Research

This page mainly aims at explaining my current research activities as a member of the financial instruments sector team at IRI Columbia and the Global Emergency Response Team (GER) of SOS Children’s Villages International.

Why? What? How?

My team at Columbia University aims at increasing the disaster resilience of smallholder farmers. Since data are the backbone of weather insurance, but local observations via weather stations are scarce in many regions, we rely on many different satellite-based datasets. Some of them, such as soil moisture, work independently from cloud cover. Weather index insurance insures people against moisture deficits in sensitive growing periods, independently from crop loss at the end of the season. Farmers are heavily involved in the design process via exercises that focus on identifying the worst historical drought years (related to other events they can remember, such as elections) or games that illustrate probabilities of droughts vs. the added-value of insurance.

In a nutshell, we try to encourage farmers to take certain risks related to production (e. g. invest in drought-resistant seeds). This is an important step, because the mere risk of crop failure due to drought often restricts the agricultural potential. During a severe drought it is possible that farmers have little or no harverst PLUS they are in debt due to their pre-season investment. That is why we aim to cover this additional risk via an insurance set-up that pays out faster than conventional, indemnity based insurance. In addition, it is generally less expensive. The idea is to transfer local risks to a global risk market by involving national insurers and global re-insurers (e. g. SwissRe, HannoverRe or MunichRe). Also farmers that have hardly any income can get an insurance, for instance via working in projects that increase their village’s resilience. A certain number of working days is translated into the payment of their premium by local partners such as the UN World Food Programme.

The work for SOS Children’s Villages International concentrates entirely on developments and operational activities related to humanitarian aid. In collaboration with DHL we’re developing a disaster management platform that works in near real-time, includes warnings from street level (kidnapping) to continental scale (tropical cyclone) and includes users in all 134 SOS countries. We cover all phases of the disaster management cycle, whereas in-depth risk assessment in SOS villages are used to pre-position vital resources before any kind of disaster might strike. In parallel, we monitor conditions via different kinds of disaster services and seasonal forecasts. If a disaster leads to destruction we work with technical partners to assess the damages based on high-resolution optical or radar satellite imagery as fast as possible. This way, we’re independent from all kinds of disaster mapping activities (disaster charter, UNITAR, etc.)

In a nutshell, I’m trying to link four intertwined activities:

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Does it work?

The short answer with regard to weather index insurance is: yes, in most cases.

Long answer: Weather index insurance is not a panacea. However, we’ve seen success stories all over the world. The “secret” to a successful micro-insurance project that is can be scaled up to pool the risk over larger regions is to link it to complementary mechanisms that farmers are already used to. These mechanisms encompass strategies like savings or loans. In some regions, lenders even see weather index index insurance as a prerequisite for loans. In practice it’s a very thin line between high payouts that satisfy the farmers, but not necessarily the insurer or vice versa. As a consequence, one of our main tasks is to minimize the basis risk, which means to optimize the matching between our satellite-based weather insurance index and actual drought/crop health conditions on the ground.

In case of the disaster risk management activities at SOS CVI, the risk and vulnerability assessments have just started in collaboration with staff in Ecuador and Mozambique. Based on these assessments we designed individual modular emergency kits (shelter, water supply, hygiene, communication, etc.), which will be deployed later this year. In addition, we’ve successfully managed to translate early warning into early action and mapped the damaged buildings after Cyclone Dineo in Mozambique (damn you clouds!) and the flooded areas in Bangladesh/Sri Lanka in May/June 2017.

Current projects:

  • Resilience360 (global disaster risk management platform for SOS CVI based on research and new technologies)
  • R4 Rural Resilience Initiative – UN World Food Programme
  • Linking Remote Sensing Data and Energy Balance Models for a Scalable Agriculture Insurance System for sub-Saharan Africa – NASA Interdisciplinary Research Project
  • Satellite Technologies, Innovative and Smart Financing for Food Security (SATISFY) – Global Resilience Partnership, International Food Policy Research Institute
  • Machine learning-based forecasting of cyclone impacts (collaboration with Red Cross Netherlands)
  • Advanced satellite-based weather index insurance for Malaria (AXA Insurance, World Bank)
  • Global drought forecasting maproom – World Bank

So far, I had projects focusing on developments related to disaster resilience, capacity building, advanced drought monitoring, weather index insurance and emergency response in the following countries:

Research/funding/operational partners include:

Allianz Insurance
BOKU (University of Natural Resources and Life Science, Vienna, Austria)
Czechglobe (Global Change Research Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences)
CRTS (Royal Centre for Remote Sensing) Morocco
Department for Geodesy and Geoinformation (Vienna University of Technology)
DHL (Deutsche Post)
DLR (German Aerospace Center)
EODC (Earth Observation Data Center)
ESA (European Space Agency)
FFG (Austrian Research Promotion Agency)
GRC (Global Resilience Partnership)
Harvard Humanitarian Initiative
IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute)
IFRC (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies)
IIASA (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis)
IWMI (International Water Management Institute)
JRC (Joint Research Center of the European Commission)
MSF (Doctors without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières) Austria
MSF (Doctors without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières) Spain (Operational Center)
New York University
NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration)
National Drought Mitigation Center
Red Cross 510 (Big data initiative)
Spatial Services
Servicio Geológico Colombiano
SwissRe
University of Maryland
UNEP (UN Environment Programme)
UN FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organization)
UN IAEA (UN International Atomic Energy Agency)
UN SPIDER (UN Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response)
University of Maryland
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
UN WFP (UN World Food Programme)
Vienna University of Technology
World Bank
ZAMG (Central Institution for Meteorology and Geodynamics, Vienna, Austria) ZGIS/University of Salzburg