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Collaborations to understand and manage water

Fornik Tsai / Unsplash
Published Apr 21, 2021

Zahra Kalantari is an early-career scientist and new Associate professor at the Department of Sustainable Development, Environmental Science and Engineering (SEED), with her main competence in Geoscience and Environmental Engineering for Sustainability in the Anthropocene. She has always found water fascinating.

Zahra Kalantari (Foto: Privat)

“For me, water is interesting as it is the most important substance in the world for all life on, under and above Earth’s surface - without water, there is no life. There are numerous linkages between water and environmental and societal challenges such as climate change, health risks, economic growth, conflicts, urban planning, etc. There are so many aspects of water that require an interdisciplinary approach, and necessitate transdisciplinary collaborations.”

Zahra’s background is in flood risk assessment and strategic water management issues, as well as water quantity and the dynamics of flow. Amongst other things, she is Research Area Co-Leader for Landscape processes and climate within Bolin Centre for Climate Research  (a collaborative effort between KTH, Stockholm University, and SMHI Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute) as well as member of the board and steering committee of three European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) actions: Land4Flood , FIRElinks , and Damocles . Zahra says the networks have offered her great opportunity for collaboration with scientists across Europe.

“I love the collaborative efforts that water research requires and offers! Most of the projects I am involved in are interdisciplinary and include researchers from different areas and organisations. I have several projects together with Stockholm University, where I have worked previously and in part still do. My doctoral students are still at Stockholm University. I am main supervisor of two and co-supervisor of three doctoral students, as well as supervisor of two postdocs. We will be hiring another postdoc this autumn at SEED as well. The aim is to build a strong team of researchers within both SEED, KTH and Stockholm University, and continue to develop interdisciplinary collaborative projects together. KTH, Stockholm University and Karolinska Institutet initiated the university alliance Stockholm trio in 2019 with the aim of developing and highlighting the internationally prominent research and education environment that the three universities form in the Stockholm region. It feels great that SEED is able to directly contribute to that!”

What are you working on right now?

“Currently, I am investigating water availability changes over the world and at global scale, driven by both climate variability and human activities (land use changes), together with Dr. Navid Ghajarnia and Prof. Gia Destouni at Stockholm University. We also study the water-related performance and future scenario projections and implications of Earth System models and regional climate models, with particular focus on sustainable development goal SDG13 for climate action. In collaboration with University of New Hampshire (Dr. Richard Lammers), we also pioneer a new research approach to quantifying the societal effects of climate change through water, aiming to enable a better-informed foundation for policy decisions on adaptation. In this project, doctoral student Elisie Kåresdotter investigates relationships between water-related conflicts and climate change. We have further recently started a project on “Fresh Water Management” as a critical topic for several aspects of sustainable development in the Global South. The overall aim is to quantify the relationships between several societal goals related to water across landscapes, and identify synergies between these goals to guide policy development and dialogue. The project will include field work, measuring water quality and quantity in 20 watersheds in Ethiopia with variation in forest/agricultural cover and general composition of land-uses.”

Photo: Zahra Kalantari

Zahra is also working together with Dr. Carla Ferreira and Prof. Gia Destouniwithin the Navarino Environmental Observatory  on understanding the current status and future trends and their drivers for land degradation and water security problems.

“The Mediterranean region has been identified as one of the most vulnerable and severely affected European regions by land degradation and desertification, and is considered a hotspot for climate change. Thus, the problems and messages learned from this region can be useful and relevant for soil and water management in other regions worldwide. Our research is also focused on finding ways to mitigate land and water degradation by using actions that mimic natural processes, the so-called nature-based solutions. For example, wetlands may be strategically placed in the landscape to retain surface water during rainfall events and thereby mitigate downstream floods and soil erosion. We are currently publishing a book entitled “Nature Based Solutions for Flood Mitigation: Environmental and Socio-Economic Aspects”, prepared in collaboration with several experts from all over Europe. We also plan for a next book on the environmental, social and economic problems of the Mediterranean region, and pathways for its sustainable development.” 

