only take into account trends in the central tendency of annual flood probability distributions. This modeling decision can substantially affect estimates of extreme floods, such as the 100-year flood, that are often used in community planning and engineering design. Determining whether or not the modeled trends may persist into the future and adjusting models to reflect different plausible change trajectories further complicates these efforts.

Next, I am designing a decision-support system (DSS) to help communities determine the implications of this kind of trend modeling decisions. There are different ways by which they can decide to use flood trend scenarios. One approach is to determine which scenario is the most likely and then base their climate adaptation decisions on that one scenario. However, many climate change projections vary substantially and many experts have a low degree of confidence in them as well. Due to these limitations, identifying flood protection measures that are robust to a wide range of climate futures becomes preferable.  Furthermore, stakeholders may have different model preferences, and the identification of solutions that are robust to a model choice can offer a compromise between stakeholders with different interests.  

I am applying my DSS to a quasi-hypothetical community inspired by the town of Exeter, New Hampshire. One objective is to minimize the sum of flood control and flood damage costs incurred during the 21st century. Adaptation options include protective barriers along river reaches, property-scale floodproofing, flood insurance and permanent retreat. Estimates of future extreme flood events that would cause damage are sensitive to the global climate model outputs. (Note that a statistical approach like the one I am using in my other project is more difficult to implement in this idea due to limited streamflow data.) Different model projections of future flood hazards diverge substantially around 2070. However, instead of debating which of the two projections is better, stakeholders with different model preferences might seek a compromise solution that is robust to a wide range of model projections. However, additional optimization modeling may be needed to inform stakeholders, including a satisficing solution that adequately satisfies the stakeholder objectives. These two models do not necessarily yield the same solution, so it is important to consider both perspectives.

One place where trend model selection is currently controversial is coastal North Carolina. Incorrectly choosing a high sea level rise projection may overly reduce economic opportunities while an excessive low projection may result in greater property damage and put more people at risk during storm surges.  In 2016, the state will determine the type(s) of statistical or physically-based model(s) that provide a sea level rise projection(s). Previously, the state almost banned all types of models except for linear models fit to tidal observations in 2012. However, some scientists predict that the sea level rise will at a faster rate over the rest of the 21st century than it did during the previous century.  Hopefully, there is not only a debate about which projection is the most accurate, but also a discussion about planning approaches that take into account different scientifically defensible model preferences that stakeholders may have.

Urmia Lake: The Need for Water Diplomacy

Quoted from Water Diplomacy Aquapedia:

"The government of Islamic Republic of Iran established the Urmia Lake Restoration Program (ULRP) in 2013. This program is under auspices of the President and then has more power than of the former program initiated by DOE. After several meetings, this program produced a set of guidelines, including 19 potential solutions for the lake. One of these solutions was to rent the lands of the Zarrinehrud River (which provides roughly 40% of all inflow to the lake) from farmers who did not harvest during winter seasons of the preceding three years. However, this solution was rejected by members of the local parliament who claimed the plan would negatively impact employment and waste funding on farmers, who do not possess effective tools to invest. Another solution mentioned by the ULRP was reallocation of water among the lake's three neighboring provinces. When applied, however, this approach resulted in each province making greater demands, and ultimately claiming more water.

Consensus building among these stakeholders is vital to the survival of the lake. As the ULRP lacks the authority to enforce compliance among local provinces, agricultural and water ministries, and parliamentary units, the introduction of a -water parliament- is one solution in which all formal stakeholders can receive equitable consideration toward the development of a successful mandatory policy."


Climate-Smart Agriculture and Best Practices

In November 2014, over fifty participants from across Latin America came together in Gracias, Lempira, Honduras to discuss climate-smart agriculture and identify best practices.  Representatives from USAID missions across the region, implementing partners of USAID-funded agriculture projects, and climate change and environment staff from Washington came together to exchange lessons learned, experiences, and ideas for the future.

I was invited to join the workshop because my dissertation research looks at innovation and technology transfer for climate adaptation in the agricultural sector, and Honduras is one of my case study countries. 

