We are convinced that ecosystem services (ESS) management can alleviate poverty if it is embedded in local processes of adaptive governance that rely on continuous monitoring and knowledge generation. This is especially the case in remote mountain regions, where poverty is often interlocked with multiple ecosystem threats, data scarcity, and high uncertainties. In these environments, it is paramount to generate locally relevant knowledge about multiple ESS and how they impact local livelihoods. This is often problematic. Existing environmental data collection tends to be geographically biased towards more densely populated regions, and prioritised towards strategic economic activities that bypass the poor. Data may also be locked behind institutional and technological barriers and monopolised by the better educated or politically connected. These issues create a “knowledge trap” for data-poor regions, which is especially acute in remote and hard-to-reach mountain regions.

This project will blend cutting-edge concepts of adaptive governance with technological breakthroughs in citizen science and knowledge co-generation to break this vicious circle. Our central research question is how recent conceptual and technological innovations in environmental sensing, data processing, interactive visualisation and participatory knowledge generation can be leveraged to implement demand-driven, interactive and multidirectional approaches to knowledge generation about ESS. Our approach to this question is built around the notion of Environmental Virtual Observatories: decentralised and open technology platforms for knowledge generation and exchange that enable participation of marginalised and vulnerable communities bypassed by the traditional mechanisms.

Our case studies are 4 remote and poor mountain regions characterised by acute degradation of ESS, in particular water supply, soil fertility, and land cover. We will implement a process of participatory data collection and processing on these ESS and their trade-offs, embedded in the local NGO and educational setting. Mechanisms of continuous evaluation and improvements will be set up, and tested for usefulness, robustness and impact on human wellbeing.

Our goal is not to develop specific solutions to specific problems. Rather, we will leverage the cross-disciplinary nature of our consortium to create a flexible and adaptive set of tools, protocols and concepts to promote citizen science on ESS for poverty alleviation. As such, the project aims at nothing less than reconceptualising the approach to managing ESS for poverty alleviation.


Central Tien Shan Mountains, Naryn, Kyrgyzstan

Naryn Province is a primarily rural, high altitude, remote region in the east of Kyrgyzstan in the arid to semi-arid Tien Shan mountains. In the Soviet era, much of Naryn was used for livestock raising as part of the Kolkhoz and Sovkhoz collectivized system of agriculture. In the 1980’s Soviet scientists began raising concerns about land degradation caused by the region’s agro-pastoral practices. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restructuring of social, economic, and political systems, land degradation continued and, according to some, has worsened. The abolition of the Kolkhoz and Sovkhoz systems and the dejure and defacto establishment of new land use and management schemes established since independence has altered the drivers of land degradation from those identified by Soviet-era scientists.

Currently, scientific knowledge of these new drivers and their impacts on land degradation and ESS is extremely limited. Contemporary Kyrgyzstani research institutions and monitoring stations are functioning at minimal levels and data sharing and links between research and/or monitoring to now localized land management decision making processes is nearly non-existent. In addition, governance arrangements at various levels have experienced numerous shocks including independence in 1991 and revolutions in 2005 and 2010. These trends are aggravated by negative climate change impacts on water resources, agriculture, natural disaster occurrence, and health in the country.

Upper Kaligandaki basin, Mustang, Nepal

The Upper Kaligandaki basin is located in the Mustang district of the Trans-Himalayan region of Nepal, bordering the Tibet Autonomous Region of China to the northeast. The Mustang district has a population of around 15600 inhabitants, and a literacy rate of 57%. Although Mustang is not rated among the poorest districts in Nepal, it was chosen because of its relative accessibility, which is important for fieldwork, and the strategic links with local development actors.

The basin lies in the rain shadow of the Annapurna massif and receives less than 200 mm of precipitation annually. The climate of the district is generally dry with strong winds and intense sunlight. Winter temperatures regularly fall below -20ºC. The land resource of Mustang consists of abundant grassland and shrub species in slopes and valley bottoms. Apples are one of the major cash crops grown in the area.

