On the Move: Hassan Virji in Temporary Residence at Kyoto University

Update blog from START Executive Director Hassan Virji

hassan-presenting-2During October and part of November, I have the honor of being a Visiting Professor in Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies. Within the graduate school, I am hosted by the Graduate School of Sustainability and Survivability Studies. Physically, I am located in the International Environment and Disaster Management (IEDM) Laboratory. This lab is START’s partner in the PARR Alliance, a network of institutions from academia, public and private sectors, that collaborates on the Pan Asia Risk Reduction (PARR) Fellowship program. The lab, under the able leadership of Professor Rajib Shaw, conducts research and engages graduate students from across Asia. The lab has developed a highly regarded framework for assessing “Disaster Resilience Index”, that has been applied at urban to regional and socio-economic sectoral scales. Prolific research and publications output from the lab has set a high bar in academia at Kyoto University.

The IEDM lab is also a host institution for the inaugural round of the PARR program. During my stay here, four PARR fellows are in residence, three of who are shown in the photo that accompanies this post – Ms. Aparna, Ms. Rina Suryani Oktari, and Ms. Thinn Hlaing Oo, seated with their Fellowship supervisor Professor Rajib Shaw and myself. The Fellows had just presented their work to IEDM staff and graduate students. Their work focuses on (1) role of school-community collaborative networks in building disaster resilience in coastal region of Myanmar and Bandar Aceh in Sumarta island of Indonesia, respectively, and (2) understanding the role of regulatory frameworks in managing flood risk and vulnerability in Surat, India.


I currently share an office with these PARR Fellows, which allows me to interact with them on a daily basis. Their diligence, commitment, and scholarship are exemplary. They have actively interacted with IEDM’s academic staff and graduate students. For them, rewards of the PARR experience, so far, have been that their research work has become more focused, resulting in working papers that will later be available on the START website and may be refined and submitted for publication. During their time together at IEDM, Thinn, Okta, and Aparna have also become friends. This is indeed a basic ingredient for fostering a network of collaborating Fellows.

Besides interacting with PARR fellows and graduate students, and giving seminars, I have also been involved in developing other collaborations, for example with the Future Earth Regional Hub based in Kyoto at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, and with the Asian University Network for Environment and Disaster Management.

Being in the heart of academic setting in Kyoto is an uplifting experience. I firmly believe that START and IEDM will have a sustained and highly productive relationship for years to come.

– Hassan

Giving Back: Did you get your start with START?

Did you make meaningful connections during a START activity?

Did your career advance because of a START experience?

At START, we create opportunities for research, education and training. We bring people together to share ideas and experiences.

Humanity is facing profound challenges in managing global change and working towards sustainable development goals. The skills you gained through your START experience are particularly useful for taking on questions that are important to a rapidly changing world. START is proud that alumni like you are confronting these challenges and responding to knowledge needs. We also see you expanding networks and training others. START alumni are important leaders in today’s global change community.

And we need more of you.

This October we’re kicking off our “Giving Back 2014” campaign. Between now and 31 December, our goal is to raise $10,000 US Dollars from alumni and friends to support capacity building opportunities for the next generation of global change leaders.


1) We invest in early career researchers and practitioners to build their experience with climate change issues, which in turn gets passed on to others they encounter as they move up in their careers and become leaders;

2) We help individuals (through training programs, fellowships to gain new skills, and research grants) plus institutions (when individuals return to their home institution after a START training/research experience and pass on their knowledge and network connections);

3) We partner with other key institutions in the developing world to engage in productive networking relationships and to focus on challenges of environmental change and sustainable development; and

4) We are an efficient, effective, and fiscally responsible organization that provides excellent value for money. START spends 70% of its budget directly on programs for research-driven capacity building, with only 30% goes towards administrative expenses. By comparison, universities in the U.S. spend an average of 52% of their research funds on administrative costs, with less than half going to actual scientific studies.

Thousands of scientists and policy-makers have been positively impacted through their involvement with START. Our investment in early and mid-career researchers ensures that knowledge gained through START’s program will have a multiplier effect beyond START fellows themselves as they in turn teach students, adapt their research methodologies, or share with colleagues.

We need you to help START realize our shared vision of “a world in which developing countries strengthen their capacities to use science to advance sustainability.”

Even a small gift can make a big difference. Would you please consider partnering with START and “Giving Back 2014” in 2014?

