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The SURVAS Project

Anne de la Vega-Leinert and Robert Nicholls discuss the impacts of accelerated sea-level rise and adaptive options.

Anne de la Vega-Leinert is a research fellow and Robert Nicholls holds a chair in coastal geomorphology and management in the Flood Hazards Research Centre in the School of Social Science at Middlesex University in the United Kingdom.

It is estimated that 21 per cent of the world’s population lives within 30 km of a shoreline. Moreover, coastal populations are growing more rapidly than global mean trends, with a strong focus on urban centres.

There are growing concerns that a global accelerated sea-level rise of uncertain rate will result from human-induced climate change (see figure below). This is attributed to the thermal expansion of the oceans and melting of ice caps, especially land-based glaciers. It is estimated that global sea levels have risen by 10-25 cm during the 20th century.

IPCC projections of accelerated sea-level rise in centimetres over the period 1990-2100, based on a ‘business as usual’ scenario. The three curves define the range of uncertainty and a ‘best-guess’ projection.

Global accelerated sea-level rise will be superimposed on local conditions (for example, coastal subsidence) which will, in many cases, enhance this global trend. Even small increases in accelerated sea-level rise could cause major primary impacts on the world’s coastal zones (see table below). These primary impacts will cascade through the coastal system having a range of secondary impacts. Additionally, a range of other effects of climate change will influence the coastal zone and exacerbate accelerated sea-level rise impacts, including rising water temperatures, a decline in sea ice, possible changes in frequency and intensity of coastal storms and more intense precipitation events.

Primary impacts

Secondary impacts

increased erosion

inundation of coastal wetlands and lowlands

increased risk of flooding and storm damage

salinization of surface and ground waters

on livelihoods and human health

on infrastructure and economic activity

displacement of vulnerable populations

diversion of resources to adaptation responses

political and institutional instability, social unrest

threats to particular cultures and ways of life

Impacts of accelerated sea-level rise.

Our existing knowledge on the vulnerability of coastal areas to accelerated sea-level rise is scattered, and far from exhaustive. But all the evidence points to a severe impact potential. This raises fundamental questions that are pertinent to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) about the ability of different nations and regions to adapt to accelerated sea-level rise (a national to regional-scale question), and about the relative need for climate-change mitigation versus adaptation (a global-scale question).

Coastal zones were the first sector where a set of generic guidelines for impact and vulnerability assessment were developed and systematically applied in a number of countries. This first effort started in 1991 and was called the Common Methodology. It resulted in an intense debate about both the approaches and the goals of impact and vulnerability assessment. Subsequently, several distinct methodologies have been developed as attempts to remedy some of the limitations of the Common Methodology.

The SURVAS project

The SURVAS (Synthesis and Upscaling of sea-level Rise Vulnerability Assessment Studies) Project involves a network of international scientists interested in improving our knowledge of the impacts and adaptation to accelerated sea-level rise. The project is coordinated by the authors at Middlesex University in the United Kingdom. SURVAS is primarily sponsored by the European Union, with additional funding from the Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research, and is an IGBP LOICZ Project.

The aims of the SURVAS project are:

  • to further our understanding of accelerated sea-level rise by reviewing existing studies and associated methods; and,
  • to develop improved regional and global perspectives on accelerated sea-level rise and associated impacts.

The SURVAS methodology has been developed with the active involvement of multidisciplinary experts from academic institutions and other national and international organizations.

The SURVAS effort builds upon previous work on accelerated sea-level rise impact assessment initiated by the Common Methodology, and subsequently within a range of country studies programmes (such as mounted by UNEP and the United States), and uses the conceptual framework designed by Robert Klein and Robert Nicholls (Ambio, 28, 182-187, 1999).

Our main objectives are:

  • to develop and apply the SURVAS methodology via a series of regional workshops;
  • to analyse and consolidate existing vulnerability assessment data;
  • to generate a regional and global database on the potential impacts of accelerated sea-level rise (available on the SURVAS web site);
  • to aggregate and synthesize the obtained data and publicize them in different forms according to the specific needs of potential end-users, including policy makers, non-governmental organizations, regional and global organizations and academics; and,
  • to promote improved methodologies for the production of vulnerability assessments.

