Alan Ziegler - Award for Excellent Researcher 2017

Professor Alan D. Ziegler (Department of Geography) recently received the FASS Award for Excellent Researcher (AER) which is presented to researchers based on the overall impact and strength of their research. The successful researcher would have “achieved consistent research excellence, produced a piece of research of great impact and be recognised by the research community as having achieved a significant breakthrough.”

Alan examines the interactions of physical and ecological systems, with water resources serving as a common nexus. The work typically involves developing environmental monitoring programs that facilitate understanding catchment processes, as they vary both naturally and anthropogenically over different spatial and temporal scales. Alan is particularly interested in exploring the risks of rural populations in developing areas to ingestion of contaminated drinking water, exposure to anthropogenic contaminants (heavy metals and pesticides), and exposure to water-borne pathogens.

One of his current research focus areas is determining if intensive agrarian systems on sloping lands in Southeast Asia are environmentally sustainable in terms of water availability, water quality, land degradation processes, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration. Some of his other areas of focus are determining the extent of co-facilitation among of mangroves, seagrass, and coral ecosystems; modelling environmental processes with artificial intelligence models; and examining the linkage between hydrological processes, infectious disease, and human health in developing countries.

Alan has also conducted research on hazard governance, which is aimed at addressing flood disaster governance in the Himalaya Region through improving estimates of high-intensity rainfall and increasing the understanding of vulnerable populations. Prof Ziegler’s interest in the area of hazard governance developed during the interactions of several research events at NUS over the last few years, including special workshops he organized as the Chair of the FASS Environment Cluster.

An impressive aspect of Alan’s recent research is the transdisciplinary approaches he has employed by incorporating scientists with a broad range of expertise in physical and human phenomena to tackle important questions related to public health and disaster preparedness.

We congratulated Alan and spoke to him about his research work.


Congratulations on receiving the Award for Excellent Researcher, Alan! What initially sparked your interest in the connection between water resources and human health?

Growing up I wanted to be a doctor, the medical kind not the academic kind, so it is not too farfetched that I eventually incorporated a public health angle into my research. Actually, I credit others for a large push: a handful of eager students who wanted to investigate worms, bacteria, and other organisms that created a hydrological hazard in rural landscapes; and a colleague at NUS who had been doing interesting work on the relationship between cancer and liver flukes in the fish that people ate. My role in all this was not being scared off by the steep learning curve involved in meshing a water resources background with medical ecology, the latter I largely left to the students who were fearless in the field, in the lab, and in developing partnerships with medical collaborators in Thailand and Malaysia. 


Your recent research on water resources and human health has investigated environmental controls of parasites such as Cryptosporidium, Giardia, and Burkholderia pseudomallei, the bacterium that causes the disease Melioidosis, in water-dominated landscapes in Thailand. The research revealed that the frequency of these organisms doubled during the rainy season in sampled water bodies compared with the dry season, highlighting the importance of water as an agent of disease transport. Your research team recommends holistic, transdisciplinary approaches to mitigate exposure and risk to diseases associated with water resources, rather than relying solely on engineering and/or biological approaches that may have unintended environmental consequences or cannot be maintained by some communities with limited resources. Could you explain what this response would involve and how resource poor communities could be involved in its undertaking?

I see this type of interaction as part of the transdisciplinary approach you asked about. The “trans” means that we try to transcend boundaries of our disciplines, integrating knowledge and methods. This is a bit different than simply including people from many disciplines, such as in a multidisciplinary approach, because one has to be humble to the notion that her/his specialty may be no more important in solving a problem than that of any of other specialists involved. The complicated public health issues that we were investigating (e.g., risk to melioidosis, cryptosporidiosis, and giardiasis) require thinking about the interaction of culture, hydrology, engineering, ecology, evolution, medicine, environmental health, public policy, to name a few areas. 

Any type of cross-disciplinary collaboration can be hindered by territoriality. In fact the melioidosis paper was slow coming out because it was being reviewed by people who didn’t understand why we were focusing on non-medical aspects of a well-known disease. Our contribution was to find where in the landscape the bacteria that caused it existed, how its presence changed seasonally and with local water management practices, and ultimately how risk varied for farmers working in rice fields. Also at risk are school kids on playgrounds, some livestock, and various zoo animals such as camels and pandas. This complexity of risk in time and space strongly hints that disease management needs to consider solutions beyond eradication of the vector in the environment and treatment after it is contacted. We argue this is the case for other diseases, for example the one caused by the liverfluke mentioned before.