From Training to Action: Reflections on the GOFC-GOLD Data Training Initiative

asia_philippines_manila_slumIn July and August, eight GOFC-GOLD Fellows from around the world participated in the Global Observation of Forest Cover and Land Dynamics (GOFC-GOLD) Data Training Initiative to improve their use of remotely sensed Earth observations, such as NASA Landsat data.

The first week involved a training session held at the USGS EROS Center in South Dakota, which is the global leader in the distribution and application of earth observation data, and especially Landsat data. The Fellows accessed, downloaded, and compiled regional and country-level data sets on land cover and fire observations. Fellows then applied their datasets during a two-week course at the Department of Earth and Environment, Boston University, in Massachusetts to map and monitor landscape change.

A critical component of training activities is moving from lessons learned to action through sharing of data, training of other researchers or practitioners, or integrating skills into on-the-ground research. The following are reflections on how Fellows will share their training:

John Isaac Molefe
University of Botswana
Botswana currently does not have a critical mass of trained people who can take advantage of the freely-available remote sensing and GIS data. Therefore, in my teaching at University of Botswana, I will use my new skills to upgrade courses as a means to improve student skills for using Geospatial information. This will be one more step towards the development of the critical mass of trained people! Another important task will be to engage other Botswana institutions as shareholders in order for them to be able to tap into the data. This includes the Department of Surveys and Mapping, the Department of Town and Regional Planning, the Botswana International University of Science and Technology and the College of Agriculture at the University of Botswana. The last thing that I hope to accomplish is to advance independent research projects by using my sharpened skills in monitoring Land Use/Land Cover Change in Botswana.
Lucie Cervena
PhD candidate
Charles University
My first activities when I return to Charles University in Prague will be to give a short course to my fellow faculty members about Landsat and Land Cover Change Detection. Then I will develop a course for students with a focus on Landsat data characteristics, as well as the process for obtaining and interpreting the freely-available USGS/EROS maps that document changes in land cover. I will update the curriculum of an undergraduate academic course on Remote Sensing based on the information that I learned at the Data Initiative Workshops. I will also use the data and knowledge to prepare suggestions for new topics for Bachelor’s theses, which will be focused on nature protection in cooperation with Czech National Park Administration.
Yuvenal Pantelo Mtui
Forest Certification Manager, Mapingo Conservation and Development Initiative
Attending the 2014 GOFC-GOLD Data Initiative Remote Sensing Training workshop provided me with better access to accurate land cover data with which to identity and map burn scars following seasonal fires. This will enable us to: (1) generate better estimates of the area of forest protected from late season fires as a result of communal early burning operations, and (2) make better-informed strategic decisions about where to perform early burning in coming years, both locally in the community forests where we already operate, and on a broader scale in terms of where to expand our REDD project for the greatest impact in the future.
Sandeep Kumar Pakatamuri
Research Scholar
Anna University
First of all, I want to acknowledge that it was a privilege to be allowed to use state-of-the-art equipment at Sioux Falls and at Boston. I was able to download 2 Tb of data in just five days at Sioux Falls! The data represents most parts of my region that were collected over a time range from the beginnings of the Landsat program to the most recently collected data. But more importantly, the science behind the Landsat imagery acquisition, processing, archiving and distribution were explained in a way that helps me to interpret and use the data more effectively. I am presently working on a project titled “Impact of climate change on land use/land cover dynamics and sustainable socio-economic development”. The deeper understanding of the science will help me with social science applications. My work at the University puts me in regular contact with undergraduate and master’s students. I will encourage them to use free satellite imagery to enhance their academic projects and dissertations. And lastly, I intend to reach out and share data and applications with various groups in South India, including the Institute of Remote Sensing, Centre for Water Resources, Institute of Ocean Management, National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management, Centre for Climate Change and Adaptation Research.

For more information about the 2014 GOFC-GOLD Data Training Initiative, visit http://start.org/programs/gofc-gold/2014-gofc-data-training-initiative

Combining Top-down and Bottom-up Approaches in Indus Ecoregion for Resilient Ecosystems and Livelihoods

Disaster preparedness is vital in dealing with the impacts of climate change on ecosystems like freshwater bodies and communities dependent on them. Freshwater lakes, such as the Keenjhar Lake in the Sindh province of Pakistan, provide fish, which is a major source of food and income for local communities. The impacts of climate change on freshwater ecosystem include increased frequency of floods, storms and changes in water temperature. These impacts have reduced the supply of fish in the water bodies and destroyed productive assets, thereby having detrimental impacts on the livelihoods of local fishermen.

