New technology can fight floods in emerging markets

As sea levels rise to unprecedented levels as a result of climate change, governments and citizens in vulnerable countries are looking for innovative ways to predict, prevent, adapt to, and insure against flooding.

Floods in west and central Africa over the past two weeks have displaced more than 3.4 million people, according to the UN refugee agency, punctuated by Nigeria’s worst flooding in a decade that has killed hundreds and affected 2.8 million people.

Extreme flooding has killed more than 1,300 people in Pakistan since June and now threatens to trigger a food crisis.

Floods will occur more frequently in the future. A UN report released last week found that despite government action to tackle climate change, the planet will warm by 2.1°C to 2.9°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.

Coastal megacities at risk

With the world unable to deal with climate change in the short to medium term, countries urgently need to find solutions to mitigate the devastating effects of extreme floods.

More than 1.8 billion people – about 23% of the world’s population – are at high risk of flooding. Over 1.2 billion of these are in South and East Asia, including 395 million in China and 390 million in India. Of the 170 million people at risk of both high flood risk and extreme poverty, 44% live in sub-Saharan Africa.

This large number reflects simultaneous sea level rise and urbanization, putting people living in coastal megacities among the most vulnerable.

Traditional engineered solutions such as flood walls and embankments help, but may be inadequate when drains or floodplains are nonexistent, outdated, or clogged. In Nigeria, for example, government officials say structures built along drains contributed to the severity of the Lagos flooding.

One approach is so-called sponge cities, which seek to collaborate and develop with nature to absorb, clean, and utilize excess water during extreme flooding. For example, the Chinese port city of Ningbo transformed 3km of previously developed land that lay fallow into an eco-corridor and public park.

Creating more sustainable ecosystems further out to sea is another approach to braving the floods during severe storms. Some South and East African states are aiming to build what is known as the Great Blue Wall to protect coastal and marine areas that run from Somalia to South Africa in the Indian Ocean.

forecasting technologies

Technology plays an important role in helping countries predict floods and alert residents to dangers.

With an estimated 20% of the country at risk of flooding, Malaysia is a world leader in the use of forecasting and monitoring technologies.

By the end of 2022, the Malaysian Department of Irrigation and Drainage (DID) will roll out its national flood forecasting and warning system, developed with UK engineering consultancy HR Wallingford.

The system gathers data from 700 observation gauges located across the country – often in difficult terrain – to create simulations and models that help residents and officials better prepare.

Drones are increasingly being used to capture precise imagery that planners can use for flood prevention, forecasting and post-damage assessment.

Malaysia’s space agency is using drones and two satellites — a third is due to be launched in 2025 — to identify areas prone to flooding before the rainy season begins. The agency’s integrated disaster management system and satellite imagery-based information and logistics system, known as eBanjir, directly supports DID in its flood management initiatives.

Brazil is similarly using data through its Waterproofing Data mobile app, developed on-site in March 2022 in collaboration with researchers from Germany and the UK.

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The app allows community members to become citizen scientists by recording rainfall and flood impact assessments that can be used to plan for or prevent severe flooding. The app is currently used in 20 municipalities and the research team behind the platform would like to use it in other countries around the world.

By using higher quality and larger amounts of data, artificial intelligence can help predict potential floods, enabling the construction of more targeted flood-resistant infrastructure. For example, researchers at Stanford University in the US are using machine learning to track atmospheric patterns and predict when precipitation will trigger floods.

Flood proof food

In addition to uprooting people, floods endanger food security in the short term by destroying infrastructure, cropland and livestock, and damaging water resources and sanitation in the months that follow.

To counteract this, growing more resilient crops could help small farmers, who have lost an estimated $21 billion in farm produce and livestock to floods followed by droughts over the past decade.

Researchers are using genetic tools to breed the gene responsible for flood tolerance called Sub1. Using the resulting flood-resistant rice, which yielded 60% more rice than standard varieties in a controlled experiment, could go a long way toward reducing the 4 million tons of rice lost to flooding each year.

Over the past decade, farmers in the Philippines have largely introduced submarino rice, a strand that won’t die when submerged under water for up to 14 days.

Other subsistence farmers are turning to an old practice and using floating farms to secure their crops as sea levels rise.

More than 6,000 farmers in the deltas of southwest Bangladesh — who are already under water for eight to 10 months a year, up from five months a year some 200 years ago — use the practice to grow fruit and vegetables on rafts from invasive hyacinths.

Farmers in Mexico have also revived its use chinampas (Farm Islands) – long, narrow strips of land across shallow lakes near Mexico City, anchored to the lake bed with a native willow – to meet agricultural demand when traditional markets were shut down during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Developed by the Aztecs more than 700 years ago, chinampas are extremely fertile crops that are home to a range of produce from fruits and vegetables to eggs and honey. They have the added benefit of meeting their water needs directly from the lakes themselves.

From the Oxford Business Group

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