Reducing flood risk, improving health

HI-CLiF: Dr Nivedita Sairam and her team are analysing the impact of flood events on our health. As heavy rainfall and flooding are becoming more likely due to climate change, Sairam's focus is: How do we improve our protection?

From India to Potsdam

Nivedita Sairam was born and raised in the south of India in the state of Tamil Nadu. There, she experienced that water scarcity in summer is a frequent and serious problem. With tremendous support from her school teachers and parents, she became actively involved in water conservation when she was still a teenager. For example, she took part in events organised by the non-governmental organisation Siruthuli and the Salim Ali Center for Ornithology and Natural History. Their aim was to raise awareness of the environmental problems and to work for the regeneration of rivers in the Indian city of Coimbatore, for example. This is how Nivedita Sairam developed her desire to use science to support social processes that ensure a healthy life - for example, through good nutrition, clean water, education, access to medical facilities and transport infrastructure. As a next step, she studied geoinformatics engineering at the College Of Engineering Guindy, Chennai/India and graduated with a master's degree in geomatics at the Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida/USA. There, her interest in remote sensing, geographic information and software engineering grew. "Geoinformatics gave me the opportunity to use these technologies to tackle real-world challenges. For example, during my master's degree at Florida Atlantic University, we (the research group of Prof. Sudhagar Nagarajan) developed a mobile mapping device that automatically creates 3D maps of transportation infrastructure such as roads, pavements and traffic signs." This information can be used to assess and rebuild road infrastructure after the damage and destruction caused by frequent hurricanes in South Florida. The practical relevance of this project had motivated her to pursue an academic career and do a PhD in flood risk and climate adaptation in the working group of Dr. Heidi Kreibich at GFZ, Potsdam. Thus, Nivedita Sairam completed her PhD at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences of Humboldt University Berlin. Today, she conducts research at the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ), Helmholtz Centre Potsdam, where she heads the junior research group HI-CLiF (Understanding and modelling the Health Impacts under future and Climate socio-economic drivers of the Flood Risk System).

HI-CLiF junior research group

Sairam's idea for HI-CLiF was to strengthen the collaboration between health sciences and natural sciences in the context of flood risk and climate adaptation. "In the past, only engineers were consulted in flood adaptation decisions. Then, in subsequent years and with the support of social scientists and economists, social and economic aspects were also taken into account. This led to more socially inclusive and comprehensive adaptation strategies. The current missing link is health." People often suffered from the short- and long-term effects of floods in terms of their physical and mental health. This increases the need for health support in the response and recovery phases of disasters. Due to climate change, more people worldwide are affected by floods than by any other natural hazard. The negative impact on physical and mental health and psychosocial well-being of the population is expected to increase due to climate change and rapid urbanisation. With her junior researchers, Nivedita Sairam wants to improve our understanding of the processes that lead to the health effects of floods and develop measures to reduce the health burdens. In this way, possibilities for adaptation to climate change are to be developed, taking into account future climatic and socio-economic changes.

International cooperation

HI-CLiF is based on several case studies from Germany and Vietnam. The motivation for the cross-national cooperation is to share knowledge on disaster risk reduction and public health, she said. "Working with international scientists and stakeholders is a very enriching experience." There are many interesting aspects of risk management - especially related to risk adaptation and resilience. Here, the gap between the transfer from science to practice still exists. "I look forward to bringing together decision-makers from both countries in our stakeholder workshops as part of this project to deepen these insights and link them to practice." However, many aspects of risk management also include raising awareness and preparing citizens - for example, knowing what to do if they receive a flood warning. "That's why we involve stakeholders and citizens from both countries - Germany and Vietnam - in surveys and workshops."

Adaptation to climate reality

As a citizen it is important to Nivedita Sairam to have information from her research. With this information she can prepare for disasters and also participate in intervention and adaptation programmes in her neighbourhood. "Our research results will contribute to improve and broaden policy making on flood risk adaptation that takes into account not only the economic impact but also the impact on health and well-being. This will ensure health and socially adapted risk management in both the short and long term."

HI-CLiF and career

The project is very important to Sairam as a young scientist, as it gives her the opportunity to lead her own scientific team for the first time. "This is very important for my career, as I am moving from being an independent researcher to a group leader who can mentor and advise other researchers." By the end of the project, she would like to see herself as an expert in the transdisciplinary field of natural disasters and public health, able to collaborate with professionals in both fields. "I want to do high quality scientific research on this topic. Furthermore, I would like to see how scientific knowledge is put into practice to make decisions."
According to Sairam, what is special about this BMBF funding programme is that young scientists have the opportunity to lead their research groups and learn leadership, teamwork and project management skills through "learning by doing" early in their careers. In addition, the topic of HI-CLiF is transdisciplinary and very relevant to solving global problems. It offers the opportunity to establish and continue collaboration with institutes and scientists from other disciplines. "One focus of our work focuses on the applicability and transfer of research results into practice. Our research results should not only lead to the publication of articles, but also be used in practice."

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