DELTAS: Catalyzing action towards sustainability of deltaic systems

Delta marsh

By Efi Foufoula-Georgiou

Deltas are dynamic landforms at the land-ocean boundary, involving intricate mazes of river channels, estuarine waterways and vast, often flooded landscapes. They cover one percent of Earth, yet are home to over half a billion people. Deltas sustain biodiverse and rich ecosystems, such as mangroves, reedlands and marshes. They are also economic hotspots that support major fisheries, forest production and agriculture, as well as major urban centers, ports and harbors.

Yet, worldwide delta systems, including the people, economies, infrastructure and ecology they support, are under threat from a range of natural and human activities. Dammed rivers upstream deprive deltas of critical water and sediment for continued viability. Local oil and gas exploration contributes to the sinking of deltas, loss of wetlands and accelerated erosion. Furthermore, all of these existing threats are being compounded by the effects of climate change.

These human dimensions and ecological implications of deteriorating or disappearing deltas cannot be overstated. There is an urgent need to rally the international community for a focused effort toward a holistic physical-socioeconomic understanding of deltas as vulnerable systems undergoing change. Such understanding is a basic requirement for their long-term management, protection and restoration.

The DELTAS project

With major support from the Belmont Forum, an international collaboration of funding agencies, the DELTAS project, led by the University of Minnesota, is working to unify our scientific understanding of deltas as coupled with socio-ecological systems and to develop a science-based integrative modeling framework that can be used to assess delta vulnerability and guide sustainable management and policy decisions at the regional and local levels. The project’s main premise is that although each delta around the world is unique, integrative frameworks that capture the socio-ecological working of these systems can be developed and encapsulated in decision support tools that can be adopted locally in different locations, in collaboration with regional experts and stakeholders, for sustainable delta management.

The DELTAS project team is a collaboration of several international, interdisciplinary teams of specialists with expertise in physical and social sciences, economics, health and demographics. These teams include government and university researchers, and NGO’s, with close relationships to policymakers and managers who are responsible for implementing the actions that will ensure delta sustainability.

Research framework

The DELTAS effort asserts that deltas can be transformed from “hot spots of change and vulnerability to seedbeds of sustainability and resilience. [1] ” The major research questions DELTAS looks to investigate include:

  • How do climate change, pressure on resources and engineering/ infrastructure development make people, biodiversity and delta ecosystems vulnerable?
  • How is this vulnerability to be measured?
  • How do delta areas absorb extreme events? What are the hydrological and ecological thresholds underlying the integrity of a delta region?
  • What are the relevant local and regional hydrological, biophysical and social stressors for a particular delta system? How do these interact, and how do they vary spatially and over time?
  • How can one reduce future risk while attaining sustainable development?

The project addresses these questions through the development of an international research framework that leverages the expertise of researchers, regional experts and stakeholders and combines the use of an integrative GIS modeling system with biophysical, social and economic data to provide regional planners with the best science to perform scenario modeling and facilitate decision making in their region. This versatile framework will be applied from local to national levels to evaluate the unique functioning, critical stressors and vulnerability of the world’s deltas.

Initially, this framework is being applied to three demonstration sites for which local and regional partnerships are already in place: the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna, Mekong and Amazon deltas. In addition to conducting extensive social, economic and ecological research in these areas, members of the DELTAS project team are initiating stakeholder workshops at the three demonstration sites. The first of these workshops, focused on the Mekong delta, was held on April 2-3 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in collaboration with local DELTAS partners HCMC Institute of Resources Geography and Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology.

Sustainable Deltas 2015

The DELTAS team has also spearheaded a global initiative called “Sustainable Deltas 2015” (SD2015) which was recently endorsed by the International Council of Scientific Unions. The SD2015 is a statement of urgency for global cooperation and a call to arms to the global community of citizens, scientists, policy makers and funders to work together towards accelerating the understanding and sustainable solutions of these critical systems. Activities to launch SD2015 are in progress and events will take place in many parts of the world during 2014 and 2015.

Deltas, and the diverse communities they support, showcase the need to couple our understanding of the physical, ecological and socio-economic aspects of coastal systems in ways that sustain our societal interests while protecting the environment from human and climate stressors. Indeed, deltas exemplify the much talked about “global change, local solutions” paradigm. The DELTAS project presents a unique opportunity to harness collaboration among a broad-based team of international delta experts and local stakeholders toward delta sustainability.

To learn more about the DELTAS project and the SD2015 initiative, visit and follow us on twitter at @BFDeltas.

1. Romero-Lankao, P., & Dodman, D. (2011) Cities in transition: Transforming urban centers from hotbeds of GHG emissions and vulnerability to seedbeds of sustainability and resilience, Current Opin. Environ. Sustainability, 3(3), 113–120, doi:10.1016/ j. cosust.2011.02.002.

Efi Foufoula-Georgiou is a Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Civil Engineering and the Joseph T. and Rose S. Ling Chair in Environmental Engineering at the University of Minnesota. She is a faculty in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo-Engineering and was the past director for NCED – the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics, a National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center. Her area of research is hydrology and geomorphology, with special interest on scaling theories, multiscale dynamics and space-time modeling of precipitation and landforms.