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The University of Southampton
Geography and Environmental Science

Research project: Belmont Forum DELTAS

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How can we better understand and manage deltas effectively under times of change?

Project Overview

How does climate change, pressure on limited resources, plus engineering and infrastructure development make people and biodiversity in delta ecosystems vulnerable to natural and anthropogenic change? What can be done to reduce adverse impacts of change, whilst allowing sustainable development? That’s just two challenging questions the multi-disciplinary Belmont Forum DELTAS research project aims to answer.

River deltas take up approximately 1% of the world’s land areas, but contain 7% of the global population of over 7 billion people. Deltas are dynamic landforms at the land-ocean boundary, involving intricate mazes of river channels, estuarine waterways, and vast, often flooded landscapes. They are rich in biodiversity, such as mangroves and marshes and have high economic activity from ports, fisheries and urban environments. However, deltas are vulnerable to natural and human change, such as upstream dams, resource exploration, conversion to agriculture and climate change. Recent assessments suggest that the portion of world deltas vulnerable to flooding could increase by 50 per cent in the 21st century. Additionally, rapid population growth coupled with often unplanned urbanisation and increasing risks posed by climate change are likely to exacerbate existing threats to livelihoods of inhabitants in delta regions. Therefore, there is an international need to better understand and integrate the physical, ecological and socio-economic characteristics of deltas which are undergoing natural and anthropogenic change. This will assist long-term management practices and policies within deltas, and where necessary the protection and restoration of deltaic environments.

Within the Belmont Forum DELTAS project this will be undertaken by international experts and liaison with regional experts and stakeholders for the three deltas studied – the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna, the Mekong and the Amazon. For each delta, its physical, socio-economic and ecological vulnerability will be assessed for possible scenarios of future change to determine whether this could lead to a worse or better situation. This data will be quantified and brought together into an integrated modelling framework in order to better compare scenarios and investigate trade-offs within decision making. This analysis will help create a vulnerability index that captures the physical, social, ecological and economic status of deltas that will help to identify future problems, and thus the needs for further research or adaptation. This means closely working with regional teams and stakeholders so that the tools developed during the research can be implemented to help identify vulnerable areas, to provide sustainable management guidance and assist with decision making.

At the University of Southampton, research in Social Sciences (undertaken by PI Zoe Matthews, Co-I Angela Baschieri and researcher Sylvia Szabo) will assess key associations, but also the assessment of the demographic and urban trajectories in selected deltas with particular reference to households’ poverty and wellbeing.

In Geography and Environmental Science, Co-I John Dearing will co-lead a task on Advancing science on delta resilience and sustainability. This involves developing a theoretical framework to assess vulnerability and the potential for transitions to avoid undesired biophysical or socio-economic states under various scenarios of change. This will build upon previous work John has undertaken in Chinese river basins and Bangladesh. His work will help to understand the dynamical delta processes, links between them, and how human intervention and environmental change can affect rates of poverty and human well-being.

In Engineering and Physical Sciences, Co-I Robert Nicholls will be involved in the analysis of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna and Mekong and together with researcher Attila Lazar, who is also involved in the integration activities of the BF project. This will include providing guidance on coastal engineering and management, delta flooding and erosion, the potential of adapting deltas to climate change and providing expertise on multi-disciplinary modelling of complex systems. This complements Robert’s other projects, such as Assessing Health, Livelihoods, Ecosystem Services and Poverty Alleviation in Populous Deltas (ESPA Deltas) and Deltas, vulnerability and Climate Change: Migration and Adaptation (DECCMA).

DELTAS runs from 2013 to 2016. To find out more, please visit the dedicated website hosted by the University of Minnesota.

Associated research themes

Energy and Climate Change

Related research groups

Palaeoenvironmental Laboratory at the University of Southampton (PLUS)
Energy and Climate Change
Coastal Engineering and Management
Mangroves affect livelihoods
Mangroves affect livelihoods
River Ganges
River Ganges
Deltas provide ecosystem services
Deltas provide ecosystem services

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