The workshop focused on the experiences with Feed the Future, as well as other USAID agricultural initiatives in the region.  Feed the Future ( is a Presidential Initiative to combat food insecurity and hunger in 19 priority countries.  Although Feed the Future investments are larger in Africa and Southeast Asia, there are three participating countries in Latin America: Honduras, Guatemala, and Haiti.

In order to ground the discussions throughout the week in practical realities, the workshop organized several field visits to the Honduras Feed the Future project, “ACCESO“ (  In 2013 I conducted over 100 interviews with ACCESO clients to understand the farmer experience regarding the adoption of new technologies promoted by the program and the role that these technologies and new access to markets for their resilience and adaptive capacity.  I presented some of the insights from this research, and encouraged programs and projects to think critically about the role of risk and potential tradeoffs between production for markets and resilience to climate change. 

Although the workshop did not resolve the very complex challenges facing the region regarding food security and climate adaptation and the role of the agricultural sector in addressing these goals, it provided many opportunities for experience-sharing and a foundation for more critical thinking on these issues was laid.

Planning for Change: A Case Study in Las Vegas

Climate change and urbanization are significant planning challenges for water supply management. New methods developed to address this challenge have significantly advanced the assessment of strategies to adapt water infrastructure to climate change, but they still have a critical limitation: they fail to account for the adaptive nature of human management in response to change. This gap is particularly apparent at the urban scale, as many water management and climate adaptation decisions are made by cities.

To address this challenge, Tufts Water Diplomacy | IGERT fellow Margaret Garcia is developing a coupled socio-hydrologic model of urban water management. The Las Vegas metropolitan area was used as a case study to develop an initial model due to its combined challenges of population growth and climate change, common to many cities in the arid west. She is currently expanding this work to other cases to develop a more widely applicable model. Margaret conducted the initial modeling work as a visiting researcher at the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria, through their Young Scientist Summer Program.

Students in Focus: Charles Van Rees, PhD Candidate

Originally published in the Tufts Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Newsletter    November 2014
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Some scientists work in sterile labs, others travel to remote and inhospitable regions, and starting from the summer of 2014 Biology doctoral student Charles van Rees’ summers will be spent in O`ahu, Hawai’i (sometimes spelled “Oahu, Hawaii”). As a Fellow with the Water Diplomacy IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship), Charles studies the intersections of science, society, wildlife, and politics with respect to water networks –freshwater, in particular. “Fresh water is one of the big ways humans interact with ecosystems,” Charles says, “and with water use it is hard to quantify and see how we are affecting wildlife populations.”

Behavioral ecology and conservation biology are Charles’ academic passions – in fact, it was the research of his faculty advisor, Dr. Michael Reed, in these fields that sparked his interest in Tufts, and it was Dr. Reed who introduced Charles to the Water Diplomacy IGERT. His research into the movement behaviors of the endangered Gallinule bird is a natural fit, and gives him an opportunity to further explore the issues surrounding wildlife preservation and water use as they play out in the wetland ecosystems of O`ahu. Plus, Charles says, “You don't have to twist my arm to go to Honolulu a few times a year.”

He has pursued this project since 2012, and flew for the first time to Hawai’i last summer to begin research in earnest. The Gallinule bird used to flourish on the islands, but Charles explains “due to rapid urbanization and water use many of these wetlands have been lost; additionally, new predators like cats have been introduced to the environment, which resulted in the near extinction of the bird in the 50s and 60s.” Now extinct on all but two islands, less than one thousand of these birds are alive worldwide.

The birds are very sparsely dispersed on the island, with substantial habitat fragmentation. This is the foundation of Charles’ research: the question of whether these habitat fragments interact – so the entire Gallinule population on O`ahu might be considered as a whole – or if these fragments act as isolated sub-populations – which would make the bird much more sensitive to climactic or man-made crises. An accurate understanding of the birds’ full migration patterns is critical, particularly given a recent observation by another Tufts graduate student that a Gallinule had flown from O`ahu’s north shore to the south shore. This contradicts the accepted idea that these sub-populations did not interact at all, and necessitates this new research.

