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International student task force tackles sustainability of the world’s river deltas
Author: Jenny DuVander, Institute for Sustainable Solutions
Posted: April 20, 2012

Twenty-three students from five nations gathered at Portland State University (PSU) this month with an ambitious agenda: design a universal road map to sustain the future of river deltas around the world, balancing clean water, ecological and community health, and economic development.

“We are dealing with wicked problems in deltas,” said PSU Professor Alan Yeakley, who was part of the international faculty team and the local host of the recent gathering at PSU.

River deltas—such as the Mississippi in Louisiana or the Rhine in the Netherlands—are rich population centers and crossroads for many environmental, economic, and social crises like flooding, water-born disease, water shortages and pollution.

The students were charged by the Delta Alliance, an international nonprofit organization, to form a task force and assemble formal recommendations that can help prevent flooding and enhance health and livability in urbanizing river deltas around the world.

Work began in the Netherlands last summer, where they gathered to launch a premier year-long program originating from the Radboud Honours Academy and sponsored by Radboud University Nijmegen.

The students, who hail from Indonesia, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Portland State University, each bring pieces of their own backgrounds, with diverse academic fields including planning, medical science, ecology, sociology, behavioral science, economics, political science, law, engineering, business, and water management. This breadth of scientific expertise enables interdisciplinary approaches to find innovative solutions to such complex problems.  

After working on the project virtually for many months, the student task force gathered for the second time in April at PSU for “Spring School”—a week of intensive workshops and field trips to complete the report, supported by PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions. To incorporate the northwest context, the students visited the site of the former Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in Washington, and to the Columbia River Delta in Astoria.

The Spring School culminated in a workshop April 6, in which the students presented their findings for PSU President Wim Wiewel, faculty, fellow students and community stakeholders.

To tackle the report, the students divided into three groups to tackle key barriers to sustainability in river delta regions. First, the water group covered flooding, aquatic habitat, and availability of water. Second, the health group tackled water-borne diseases and pollution, both major problems particularly in Indonesian deltas. Finally, the development group tackled many social and economic aspects of sustainability: culture, behavior, economic development, legal frameworks and group decision-making schemes.

Synthesizing these challenges, the students’ road map includes a list of recommendations for communities and nations to approach sustainability in deltas. Primary among them were to utilize informal authorities, such as community elders, to build trust and bridge knowledge between government authorities and citizens. In addition, the need for community education and awareness about the consequences of flooding, pollution, and water-borne diseases is paramount. These strategies are rooted in the tight linkages that must exist between humans and their supporting natural ecosystems. 

This summer, the students will travel to Indonesia to put their recommendations into practice, working with local communities and governments. In addition, three of the participating universities—Padjadjaran University, the Institut Teknologi Bandung and Radboud University Nijmegen—will join forces to train a new group of PhD students to study the Citarum river basin in Indonesia starting in August 2012. This group will benefit from the report and  recommendations developed at the Spring School at Portland State.

Photo: Students and faculty pose alongside the Columbia River during a field trip. Photo by Edis Jurcys