Ironically, transdisciplinary approaches are not easy to conduct because of the inefficiency or self-serving nature of academia. We argued in a paper wrote a few years back that Geography had perhaps missed the opportunity to make great contributions in solving difficult human-nature problems because tenure-track academics are forced to produce knowledge in a way that develops a subfield, or establishes a person as an expert on a particular (narrow) subject, or forces one to work independently (as a lone ranger) to demonstrate originality and competence. All of this is needed for promotion and tenure. Can early-career academics afford to risk working on a complex problem using a transdisciplinary approach for which they may not be able to control the timing or outlet for dissemination of the results, or even the nature of the message? Interwoven in the difficulty of using a trans-disciplinary approach is that communication between partners is reduced because our individual fields almost require us to write in discipline-specific languages, rather than in a common voice understandable to all—particularly the layperson. Many of us feel that this communication problem is often the reason that some good research discoveries take so long to be implemented into policy


Your research team’s 2016 article ‘A Clear and Present Danger: Ladakh’s increasing vulnerability to flash floods and debris flows’ in Hydrological Processes investigates the nature of the increasing presence of these hazards in the Indian Himalayas, specifically the Ladakh region, a high mountain desert locale. The team found that although this increase may be related to climate change, the main cause of loss of life has been uncontrolled, reckless development, including improperly managed tourism and immigration. How did your team make this discovery?

In the work in Ladakh on flood hazards we also champion transdisciplinary approaches to flood risk reduction because the cause of the disaster in the Leh area was more than just heavy rainfall. In a forthcoming work we examine the spatial distribution of population growth in the region, traditional building strategies, reconstructed climate regimes, and the history of flood occurrences. When one considers the roles of migration, tourism, development, policy, disaster response, geology, changing social structure, hydrology, climatology, the issue is very complex—more complex than one lone ranger can handle. Needed are the voices and expertise of many, not just academic voices, but local voices too.

We say the flood disaster should not simply be blamed on climate change because we want to draw attention to the fact that the population of Leh has increased more than ten–fold over the last 140 years; and now many of these new people are living in at-risk areas that people didn’t occupy permanently in the past. We find evidence that throughout the last few centuries large floods have been associated with brief wet periods separated by dry periods. We observed that many villages were located historically in strategic areas for defense from invaders/enemies, and perhaps natural hazards such as floods.  The several decades prior to the flood in 2010 were relatively flood free, possibly creating the illusion that formerly unsettled areas were safe from flooding. We know this is not the case; the flood sediments and debris flow boulders deposited in the adjacent flood plains of mountain streams tell a different story. 


The article argues that the increasing vulnerability to water hazards in Ladakh should be addressed with sound disaster governance strategies that are proactive, rather than reactionary. Could you elaborate on what formulating strategies for disaster governance entails?

We stress in the new work that one can’t simply blame the settlers or the government for the current status of increased risk to deadly floods. A nuanced approached is needed that considers exactly how this situation has arisen. We firmly believe the solution is more complex than building huge retaining walls around the multitude of tributaries of the Indus River to battle a changing climate. The idea of working together in a transdisciplinary way seems ideal for such developing areas where expensive and large-scale engineering works could never be economically feasible, and perhaps, the uniqueness of the location has helped create a particularly difficult issue involving human-environmental relationships.


You have carried out research collaborations with the Tropical Marine Science Institute, the NUS Department of Biological Sciences, Singapore’s National Parks Board, and the Public Utilties Board to investigate biodiversity and hydrology in the Nee Soon Swamp forest, the only remaining freshwater swamp forest in Singapore, located in the southeast of Seletar Reservoir in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. Your team’s current project in the 750 hectare wetland area aims to integrate various geography, vegetation, faunal, and modelling teams to research the area’s suitability for stream management and conservation, and is attempting to find impacts of land-use and natural changes through sediment cores, metal analysis, GIS mapping and stream monitoring. What are some of the related research projects you are planning to work on?