Now, Charles works to determine the extent of the birds’ movement, and where that movement occurs. Logistically, manual banding of the birds and continuous surveying is the only way to track the birds effectively. Because he cannot be on O`ahu throughout the entire year, Charles has enlisted support from the people of O`ahu: “We began a citizen science approach, and started a volunteer network called Ike na Manu, to get the public involved. It’s whoever wants to go and survey these wetlands, and if you see birds or if you don’t see birds just let us know. We also ask them to let us know if they see a particular bird wearing a colored band, which are specifically coded for each bird so we would know where that bird had been and where it is now.”

Meanwhile in Medford, he continues work with O`ahu wetlands through work that addresses the viability of artificial wetlands as a solution to impending water management issues on the island and this species’ endangered status. He says, “Wetlands are sometimes called the ‘kidneys’ of the land, filtering freshwater and recharging groundwater, so they are seen as an essential part of this process. Artificial wetlands are often used to provide these functions where they are lacking, so I am seeing if this would work to fix the water problems on O`ahu while helping this endangered species.”

Due to the sensitivity of land use in Hawai’i this type of solution has not been examined in depth before, and Charles points to the interdisciplinary focus of the Water Diplomacy program as essential to the process of coming up with a solution that is beneficial to all involved. These are the types of issues he hopes to pursue in the future, as well. He is interested in international conservation in the nonprofit sector, and hopes to enrich his specialization in biology by embracing an interdisciplinary approach.

He sees this type of work as “much more difficult than working domestically, because other countries are much more on the front lines of conservation, because their biodiversity issues are compounded by the needs of economic development, and we have to figure out how to integrate those two things.” He hopes to make a difference as a trained biologist with all the theory and rigor of hard academic training who can also communicate with politicians and decision-makers. For now, he will continue his work in Hawai’i – investigating the Gallinule species and inspiring citizen action.

Technology Transfer for Climate Adaptation

Originally published at on September 25, 2014

As the international community gears up for the climate negotiations in Lima this December, technology transfer features prominently on the agenda.  Technology transfer is essential for both mitigation and adaptation, and technologies, while not themselves a solution to climate related challenges, will play an important role in climate change mitigation and adaptation. At the same time, technology transfer is highly contentious in the negotiations, highlighting many of the historical North-South divisions that have plagued the negotiations.

Stepping back from the politically-charged rhetoric of the negotiations, we recently published a paper in Nature Climate Change titled “Technology Transfer for Adaptation”.  In it, we looked at technologies being transferred through the Global Environment Facility’s (GEF) adaptation funds.  Through both a content analysis of project proposals and case studies of three projects funded by the GEF, we analyzed trends in terms of the way technology is conceptualized and incorporated into the projects, and barriers for technology transfer and adoption from the perspective of different stakeholders.

Historically, ‘technology transfer’ has been used to connote  ‘North-South transfer’ or transfer of ‘hard technologies.’ However, knowledge transfer and capacity building are an important component of technology transfer, and the use of technology in addressing climate adaptation needs to incorporate tacit knowledge, behavior changes,  and broad consideration of the types of technology that may be useful for adaptation in a specific location.

The 66 projects included in our analysis span the globe, with the largest portion in Africa. The case studies, from Colombia (agriculture, water supply), Peru (water supply), and Ethiopia (agriculture) varied in design and scope. Our paper discusses technology selection, market factories and technology diffusion in these three projects.

We found that significantly more technology transfer is occurring through adaptation projects than the pessimistic rhetoric might suggest, although the scale of these projects is quite small.  Projects tended to focus on demonstration and early deployment/niche formation activities. recently published a news piece summarizing and discussing the study.

Laura Kuhl

Laura Kuhl is a doctoral candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a fellow in the Water Diplomacy program. Her research looks at innovation and technology transfer for climate adaptation in East Africa and Central America.