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RMIT researchers have joined forces with the UN Global Compact – Cities Programme to help understand how vulnerable people cope with climate shocks.

The research focuses on a tidal channel in the Puerto Rican capital, San Juan.

Representatives of a large Puerto Rican community in the island’s capital, San Juan have invited researchers from the School of Economics, Finance and Marketing to support their endeavours to safeguard the community from dangerous flooding through an assessment of the impact of flooding on their households.

The research, conducted by Associate Professor Alberto Posso and Associate Professor Simon Feeny, builds on work they have already undertaken in the Asia Pacific region, East Asia and other Latin American countries.

The project is being supported by the UN Global Compact – Cities Programme (which is hosted by RMIT), ENLACE (an environmental NGO), and local researchers from the InterAmerican University of Puerto Rico.

Research is taking place in the Caño Martín Peña in the heart of the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan.

The Caño is a tidal channel within the San Juan Bay National Estuary that connects the San José Lagoon with the San Juan Bay.

Its width, which was between 60-120m, has been reduced to 60-90cm in some areas and its depth has been reduced from around 2m to just centimetres as a result of informal settlements established in the area during the first half of the twentieth century.

The Caño receives untreated wastewater from different areas of the city and most adjacent communities lack sewer systems. Whenever it rains the Caño floods and as a result neighbours are constantly exposed to its pollutants.

“The wider social and economic costs associated with flooding have not been quantified and therefore an adequate representation of the true costs of dealing with this issue has not been provided to policy makers,” Posso said.

“Using a survey of households, this research will address issues such as foregone work and education, as well as the costs of fixing damaged property and assets.”

Feeny explained that the project focuses on the vulnerability and resilience of households to environmental shocks.

“While climatic shocks typically last a short period of time, they can have an irreversible impact on development,” he said.

The project offers a bottom-up approach to formulating economic policy. The researchers will identify household level characteristics to determine the probability of being subject to environmental shocks, and identify what mechanisms provide resilience to these shocks.

By identifying the most vulnerable households as well as coping mechanisms, the research team can provide practical and achievable evidence-based policy advice immersed within existing institutional and cultural structures.

Elizabeth Ryan, Deputy Director of the UN Global Compact – Cities Programme, said  the research effort by Posso and Feeny is greatly appreciated by ENLACE and the El Cano Martín Peña community who have been seeking support to have el Caño dredged for some years.

“It will provide tangible evidence of the impact of flooding, a critical piece in securing support to prevent further shocks,” she said.

The research collaboration is also strengthening academic ties between Australia and the Caribbean and Latin American region.

Story: Ainslie Logsdon