What’s next? I will continue working locally in Nee Soon Catchment where a new project is up and running with a great team and collaborators at NParks. Nee Soon is a special place as it is contains the only remaining freshwater swamp forest in Singapore. The new research will help us understand more about a small, yet crucial part, of the natural capital of Singapore. Collectively, swamp forests, mangroves, and terrestrial forests have important aesthetic, cultural, ecological, and educational value. They also represent historical environmental archives of changes occurring over time (e.g., past climates, changes in pollution sources). Despite the recognized value, they are endangered.  Learning all we can about them, and making his information available to the public and government decision makers, is important for helping to protect and preserve them. 

We are also still trying to figure out the relationship between extreme rainfall and flood hazards in the Himalaya – I have two students still working in India and Nepal. Students and colleagues of mine are investigating paleofloods on the Ping and Mekong Rivers, as well as current flood risks. I am collaborating with my former Princeton group and Thai colleagues to identify the triggers and consequences of recent unexpected forest loss on the forest frontiers, particularly in relationship to the expansion of cultivated crops on sloping lands. We also look to expand the work of another finishing student to further explore nutrient exchange between mangroves and the ocean—that work will compare sites in Thailand, Vietnam, New Caledonia and West Papua. I am brainstorming with a group of Singapore scientists about developing an “Asia Water and Health” research program that investigates various issues related to public health and water resources in the region. We also look to expand the liverfluke work into Cambodia.   

I also want to continue to operate my hydrological monitoring network on the Sa River in northern Thailand, which was installed in 2004 in collaboration with Hawaii and Thai colleagues, as it is both a source of new data for research and a resource for teaching. International field work is important to me because it provides our students with opportunities to do fieldwork that is not possible in Singapore. I also firmly believe NUS should be the leader in the region in helping other nations tackle complicated issues through mutually beneficial collaborations. We originally installed the network to help local officials manage the high sediment concentrations that were associated with farming intensification. Now the problem is chemical loading from pesticides and urbanizing areas that are urbanizing because of tourism.  

I have frequently been asked about the benefit of such international research to the US, and now to NUS. To me the answer is obvious: exposure, educational opportunity, leadership, societal impact, livelihood transformation, and soft diplomatic power. Most of these ideas are written on the NUS splash page. NUS is recognized as one of the top universities worldwide. These rankings are based, in part, on research findings on globally important issues, international reputation, and the training and placement of graduate students among other things. Some of the most important global issues today involve the humid tropics of Asia. Work abroad generates exposure, which is important in branding NUS. Students benefit by working in unfamiliar environments, learn about different cultures, and work in locations where an issue can be investigated conveniently. For example, I performed my PhD work on the impact of mountain roads in Thailand because access/liability issues in the USA would have made research very difficult. The work was funded by the USA National Science Foundation who understood the legitimacy of working abroad on this particular topic. I now feel the funding landscape has changed since I came to NUS in 2009. It is getting harder and harder to support research abroad. I encourage funding agencies not to underestimate the value of foreign-based research to the education and nurturing of Singapore’s university students.  


Finally, what are some of the most memorable experiences you and your team have had doing field research in Southeast Asia?

Many of my most valuable research moments were as a graduate student in the field, rarely in the lab or behind a computer. Nearly all involved serendipity. As a student I lived among Karen and Lisu people in northern Thailand for two years. Simultaneously, I worked on a landscape fragmentation in northern Vietnam, living in a Tay village. I spent a lot of time with farmers in their fields, participating in planting and harvesting, playing with kids—but also unknowingly observing that their practices had been changing over time. Later that knowledge allowed me to join a group of international scientists exploring the implications of the demise in swidden agriculture. Part of that knowledge too came from work set in Bulan, Tai, and Hani villages in Xishuangbanna, China. This is where we first observed that large-scale conversion to rubber plantations had the potential to affect hydrology at various scales on the landscape—this finding was completely unanticipated, and the issue became another major research area for me years later. Today I am most proud of the work on swiddening and I relish lessons learned accidentally in the mountains. We also learned another lesson in the mountains of China: prepare carefully and communicate. Two years into the project, the Army tore down all our equipment. Apparently, our climate stations were too close to the Myanmar border. A lot of finger pointing occurred, but I think the issue was that we just had not communicated well enough with the Army. Alas, that equipment are now part of the hydrological network on the Sa River, 14 years and running.


Thank you, Alan. We wish you well in your future projects.

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