Environmental Vulnerability and Ecosystem Services

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  • Through the Environmental Vulnerability and Ecosystem Services (EVES) Programme, the UNU Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) undertakes research, capacity development projects and activities aimed at characterizing the vulnerability and resilience of socio-ecological systems (SES) exposed to environmental hazards. Emphasis is placed on the ecological/environmental aspects of resilience and vulnerability, complementing the work of the Vulnerability Assessment, Risk Management and Adaptive Planning Programme. The EVES programme research focuses on ecosystem services and how they contribute to the vulnerabilities and resilience of SES, with increasing inquiry concentrated on characterizing tipping points in SES. Environmental degradation as a possible source of conflict will be investigated in this programme (addressing the hazards–vulnerability–human security nexus). Outputs are conceptual frameworks that can be applied in practice, as well as vulnerability/resilience assessments and the identification of potential hot spots for conflicts related to environmental resource degradation. Additional outputs include, among others, time series on water pollution and evaluation of land degradation processes that are immediately used to inform local and national environmental agencies.


    The programme is part and parcel of the scientific discussions with the Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI-ACIAR) so that mirror activities are undertaken by the future twin partner in initial collaborations and then as a full twin.

    Focal Point

    Dr. Fabrice Renaud, Head of the Environmental Vulnerability and Energy Security Section, is the coordinator of the programme.


    The EVES programme seeks to enhance our understanding of the processes characterizing the vulnerability and resilience of complex socio-ecological systems that are exposed to natural or man-made hazards. The programme covers conceptual and practical research in various regions of the world (currently Viet Nam, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Niger, Germany and various West African countries; and in the recent past, in Iran, Sri Lanka and Egypt) and aims to facilitate the characterization of vulnerability and resilience to enable decision- and policymakers to more efficiently target the most vulnerable communities for intervention. Hazards considered are floods, droughts, tsunamis, water (surface and groundwater) and land degradation. The programme also considers issues linked to environmental degradation, food security and conflict.


    The programme addresses the problem through intensive cooperation with a variety of partners and stakeholders such as other UNU institutes and centres (e.g., the UNU Institute for Natural Resources in Africa and the UNU Institute for Water, Environment and Health), other United Nations organizations, such as UNESCO-International Hydrological Programme, UN-Water Decade Programme on Capacity Development, UN Environment Programme and UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), and a number of universities. All projects under this programme also involve policymakers and government organizations in the countries where they are implemented at the onset of planning and implementation in order to ensure that the work is policy-relevant and useful to the national, regional and/or local authorities and populations. Participative field work, intensive data collection and processing, case studies as well as PhD seminars, workshops and conferences are part of the approach adopted.


    The programme has always recruited the best scientists and students, irrespective of gender, and is currently comprised of a majority of female scientists and students. At the time of writing, all four of the Associate Academic Officers (researchers with PhDs) are female. Gender is one of the main factors considered in the vulnerability/resilience work undertaken under this programme and is always given due consideration when intervening in the field and collecting/analysing data and information.

    Target Audience

    The main beneficiaries of the EVES programme are the local communities (on the long-term), policymakers, the scientific community, and PhD and MSc researchers who work on the projects or who will participate in some of the training activities to which this programme contributes (as far as capacity development is concerned). As many of the activities within this programme are also linked to other UN agencies, the programme also serves the UN community as a whole.

    Intended Impact

    Impact: Contribution to the work of a specific UN agency
    Target: The body of work in this programme is highly relevant to UNISDR and particularly to the implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action through information on new concepts and new research findings on the links between ecosystems, ecosystem services and disaster risk reduction.
    How: The research results are shared with UNISDR directly and through various other means such as through the Partnership for Environment and Disaster Risk Reduction and UNISDR Scientific and Technical Committee of which the Head of Section is a member. Both these bodies provide direct inputs to the UNISDR bi-annual Global Platform on Disaster Risk.

    Impact: Influencing policymaking at the national level
    Target: The programme systematically aims to inform national-level decision-makers so that research results are meaningful at the local, regional and/or national scales. One example is the contribution to the development of a water information system for the Mekong Delta, which has the interest and support of national authorities in this country.
    How: Decision-makers (local to national levels) are involved as early as possible in the planning phase of each project implemented in the programme. Projects that are more conceptual in nature or that are implemented at a regional or international level will be summarized through various types of policy or information briefs so that they also reach national and local decision-makers.

    Impact: Furthering knowledge in an academic field
    Target: The programme aims to contribute original applied research in a variety of geographical and cultural settings on the topic of vulnerability and resilience of complex socio-ecological systems and other linked topics described above.
    How: Most of the projects are implemented with academic and/or research organizations worldwide. All projects are oriented towards research and therefore lead to the production of a new body of knowledge that is regularly published in peer-reviewed journals and books.

    Impact: Curriculum development
    Target: The programme is contributing inputs to the curriculum of the future joint MSc programme of UNU-EHS and the University of Bonn entitled “Geography of Environment Risks and Human Security”.
    How: The programme has already generated a large body of research (conceptual frameworks and empirical findings) used to shape the joint MSc programme and develop cutting edge teaching material.