The story of households engaged in livestock breeding is no different. Increased frequency of droughts and water-stressed conditions in the region has affected livestock productivity in areas like Thar and Chotiari. Natural disasters are responsible for increasing the incidence of vector borne diseases in animals and have resulted in loss of adapted animal genetic resources.

In order to mitigate these impacts, WWF-Pakistan, through generous support provided by CDKN and START, is carrying out a project titled, “Mainstreaming Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and Climate Adaptation (CCA) in the Indus Ecoregion”.

The project is working towards closing the policy gaps relating DRR and CCA through supplying scientific evidence to planners and policy makers on productivity losses associated with disasters and climate change impacts in the livestock and fisheries sectors. The findings have also been used to inform key government departments and line agencies about priority actions that are needed to mitigate economic losses in these sectors and how to make them more resilient.

Bottom-up measures in the project include training target communities in aquaculture techniques and incorporating their recommendations in a proposed provincial level disaster risk management plan for both sectors. The trainings have enabled community members to make necessary adjustments in their livelihoods to deal with climate change impacts. Fishermen, who implemented the aquaculture methods, had not only become self-sufficient, but were also able to earn profits by selling augmented fish stock. Techniques such as cage farming and pen ponds taught in the workshops have helped ensure a consistent supply of fish, and also, engaged the female members of the community.

In comparison, those who had not adapted were more vulnerable to changes in the climate and politics of the area. At the policy level, we find that gaps in disaster risk reduction planning and management exist. Absence of concrete plans and policies allows local politics to take precedence, which makes the local communities more vulnerable.

Here is a short video showcasing how the project is reaching out to communities and planners in the Indus Ecoregion to help them sustain livelihoods in face of increasing natural disasters and climate impacts:

From global models to local decisions

Jon Padgam, Deputy Director of START, reflects on the challenges and opportunities for linking climate information on Africa with user needs

The changing nature of climate variability and increasing extremes pose a notable threat to sustainable development where there is a high risk of exposure to climate stress. Understanding vulnerability and potential impacts, and responding through adaptation decisions and policy, requires climate information that is defensible, scale relevant and tailored to user needs. Unfortunately, the present state of regional climate change prediction presents the user with a confusing array of data sources that are contradictory and delivered with minimal understanding of what is robust and defensible data, or on how to interpret and apply it to decision making. This state of affairs undermines the value of development actions seeking to reduce risk, while increasing the risk of maladaptation.

The growth of new multi-model and multi-method data sets, most notably through the World Climate Research Program’s CORDEX initiative, offers a new opportunity to address the challenge of regional scale information. The central aim of CORDEX-Africa, which is led by the University of Cape Town’s Climate Systems Analysis Group in partnership with START, is to promote data analysis from a regionally based user’s needs perspective by regional climate scientists in collaboration with users of climate data. This approach provides direction to the modeling community as to which climate parameters are useful for decision making in different contexts, and therefore have potential for uptake. It also affords a transformative opportunity for capacity building in developing nations, by training the early career scientists to partner with end-users of climate information for co-exploration of the data to the mutual benefit of both communities.

The climate data co-exploration approach was tested through a workshop held in Dar es Salaam in February 2013 that sought to develop a guidance framework for using climate model data to support adaptation planning in Africa. The main purpose of this workshop was to pilot the methodology together with interdisciplinary teams from Addis Ababa, Kampala, Dar es Salaam, Maputo and Lusaka. The participants for this event were technical experts in the areas of meteorology and climatology, agriculture, water resource management, disaster risk management and land-use planning, within government, university and non-government spheres. The climate-application focus of the workshop was on peri-urban areas of these five cities, which typify the intensive land-use change pressures from urban encroachment that African cities are facing. These pressures have implications for, among others, food production, water resources and flood risk management for cities.

The learning process for integrating climate data into decision making took place through the development of a vulnerability matrix that encompassed non-climatic and climatic stressors acting on important ‘exposure units’ in peri-urban areas, such as crop and livestock production, inland fisheries, informal trading, transport corridors and other critical infrastructure, and water supplies… Click here to keep reading

For more information on the CDKN-supported project, visit the project page

Catalysts of Change: Stories of community disaster risk reduction in India

India has been experiencing increasing incidences of hydro-meteorological disasters that defy trends. Flash floods in Barmer in the western arid region of India (2006) and in Leh in the northern mountain desert (2010) have underlined the impending climate and disaster threats in fragile ecosystems.

