Addressing Systemic Risks in Social-Ecological Systems: Mountains as Contexts for Evidence and Action
MRI News
article written by MRI
21.06.21 | 08:06

The MRI’s session at the Sustainability Research & Innovation Congress 2021 highlighted examples of how key components of risk are accounted for in mountain contexts, and their implications for sustainability. 

The Sustainability Research & Innovation Congress 2021 (SRI2021) took place June 12-15. As part of this virtual event, MRI Executive Director Carolina Adler and Scientific Project Officer Gabrielle Vance convened the session Addressing Systemic Risks in Social-Ecological Systems: Mountains as Contexts for Evidence and Action.’ The session included presentations by MRI SLC member Irasema Alcántara-Ayala, University of Innsbruck Professor Margreth Keiler, and University of California, Berkeley PhD student Kate Cullen

The session highlighted examples of how key components of risk are accounted for in mountain contexts (hazard, exposure, vulnerability), and their implications for sustainability. By taking existing definitions of systemic risks, it showcased cases and research results that provide insights into how systemic risk is conceptualized and explored in mountainous contexts, and offered evidence on ‘what works‘ to address impacts and risks via tangible action on the ground. In doing so, it responded to critical knowledge gaps on systemic risks and disaster risk reduction identified in the IPCC’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC), and to knowledge needs identified for the upcoming IPCC Working Group II contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) on impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation, as well as the UNDRR Global Assessment Report 2022.

The first keynote speaker, Margreth Keiler, is a professor at the Institute for Geography at the University of Innsbruck and the Institute for Interdisciplinary Mountain Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. In her talk, ‘Natural Hazards and Systemic Risk: Understanding Disaster Risk,’ she described cascading processes and their associated multihazard risks in mountain areas, and referred to a case study of flooding on the Emme River in Switzerland. In Swiss contexts, alpine permafrost degradation leads to rockfall, debris flows, collapsing firn, channel erosion, riverbed accumulation, and ultimately flooding. “We need to assess the interaction among risks,” she said. “We are good at single hazards, but not very good at multihazard [risk assessment].” 

Keiler also noted the importance for risk management of understanding how technical solutions interact with processes, changing risk in the short and the long term. According to her, we need to record and model all disaster risk factors, including social ones: “Understanding the coupling of human and natural systems is key to preventing a hazard from becoming a disaster.” 

Irasema Alcántara-Ayala’s illustration of mountain communities as bubbles isolated from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Irasema Alcántara-Ayala, a professor at the Institute of Geography at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), continued this theme in the second keynote, ‘Integrated Disaster Risk Management: Addressing Systemic Risks in Mountain Contexts.’ “Disasters are systemic processes that develop over time; they are not natural, but socially constructed,” she shared. “Hazards of diverse origin induce disasters. For example, the global disaster triggered by COVID-19 has involved losses of life with no precedent in contemporary history, and a devastating economic impact. This indicates the urgent need for reliable public policies directed to Integrated Disaster Risk Management.” 

Alcántara-Ayala stressed the urgent need to address cascading risks, and the complexity of disaster risk reduction efforts. Transdisciplinarity is crucial; without it, scientists may risk misidentifying problems based on their disciplinary biases. “Participation of vulnerable communities is essential for integrated disaster risk management,” she added. Interestingly, the remoteness that makes mountain communities vulnerable can also be an advantage in some contexts, such as the current pandemic. This example illustrated the “mountain paradoxes” that Keiler mentioned in the first keynote. 


Kate Cullen, a PhD student in the Energy & Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley, rounded out the session with an engaging flash talk, ‘The Distributional Impacts of Rural-to-Urban Water Transfers in the Santiago Metropolitan Region, Chile.’ She used a social and ecological systems (SES) framework to analyze positive and negative impacts of such water transfers in the semiarid Maipo Basin in the context of an ongoing megadrought. Despite the hoarding of water rights by an urban utility, Cullen described the current situation in the Santiago region, and in Chile as a whole, as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address systemic issues.” 

Cullen’s presentation also highlighted the importance of taking into account the various temporal scales associated with certain hazards. Slow(er)-onset hazards like droughts can worsen the cumulative impacts of disasters over time as they interact with other risk factors, such as other hazards, exposure, and vulnerabilities. The megadrought provided an interesting contrast to the faster-onset flood hazards Keiler described. All three presentations provided key messages and evidence to support the reporting priorities envisaged for the upcoming UNDRR Global Assessment Report in 2022, which places particular emphasis on how we identify and address systematic risks in disaster risk management.

Register for free to view a recording of the MRI’s session here

The MRI would like to thank Margreth, Irasema, and Kate for their dynamic presentations, and Sophie Hebden for hosting the session. 

Images by Daniel ParkLiselotte Bruner, Fernando, and Fran Duque.