    Impact: Capacity development in developed/developing countries
    Target: The knowledge generated in the research projects will be passed on to MSc and PhD students/researchers as well as professionals worldwide.
    How: New knowledge will be systematically introduced into the teaching activities to which the programme will contribute.

    Research Findings

    The conceptual part of the research will directly inform current vulnerability/resilience theories by further integrating the roles of ecosystems and ecosystem services in relevant research frameworks. Contemporary resilience theories linked to disaster risk reduction or climate change adaptation put an emphasis on the notion of thresholds or tipping points, yet the body of empirical research on the characterization of these tipping points is very thin. One of the main reasons for this is that social-ecological systems are complex systems operating at various temporal and spatial scales with many feedback loops. The programme increasingly strives to characterize these tipping points, first on smaller scales (e.g., district level) and, in the future, at increasing levels of complexity.

    Within the context of climate change, the nexus of environmental degradation–environmental stressors–scarcity–conflict is also often discussed and debated in a dramatic fashion without the empirical evidence required to shape informed judgement. The EVES programme is striving to provide evidence on this nexus (while also addressing the more positive considerations such as increased cooperation in times of scarcity) through contributions to the development of research frameworks and field research, notably in Africa through the Climate Change, Hydro-conflicts and Human Security (CLICO) and West African Science Service Center on Climate Change and Adapted Land Use (WASCAL) projects.

    Policy Bridging

    Policy bridging is carried out on a continual basis at the national/project levels by working with and systematically directly informing relevant authorities at project locations. For example, in the WISDOM project (a German-Vietnamese initiative to design and implement an information system for the Mekong Delta), UNU-EHS works directly on water quality issues with various provincial divisions of the Vietnamese Ministry for Natural Resources and Environment.

    Project results are furthermore discussed with relevant authorities and stakeholders throughout project implementation and at the end of projects. For example, at the end of the first phase of the WISDOM project, a workshop was organized with provincial authorities to discuss the results of the research into pesticide contamination of surface water in case studies of the Delta. This workshop served both as a restitution mechanism but also for shaping research now being undertaken in the second phase of the project.

    Finally, the programme also contributes policy briefs related to various project outcomes that are distributed to relevant stakeholders and provides direct inputs such as to the conclusions of the Global Platform of the UNISDR or to documents prepared for the Secretary-General by other UN organizations — e.g., some of the activities linked to the Sustainable Land Management in the High Pamir and Pamir-Alai Mountains (PALM) project.

    Value Added

    The programme adds value to the UN/UNU systems in terms of research results and policy briefs that it generates on topics that are gaining importance through its immediate links to disaster risk reduction and climate change. The programme targets a wide range of stakeholders, from academics to local authorities, as all research has and will continue to have practical components. Many of the projects and activities are implemented with other UNU centres or UN agencies and/or inform directly and systematically other UN agencies.


    All work implemented in this programme is published in peer-reviewed scientific journals but also as policy briefs and through other media for a wider audience. Edited books will become a major outlet for knowledge dissemination. These publications will also serve as benchmarks to evaluate the programme in the medium to longer term. Dissemination via electronic means will be further developed.

    Timeline/Programme Cycle

    The programme has been steadily developed from 2004 to present. The programme has now reached a certain maturity and it is likely that the number of projects that it can handle and the level of staffing will remain stable after a rapid increase since 2004. The programme is now putting much more emphasis on ecosystem services, their resilience and tipping points in the context of environmental hazards and climate change impacts.


    The programme will be evaluated in terms of the following, among other, criteria: 1) the successful completion of its research projects with the indicator of an 80 percent successful completion rate since 2004, though the programme strives for a 100 percent rate, it is typically dependent on other partners; 2) the number of new projects it can successfully secure in each biennium, with a target of two; 3) the percentage of MSc and PhD researchers who successfully complete their degrees, with an indicator of 80 percent of PhD students having completed their PhDs since 2004; and 4) the number of both peer-reviewed publications (indicator: average of two annually starting in 2009) and policy-briefs (indicator: average of one annually starting in 2010) it will generate.


    The main challenge to the programme will remain funding, as most of the projects and activities are undertaken with third-party funding. In addition, very competent academic officers who drive some of the projects may decide not to remain with UNU-EHS if they cannot achieve UN staff status.

  • Activities within the programme will involve cooperation between the UNU Institute for Environment and Human Security and 12 partners:

    • UNU Institute for Natural Resources in Africa
    • UNU Institute for Water, Environment and Health
    • UNU Vice Rectorate in Europe
    • Media Centre
    • Center for Development Research, University of Bonn
    • Global Fire Monitoring Center
    • Global Environment Facility
    • International Atomic Energy Agency
    • United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
    • United Nations Environmental Programme
    • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
    • United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction



  • Title: No titles can yet be given
    Author(s): Programme members
    Publication/Output Type: Reviewed papers, PhD theses, conference contributions, reports, workshops, courses.
    Available at: Webapge or authors
    Date Published: 2012

  • Dr. Jakob Rhyner, Director
    United Nations University
    Institute for Environment and Human Security
    UN Campus, Platz der Vereinten Nationen 1
    53113 Bonn, Germany

    T: +49 228 815-0200
    F: +49 228 815-0299