Based on the research and field practice experience of the investigators, the START-CDKN project “Catalysts of Change” studied the effectiveness of Local Multi-Stakeholder Action in Leh and Barmer, India, as an enabling factor for mainstreaming DRR- CCA in post disaster programs and ultimately in state and national policies. It assessed the impact of consolidation of local change agents, their enablement through knowledge tools, and their strategic actions as an institution as enablers for shift in long term recovery programmes and state and national policy environment towards linking DRR and CCA and mainstreaming them in development processes.

SEEDS India and Saferworld invite you to view two films on the case study communities and local projects in Leh and Barmer.

In addition, the investigators prepared community radio programmes in Rajasthan, which were aired through the local government radio station. The radio programmes are in the local language and can be found at https://audioboo.fm/Saferworldcomm

For more information on Catalysts of Change, visit their website at http://www.saferworld.in/project/CDKN-DRR-CCA/

Advancing Knowledge for Action on Global Environmental Change: Reflecting on Progress and Strategizing for the Future

START is very pleased to announce the release of its 10-year strategic plan.


This document describes exciting areas of future growth for START related to strengthening and expanding trans-disciplinary and multi-sectoral expertise in integrated research and assessment; promoting effective communication between communities of research, policy and practice; and, supporting efforts by universities in Africa and Asia-Pacific to inform and engage society in creating more resilient development trajectories.

This document also highlights important START accomplishments over the last 20 years in the areas of fostering innovation in research- driven capacity building; creating space for exchange and collaboration; promoting communication at the interface of science, policy and practice; and partnering with universities to develop creative learning pathways.

Executive Director Hassan Virji talks about START and introduces the new strategy document.

Introducing START’s strategy for the next decade from Abby Gwaltney on Vimeo.

START mourns loss of Jyoti Kulkarni

The International START Secretariat is sad to share the news that our former staff member, Jyoti Kulkarni, has lost her battle with cancer.

Jyoti Kulkarni was the administrator of START’s program on biodiversity conservation and climate change in the Albertine Rift region of Eastern Africa. Jyoti’s dedication to that program resulted in it expanding from a skills based training program for biodiversity practitioners to one that encompassed both practitioners and regional universities.

Jyoti’s passion for promoting research on global environmental change and building capacity in developing countries continues to inspire us in our work. Jyoti is fondly remembered for her warm cheerfulness, bountiful sense of humor, and calm patience. She is dearly missed.

Key research lessons about mainstreaming climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction in South Asia

Learning Forum participants identify next steps and ways forward for continued engagement in research on disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation.

There is little doubt that climate change will increase disasters throughout South Asia thus requiring long-term climate change adaptation (CCA) informing and integrating with disaster risk reduction (DRR) through planning and response. Mainstreaming of CCA and DRR is increasingly on the forefront of policy discussions for disaster management, yet action on this integration is lagging. Six research projects from India, Pakistan, and Nepal addressed this challenge by discussing and synthesizing their research results during the CDKN+START Learning Forum in early February.

The co-investigators from the six research projects at the event explored the research findings and experiences with a focus on three themes:

1. Institutional arrangement and government structures that influence the degree of flexibility of DRR across varying scales

2. The changing nature of systemic development factors (both endogenous and exogenous) that shape vulnerability to disaster

3. Policy innovations that promote convergence of DRR and CCA into policy and practice at varying scales

Through engaging and dynamic conversations, the group observed several notable key lessons about mainstreaming CCA and DRR from the local to regional scales in South Asia.

Advocating for mainstreaming has not beget action
Whether researchers, practitioners, community members, or policymakers, we are advocating for mainstreaming climate change into policies and actions related to disaster management. However, the co-investigators asserted that words rarely turn to action, or at least only slowly. The six research projects explored the possibilities of mainstreaming CCA into DRR from the community scale to national policy. SEEDS India worked with communities in Rajasthan and Ladakh to develop community-based monitoring of weather to prepare for and understand disasters from flood, drought, and changing temperatures. While Intercooperation Social Development India (ICSD) and All India Disaster Mitigation Institute (AIDMI) shared their research results on climate smart disaster management with national and state government bodies, such as the National Disaster Management Agency.

It’s about planning, not only response
When a disaster strikes, there is always response, but that can be ad-hoc and disorganized, and use human and financial resource poorly. With the increasing pressures of climate change, disaster management requires planning rather than dependence on post-disaster management. Such planning involves working across vertical and horizontal scales and across sectors to better prepare for, anticipate, and manage possible disasters. Based on their case study of flooding in Gorakphur, the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group (GEAG) and Institute for Social and Environmental Transition (ISET) developed a training module for disaster managers and planners which will be used across districts nationwide.

