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Water, Health and Economy: An Integrated Ecosystem Services Approach to Sustainable Development in Urbanizing Deltas


Synopsis. Beginning in August 2011, four new ESUR (Ecosystem Services in Urbanizing Regions) IGERT trainees, under the advising of an IGERT ESUR co-PI at Portland State University (PSU), became members of an International Taskforce focused on creating a framework for sustainable development in urban delta regions that might be applied world-wide. These NSF-funded doctoral students (Sarah Holmen, Marissa Matsler, Basma Mohammad and Jodi Schoenen), plus one other PSU doctoral student (Kelly Cowan) and their advisor (PSU Professor Alan Yeakley), worked with students and faculty from universities in four other countries (The Netherlands, Germany, Indonesia and Sweden) to co-author a report to the Delta Alliance ( to be presented in Jakarta, Indonesia later in 2012. The significant outcomes of this project address NSF strategic goals of learning and discovery.

Approach. In late August 2011 an international group of interdisciplinary graduate students assembled in the Netherlands to create an integrated framework for sustainable development and planning in urbanizing delta regions throughout the world. This project took three major steps: (1) review of sustainable development approaches to “wicked” problems (i.e. those with complex interdependencies); (2) integration of team knowledge and different sustainable development frameworks to create one cohesive approach; and (3) application of a generic sustainable development approach to a case study delta in Indonesia. The primary sponsor and facilitator of the international student taskforce is Radboud Honours Academy (Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands, led by Professor Toine Smits) in partnership with the PSU IGERT program (Portland, Oregon), along with four other universities: Blekinge Tekniska Högskola in Sweden, University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany, Padjadjaran University Bandung in Indonesia, and Institute Technology Bandung in Indonesia. The international taskforce is composed of 25 international graduate students from a range of disciplines from natural science to engineering to social science to management to law.

Process. Students gathered for a week-long workshop in August 2011 at Radboud University in Nijmegen, where they were exposed to a range of water-related sustainable development issues (Figure 1). After the workshop, students collaborated internationally via teleconferences, email, and web-based discussion boards. In early April 2012 the international team gathered for a second week-long workshop at PSU in Portland, Oregon to finish the integration process. With guidance from the Indonesian students, the Taskforce theoretically applied the interdisciplinary approach to a case study delta in Indonesia. This process produced a generic sustainability framework document focused on addressing the “wicked” problems and sustainable development issues faced in growing delta regions.

Product. The Taskforce adopted the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development FSSD (also known popularly as The Natural Step) as an analytical and planning tool for engaging stakeholders in a sustainable planning decision making process (Figure 2). These 4 sustainability principles of the FSSD allow one to assess whether an action/strategy will be sustainable. The FSSD provides a robust decision making framework and an explicit guiding definition of sustainability based on scientific principles. Within the FSSD framework, the Taskforce developed an approach to valuation based on ecosystem services (ES). Ecosystem services include direct services such as food, fiber, and water, as well as indirectly employed services such as nutrient cycling, water filtration, and climate regulation (Figure 3). The ES framework can provide a holistic summary of ecosystem service trade-offs and aid in the operationalization of the FSSD’s sustainability principles for more comprehensive sustainable development decision making. Combining the ecological and system-orientation of ES with the well-developed decision-making process of FSSD resulted in a comprehensive framework that can be applied to the wicked problems facing urban river deltas worldwide.

Application. The Citarum River Delta, 269 km long and draining an area of 6.1 km2, is one of the largest rivers in Java Island. Water pollution in the form of domestic sewage, industrial effluents, agricultural runoff, and mismanaged solid waste polluting surface and groundwater are all serious issues in this Indonesian Delta. In addition to pollution, water related diseases such as Dengue Fever are also a serious threat to community well-being and individual health in this region (Figure 4). These water quality and health issues are wicked problems that require a multidimensional social, economic and ecological approach for development of sustainable solutions. Within the document to be submitted to the Delta Alliance, the Taskforce described how the FSSD+ES framework might be implemented to the Citarum River Delta as a case study.

Conclusions. The International Student Delta Taskforce concluded that health issues, especially waterborne diseases, play a large role in urban delta regions. The document produced for the Delta Alliance underscores that human health issues are closely interwoven with other wicked problems, and diseases are often caused or spread as a result of other processes that affect sensitive ecosystems. The integrated FSSD+ES approach adopted by the Taskforce can be used to increase the understanding of the immense importance of delta ecosystems for human inhabitants. This approach can also demonstrate to policy makers the potential benefits of sustainable development projects that preserve ecosystems and the services they provide. This integrated approach will be presented later in 2012 in Indonesia with the cooperation of students and stakeholders to create a plan to sustainably reduce waterborne disease outbreaks in the Citarum Delta.

Address Goals

Primary goal: learning. In working with an international, interdisciplinary group of elite graduate students, the four IGERT students involved in the Taskforce plunged into an intense crucible of societal problem solving on an a global scale. These four students actually began the work of the Taskforce prior to officially starting their doctoral studies at PSU, and thus gained an immediate boost in terms of their scientific literacy and of their experience in working with broadly collaborative interdisciplinary problem solving teams addressing global scale problems. The document that outlines the framework they co-authored will be submitted to the Delta Alliance and presented in a workshop in Jakarta, Indonesia later in 2012. The work of the IGERT students involved in this project should have a long, global reach as it is applied in urbanizing regions world-wide.

Secondary goal: discovery. The FSSD+ES (Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development plus Ecosystem Services) as described in the Highlight is a novel approach to solving wicked problems in urbanizing deltas on a global scale. In developing the framework, the students consulted directly with the founder of The Natural Step (Karl-Henrik Robert, Blekinge Tekniska Högskola, Sweden) and one of the leading international authorities on Ecosystem Services evaluation (Robert Costanza, Portland State University, Oregon). The synthesis of these two frameworks is a novel and operational approach to problem solving, and the application of the FSSD+ES framework to a case study in Indonesia provides a strong test of the viability of the framework that the student Taskforce developed.