There are numerous end-users of the SURVAS project. They are quite varied and diverse, including interests from intergovernmental negotiations to coastal zone management. One key group is that concerned with integrated assessment, an approach shaping intergovernmental policy on mitigation. These top-down approaches need to be validated against bottom-up information such as that generated by SURVAS.

In January 2000, twenty-six experts attended the SURVAS Methodology Workshop from a range of academic and governmental organizations in Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia/Pacific. The workshop considered the proposed SURVAS methodology and discussed possible improvements. The revised methodology resulting from these discussions was successfully tested in four country case studies for Germany, India, Poland and Senegal.

SURVAS Regional Workshop Series

A series of regional workshops are being organized within the SURVAS project in Europe, Africa, Asia/Pacific and the Americas. A final overview workshop will be held in Brussels, Belgium, in June 2001.

The regional workshops on vulnerability and adaptation to impacts of accelerated sea-level rise represent a great opportunity for delegates to exchange relevant experiences on assessment methodologies and coastal management issues. Furthermore, the workshops provide the necessary incentive and framework for country participants to help SURVAS collect the relevant data required to complete the global database. Closer international research collaboration is also an expected outcome.

Prior to each regional workshop, the SURVAS package is sent to the appropriate national contact for completion.

The SURVAS package comprises:

  1. A background document briefing the delegate on the context of the SURVAS Project with respect to past and existing research on vulnerability assessment.
  2. A set of guidelines and glossary of terms required for the completion of the package.
  3. A series of tables and questionnaires to be completed, covering: national statistics and trends with specific focus on the coastal zone; the SURVAS matrix proper – all existing data on national/subnational vulnerability obtained using a range of methods and of climate change, sea-level rise and socio-economic scenarios are computed by the delegates; a review of vulnerability assessment methods, tools and sources of error; a review of national coastal management problems; and additional data, especially qualitative data on vulnerability to impacts of sea-level rise (for example, on cultural issues).

Assessment of the SURVAS package

While all national delegates have so far produced a national abstract/paper for the proceedings, SURVAS appreciates that this package can be difficult to complete. This is primarily due to either the lack of time and resources to compile and analyse the available information, or to the absence of the data in the first place (especially suitable quantitative data).

In many countries, considerable data do exist, although they are scattered. SURVAS aims, therefore, to provide a catalyst for delegates to perform an in-depth national review of available information (for example, for Europe: Ireland, Turkey and the United Kingdom). Concern over climate change, sea-level rise and coastal erosion issues, is growing, moreover, and SURVAS is playing an important role in promoting research on these issues.

The regional workshops are a unique opportunity to identify and report key national/subnational studies, all of which will be integrated in the reference meta-database to be produced within the SURVAS Project. Further, although many countries around the world have not produced a national vulnerability assessment yet, the need for this is widely acknowledged.

The SURVAS package provides delegates with a conceptual and methodological framework within which vulnerability assessment could be considered, and hence stimulates future investigations.

SURVAS deliverables

A range of products and publications will be available by late 2001:

  • the SURVAS database of existing data on vulnerability to impacts of sea-level rise which will be primarily of use to coastal management academics and consultants;
  • the proceedings of each regional workshop, which will be disseminated electronically to the SURVAS network and via the web, as well as published formally in a more conventional format;
  • scientific papers in selected journals (such as the Journal of Coastal Research); and,
  • a summary booklet on vulnerability and adaptation to impacts of sea-level rise, orientated to a wide audience and highlighting SURVAS’ main achievements and data.


By reviewing and providing easily accessible and readily usable data on national to global vulnerability to impacts of accelerated sea-level rise on natural habitats as well as socio-economic assets, SURVAS is fostering a better understanding of one of the major impacts of climate change, increased sea level. SURVAS is further promoting the scientific basis for the capacity building and the policy making process in terms of mitigation and adaptation.

Finally, by its emphasis on adaptation, and integrated coastal zone management, SURVAS is supporting the sustainable use of coastal zone resources, as well as the conservation of ecosystems.

Further information

Anne de la Vega-Leinert, Flood Hazard Research Centre, School of Social Science, Middlesex University, Queensway, Enfield, Middlesex EN3 4SF, UK. Fax: +44-20-83625403. Email: Web:

Robert Nicholls, Flood Hazard Research Centre, School of Social Science, Middlesex University, Queensway, Enfield EN3 4SF, UK. Fax: +44-20-83625403. Email: Web:

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