Living Deltas

Published: 4 March 2021

Focusing on 3 major deltas in Asia, The Red River, The Mekong & The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna, the team aims to safeguard delta futures through more resilient communities and sustainable development

Hazy view of a river bank

River deltas comprise only 1% of global landscapes, yet support over half a billion people. Deltas are tightly coupled social-ecological systems (SESs), but human exploitation, environmental degradation and threats from climate change increasingly threaten these delicate interfaces between land and water. The intractable development challenge addressed by this project is how to avoid the collapse of South and SE Asian deltas as functioning, highly productive social-ecological systems in the face of human development and the projected consequences of climate change. The Living Deltas Hub focuses on the delta SESs of three major rivers in South and Southeast Asia: the Red River and Mekong (Vietnam) and Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM: Bangladesh, India). Deltas form part of wider river basins and so the Hub will also engage with other riparian country researchers, in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. The stakes for the project are clear: 70% of the Mekong delta is highly vulnerable to flooding with 7 million people at risk. Sea level rise in Bangladesh could displace between 3 and 13 million by 2100. SE-Asian mega-deltas produce 88% of the world's rice, but the 98cm of sea level rise predicted under IPCC AR5 (2014) would render 16% of arable land in Bangladesh and 25% in Vietnam unusable by 2100. Upstream damming and sediment retention is also a major threat, with resulting delta subsidence putting 12 million people in 23 Asian cities at risk from water inundation.

As human impacts increase, the need for locally-rooted sustainable development strategies underpinned by traditional knowledge becomes ever greater. The GCRF Living Deltas Hub will co-develop the transdisciplinary frameworks needed to understand delta SESs, and will work with delta-dwellers and policymakers to develop solutions that can help realise the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in delta contexts. The Hub is novel - no other existing or previous international delta initiative has specifically addressed the SDGs by co-creating new natural and cultural heritage understandings of deltas. It is timely, as it addresses the crucial challenges of SE Asian delta degradation early in the lifespan of the SDGs and so contributes to the development of SDG monitoring and planning - globally and regionally, as well as in country contexts. The Hub is innovative as it emphasizes transdisciplinary integration of the earth and life sciences, social sciences, humanities and arts, to address these common challenges The Hub will operate on a model of 'equitable partnership', involving delta-dwellers and the research community in developing knowledge and policy for better delta futures. The Hub comprises six innovative work packages co-developed with Global South partners and research institutes addressing specific in-country and delta-scale needs. Its new knowledge will serve to build capacity and shape policy at local, national, regional and global levels. The Hub will have lasting impact through improved livelihoods and more resilient communities, sustainable management and conservation, improved monitoring of SDG indicators and better policies for sustainable development.

The Hub brings together a transdisciplinary team of experts and practitioners from Global 'North' and 'South'. Hub strengths are in: coupled human and natural systems analyses; demography and international development; natural hazard modelling and coastal resilience; environmental monitoring and modelling; policy and practice of resource management, hazard, risk and resilience; SDG-focused analyses of delta systems and their vulnerability to hazards; justice and governance; behavioral finance; delta nutrition and food security; and gender-sensitive research. Working together with stakeholders from delta countries, the research team have the knowledge, expertise and track record to build new understandings of delta change, new partnerships, and new solutions.

Planned Impact

The GCRF Living Deltas Hub will have lasting impact through its contribution to:

1) sustainable, equitable livelihoods for delta dwellers in resilient communities
2) sustainable management of ecosystems and landscapes
3) stronger monitoring for sustainable development
4) better policies for delta sustainable development.

At the sub-state level, delta-dwellers themselves will benefit. These deltas are home to 250 million people. Their socio-ecological security is conditional on the integrity of the deltas and at the core of the SDG delta agenda. Through participatory fora the Hub will engage these communities in the co-creation of new knowledge on sustainable delta livelihoods and in education to build capacity for resilience. Local and international NGOs are partners in realising these impacts, and beneficiaries of new knowledge. The Hub identifies and works with vulnerable groups in each delta context, enabling their inclusion in fora and education/training activities. A strand of activity works with local entrepreneurs to encourage new commercial opportunities.

The agency of these communities to safeguard the vitality of delta ecosystems will also be harnessed and supported. Communities will co-develop, and be trained in, new tools. These will include environmental report cards and water quality monitoring programmes, as well as a 'Delta Health Index'. An online data archive, new analysis of tipping points, and the regional contact group (see below) will support this activity.

In terms of national-scale benefit to monitors and policymakers, the Hub will directly input into the work of country statistics bodies. Data availability and national SDG-aligned monitoring are recognised as key challenges (e.g. Bangladesh Voluntary National Review (VNR) 2017). In developing a new delta-sensitive indicator framework, the Hub will improve the quality of national indicator sets and awareness of monitoring gaps. The Hub will also ensure best practice in participatory local monitoring of the SDGs. Local and national governments will benefit directly from enhanced understanding of challenges and solutions, and policy recommendations for local and national planning for sustainable development. Fostering close connections with policy communities from the outset via government involvement in its structures, the Hub will contribute policy recommendations. It will also contribute via UN Voluntary National Reviews of SDG implementation (Bangladesh, 2017; Laos, Vietnam, 2018) and their national preparatory processes. These reports ultimately go on to be presented and discussed at the annual UN High Level Political Forum (HLPF).

The Hub will contribute to the annual Regional Forum for Sustainable Development coordinated by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. To inform best practice, facilitate peer learning between states, and tackle regionally-salient, transboundary challenges, the Hub will organise a regional multistakeholder contact group in the margins of this event. The Hub will also engage with thematic policy communities at regional and global levels as an audience for impact. The preparatory processes, expert meetings, and inter-ministerial discussions of regular thematic SDG reviews provide demonstrable and novel pathways to impact. The thematic, regional and country-specific avenues identified here will all generate contributions to global review of SDG implementation, and the Hub would also contribute directly to the HLPF through presentations and technical briefings. Reflecting impactful partnerships at national and regional levels, the Hub aims to organise official side-events at future HLPFs with government, stakeholder and UN agency partners. Finally, the Hub will engage with the global UN Inter-Agency Expert Group on SDG indicators in the context of its work plan for improvement of specific SDG indicators, and the review of the global indicator framework in 2020 and 2025.

First published: 4 March 2021