The basin is valued for vulnerable highland ecosystems and the services they provide. Locally, water supply, agricultural production and the attractive landscape are seen as the dominant ESS. Water is a scarce productive and symbolic resource, and is highly contested between individuals, communities, and social groups within the basin. Disputes over water are related to domestic water use, water sharing, and the control of water sources. This ESS is strongly related to agricultural production, which is both a main consumer of water for irrigation, but also a potential threat to water quality because of soil erosion. Lastly, the integrity of the landscape is a major ecosystem service that benefit local people because of tourism. Melting glaciers; and soil degradation are major threats to ecosystem services. Several recent international projects have quantified glacier melt, but the impacts on local livelihoods remain unclear. Similarly, soil degradation may increase risks of floods, landslides, river cutting, reservoir capacity reduction, and water quality degradation.

Huamantanga, Lima, Peru

Although buoyant economic growth in Peru has generated positive macro-economic figures, this evolution has largely bypassed the remote communities in the Andes, where poverty pockets are widely present. Huamantanga is an example of such a poverty pocket. It is a rural community located in the Peruvian Andes between 3100 and 4600 meters of altitude, with the town located at 3400 meters above sea level in Chillon river basin, which is one of the three basin (Chillón, Rímac and Lurín) that provide water to the city of Lima, the capital of Peru. The Huamantanga community, whose main productive activities are agriculture and cattle-raising for dairy production, is under severe pressure to implement water and land conservation practices, not only to improve their own livelihoods but also to safeguard ecosystem services for downstream users.

The Tana Lake region, Ethiopia

Soil erosion decreases food production and hampers poverty reduction efforts in the highlands of eastern Africa. Despite intensive development efforts since the 1980s, erosion continues unabatedly and the already low crop yields are decreasing even further. Additionally, shallow soils are becoming shallower and are often abandoned. Lastly, gullies are swallowing productive cropland. Some of the lost soil fills up reservoirs and irrigation canals downstream.

Noteworthy outputs

Insight series

This Insight Series has eight posters summarising the key experiences and outcomes of the Mountain EVO project:

  1. General Introduction
  2. Citizen Science
  3. Theory of Change
  4. Sensor Networks
  5. Data Visualisation
  6. Smartphones for Sustainability
  7. Participatory Environmental Monitoring
  8. Participatory Rural Appraisal
  9. User Driven Design

Blog posts and news articles


  • Grainger, S., Mao, F., Buytaert, W., 2016. Environmental data visualisation for non-scientific contexts: Literature review and design framework. Environmental Modelling & Software, 85, 299–318.
  • Ochoa-Tocachi, B.,Buytaert, W., De Bièvre, B., 2016. Regionalisation of land-use impacts on the hydrological response using data from a monitoring network of paired catchments. Water Resources Research 52, 6710-6729.
  • Ochoa-Tocachi, B., Buytaert, W., De Bièvre, B., Célleri, R, Crespo, P., Villacís, M., Llerena, C., Acosta, L., Villazón, M., Guallpa, M., Gil-Ríos, J., Fuentes, P., Olaya, R., Viñas, P., Rojas, G., Arias, S., 2016. Impacts of land use on the hydrological response of tropical Andean catchments. Hydrological Processes 30, 4074-4089.
  • Manz, B., Buytaert, W., Zulkafli, Z., Lavado, W., Willems, B., Robles, L. A., Rodríguez-Sánchez J.-P., 2016. High-resolution Satellite-Gauge Merged Precipitation Climatologies of the Tropical Andes. Journal of Geophysical Research - Atmospheres 121, 1190–1207.
  • Buytaert, W., Dewulf, A., De Bièvre, B., Clark, J., Hannah, D. M., 2016. Citizen science for water resources management: toward polycentric monitoring and governance? Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, 10.1061/(ASCE)WR.1943-5452.0000641, 01816002
  • Karpouzoglou, K., Zulkafli, Z., Grainger, S., Dewulf, D., Buytaert., W., Hannah, D. M., 2015. Environmental Virtual Observatories (EVOs): Prospects for knowledge co-creation and resilience in the Information Age. Current opinion in environmental sustainability, 18, 40-48
  • Buytaert, W., Zulkafli, Z., Grainger, S., Acosta, L., Alemie, T.C., Bastiaensen, J., De Bièvre, B., Bhusal, J., Clark, J. Dewulf, A., Foggin, M., Hannah, D. M., Hergarten, C., Isaeva, A., Karpouzoglou, T., Pandeya, B., Paudel, D., Sharma, K., Steenhuis, T. S. Tilahun, S., Van Hecken, G., Zhumanova, M., 2014. Citizen science in hydrology and water resources: opportunities for knowledge generation, ecosystem service management, and sustainable development. Frontiers in Earth Science 2:26.