Who does the planning?
While it’s about planning, the details are quite unclear. What sector should be involved in mainstreaming and planning; all sectors or does that dilute responsibility? What scale should do the planning? Who are the intermediaries between communities and national policies that can implement plans? The research teams were left with more questions than answers reflecting the successes and challenges of their case study research. Research by the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) in Darjeeling and Sikkim revealed the importance of place-based management given different socio-political and ecological contexts. The varied contexts require coordination across a range of stakeholders, including traditional local administrative bodies (dzumsa), district government, and NGOs.

Data and information challenges
Even if plans are being developed, data to support robust decisions may not be available, transparent, and shared. WWF Pakistan used an analysis of productivity loss to inform policy on fisheries and livestock sectors related to pre- and post-disaster and recovery after flooding in Manchar Lake and Chotiari. The National Disaster Risk Institute (NDMI) in Nepal used hydro-meterological modeling and a socio-economic vulnerability assessment to provide policy recommendations on the establishment of a dam in the Koshi River basin. However, even if the data is available, disaster managers need to be comfortable with the data to enable informed action. The researchers explained the challenges to communicate effectively to inform policy decisions at any scale.

Networks for action
The co-investigators of the six research projects identified their unique contributions to the discussion and implementation of mainstreaming DRR and CCA at multiple horizontal and vertical scales. In the two-day workshop, participants advocated for the creation of a task force and network for action to support engagement between researchers and policy makers on DRR and CCA issues across South Asia. A network provides a platform for upscaling the research lessons.

The clarity in which the six research projects identified the challenges of mainstreaming CCA and DRR suggest the enormous possibility and need for continued research. Yet translating research into action necessitates timely and succinct communication and engagement with policy makers at all scales. This continues to be a challenge worth confronting to translate these key lessons and questions into policy and decision making.

Shuaib Lwasa: A Worldview of Urban Nature that includes “Runaway” Cities

Shuaib Lwasa is a Lecturer in the department of geography at Makerere University. He was the recipient of a 2011-12 Grant for Global Environmental Change Research in Africa (click here to read more about his project: The Role of Urban and Peri-Urban Agriculture in Enhancing Food Security and Climate Change Resilience in East and West African Cities), and a recent participant at the Cities at Risk – Africa Workshop held in Durban in March, 2013. Shuaib has over 14 years of teaching and international research experience working on inter-disciplinary research. Recent works are in the fields of urban environmental management, spatial planning in with special interest in livelihood systems, vulnerability to global environmental change, disaster risk management and sustainable urban development. Recent publications topics include adaptation to climate change, land and property rights, land use and land cover change, vulnerability assessment, resource efficiency and spatial planning and sustainable urban development. Shuaib coordinates the Habitat Universities (H UNI) climate change and disaster risk management Hub. He has participated on international panels focused on urbanization and environmental change with a focus on Africa’s urbanization.

A Worldview of Urban Nature that includes “Runaway” Cities

This article presents an alternative perspective on urban nature that extends the debates on ecology in cities to ecology of cities. In Africa, and particularly Kampala, where we have undertaken research on various aspects of urban development, we are increasingly confronted by a realization that urban built up components are only conveniently “detached” from the urban nature on which these sit. In fact the combination of the built up and urban ecosystems is creating a unique urban form that is a fusion of interacting parts of the city as whole. Cities in other parts of the world that have benefited from long standing planning have the urban form which, to a degree, separates built up from nature areas as nature parks and recreation areas (Grimm et al. 2008). The design and planning has also reserved multi-purpose green parks, as seen in recent urban development, to respond to the environmental change challenges. In contrast, cities in Africa, as is the case of Kampala, can be described as ‘runaway’ cities by nature of the sprawl and fragmentation of natural ecosystem interwoven with built up land. This is a different worldview of urban nature with implications on how to maintain ecosystem functions.

In Kampala, there is evidence of continuous interactions and influences between built-environment and the natural components to form a unique urban fabric. This worldview helps us to understanding the urban system interactions at various scales. Our understanding of how the built environment components interact with nature on which it sits is key in addressing the challenges of urban management, and there is critical importance in sustaining some level of ecosystems functions of provisioning, regulating and supporting services (Shuaib Lwasa et al. 2009). The speed of urbanization in Africa is characterized by, among other things, the degradation and reduction in ecosystem services within urban areas. This dilemma is felt in Kampala where ecosystem services are dwindling due to land competitions for development.

The challenge is that the city is extending further into the rural hinterland… Click here to keep reading