Zahra has initiated a collaborative learning process for developing a replicable and adaptable, artificial intelligence-based decision support system for handling complex socio-physical interactions, their implications, and potential feedbacks in collaboration with colleagues Dr. Ulla Mörtberg and Prof. Vladimir Cvetkovic at SEED, KTH and other colleagues at Stockholm University (Prof. Gia Destouni and Jessica Page), University of Illinois Urbana Champaign (Prof. Brian Deal) in USA, University of Shanghai Jiao Tong (Dr. Haozhi Pan) in China and Growth and Regional Planning Administration (TRF) at Region Stockholm. The work is aimed at understanding complex built-environment (urban) systems and their relationships to climate change and its impacts, and to promote innovation in smart urban-regional development.

Photo: Zahra Kalantari

“In this on-going initiative, we (particularly doctoral student Jessica Page) work on understanding how we can shape cities and guide urban development in order to reduce their long-term impact on the environment, particularly with respect to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and maximizing carbon sequestration. Our recent research is on investigating the urban carbon cycle and using this knowledge for more complete carbon accounting, and identification of any portions of its cycle that have previously been missed or where we could potentially intervene to reduce net GHG emissions from urban areas. In this work, we’ve found that water bodies, although they are not usually included in carbon accounting, can play a significant role in the urban carbon cycle, in our case with a focus on the study area of Stockholm Region. Related to this, we have also worked on mapping GHG emissions and sequestration on a fine scale and coupling this with land-use change modelling to gain new insight into how urban form and GHG emissions are related, what the GHG emissions from various land-uses would be based on future development plans, and how we could adjust these plans to allow for necessary development while reducing associated emissions.”

Zahra is also Principal investigator (PI) for the international EU/Central Baltic project “ChangeMakers - Start-ups for sustainable environment created by youngsters”, and several more national and international projects such as “Carbon-neutral cities”, “Sustainable urban-regional development and watershed planning”, “The missing link: How does climate affect human conflict and cooperation through water?”, “Creating a web-based tool to manage current and mitigate future water related impacts on infrastructure in Sweden”, and Co-PI of EU H2020 project “COASTAL - Collaborative Land-Sea Integration Platform” and the digitalization project “iWater - Water Monitoring Networks” of the Swedish Innovation Agency. She aims to continue to explore different parts of the research areas of geoscience and water.

“I plan to focus on building on my previous and current research within my new position at SEED. My focus is interdisciplinary water research linked with engineering geosciences using cutting-edge technologies to grapple with complex water-related challenges. I believe that working at SEED provides me with an ideal working environment for the implementation of my interdisciplinary approach and transdisciplinary collaborations with international partners around the world. For instance, by allowing close interactions with many colleagues dealing with water related issues in interdisciplinary competence centres hosted by SEED or other departments at the School of Architecture and the Built Environment, such as WaterCentre@KTH. There are a lot of exciting opportunities!

What motivates you?

“My work is greatly motivated by societal benefits – My research aim is to both improve scientific understanding and provide insight into how we can use this knowledge for reducing and mitigating the negative impacts of climate-driven and anthropogenic changes on society and the environment. Our type of research is both interesting, relevant and beneficial across different research fields, and for various stakeholders, such as planners, policy makers, governmental and non-governmental organizations, and others, because water is a valuable, vulnerable and, in various places and times, also a scarce resource. Availability of clean water is highly variable across places and times, yet increasingly demanded for socio-economic development and human wellbeing. According to the World Bank  'Water is crucial in determining whether the world will achieve the SDGs. The world needs a fundamental shift in how it understands, values and manages water'. I’d like to be a part of that fundamental shift."

Text: Josefin Backman

 This is the fifth article in the School of Architecture and the Built Environment 's new series of articles on selected research, education or collaboration initiatives from each department. You can find the previous articles here:

  1. KTH Architecture: Introducing Lighting Design Research in Architecture
  2. Civil and Architectural Engineering: He is planning a new student competition about self-sufficiency
  3. Real Estate and Construction Management: New forum for discussion and cooperation on housing issues
  4. Philosophy and History: The Mediated Planet: Claiming Data for Environmental SDGs

Belongs to: School of Architecture and the Built Environment (ABE)
Last changed: Apr 21, 2021