What if there is more to flood control than the usual ways—constructing floodways, to say the least, and it is big data.
African cities are prone to flood damage, which can be widespread leaving hundreds homeless, communities and economic systems destabilized and infrastructures costing millions to build, destroyed.
All these issues factor in an uncomfortable reality that African communities cannot afford. According to a 2018 publication by The Conversation, floods cost Tanzania up to $2 billion annually, while tracing back to 2012, Nigeria—Africa’s top economy suffered its largest floods in the century which wiped out assets worth nearly $10 billion.
Mozambique—which suffered serious flooding in 2020, with more than 58,000 people affected according to Relief Web reports, saw a staggering economic cost from flooding in 2013, which stood at $500 million – 9 per cent of its GDP. Meanwhile, Bloomberg News reported that almost $2 billion will be needed to repair Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe from the devastating impact of cyclone Idai which caused deadly floods.
All these extreme weather situations occurring in the region over time represent different risks that communities endure from floods. Despite different relief efforts put in place, including adaptation strategies such as those implemented in Kenya with support from the European Union, big data is a way out that has not yet had its potential explored.
According to a publication by Prevention Web—a web-based knowledge platform for disaster risk reduction—by having proper means to utilize big data, the region can “better weather the storm and survive the drought” as argued by Claudia Sadoff, Director-general of the International Water Management Institution (IWMI).
Big data vs floods
In 2019 Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe suffered great loss in terms of human lives, material wealth and emotional strain due to Cyclone Idai, which wiped off a large swathe of crops, threatening food systems in the affected countries.
A BBC report published in October 2020, cited that, “the number of people hit by seasonal flooding in East Africa has increased more than five-fold in the span four years, according to United Nations figures.” This means floods are among some of the serious economic risks the region has to face.
As these situations become more frequent and predicted to be occurring over time due to available climate predictions, there is room for the region to be proactive accordingly and safeguard its fate beforehand.
Prevention Web also noted that this computing power will aid scientists—particularly IWMI—to develop extreme scenario models facilitating African authorities to take sound preventive approaches.
Now, big-data—which is structured and unstructured large volume of data—becomes a helping hand to Africa against floods, as a pathway to provide informed decisions, as knowledge is crucial in this fight.
According to Prevention Web, the more information available on the matter, the better.
Through Digital Earth Africa, a web-based platform that provides a routine, reliable and operational service using Earth observations to deliver decision-ready products—including flood risks, Africa can have a front-row seat on analyzing and understanding flood patterns and take appropriate measures beforehand.
“A satellite imagery platform called Digital Earth Africa has previously focussed on land resources such as forests. But it will now aggregate data from remote-sensing technologies, which will allow scientists at the International Water Management Institute to develop applications for detailed analysis on continent-wide water levels and supplies,” Prevention Web argued.
Further, this information will be held in the Open Data Cube, an open-source resource for earth observation data, which will give unprecedented levels of access to information on the situation across Africa.
Information is power, and in this case—flood-related information is utterly crucial to safeguard Africa’s economies.
Despite Africa being behind in owning strong capacities for big data initiatives, countries such as Nigeria, Kenya and Rwanda (set to host Africa’s first hub on big data on the Sustainable Development Goals) prove the continent is not too late (SciDev,2020).
“By pooling this information and making it publicly available, it will be possible to create an accurate picture of water resources to forecast shortages and water needs, and develop strategies to manage water-related climate risks,” Prevention Web noted.
Across the continent, governments can gather decade-long information and analyze, monitor and report on water resource availability and use, so that they can balance water allocations across different sectors, including the two most important ones, agriculture and health
Also, on the same line, the IWMI will be in a good position to develop early warning systems to create flood and drought models that can help the continent on different geographical levels, regional, country-wide or district level.
Further, the publication showed, the new systems will aim to give sufficient notice of imminent extremes so that families can evacuate from an area facing a storm, or even claiming against drought insurance.
“These applications will be rolled out in some countries to develop additional services and extend them across the continent,” the publication noted.
In this context, the big-data application in the flooding scenario could be manifested in different levels beyond developing applications and working with partners. The IMWI also sees enormous potential to support African-grown innovations to develop water-related tools that benefit countries, communities and businesses.
At the moment data presents a tangible approach in handling floods swiftly. According to a SciDev 2020 report, there is vitality in exploring big data in Africa, with studies lending credibility to such data that has been found to impact positively in almost every sphere of life, such as health, banking and aviation; yet, the success of big data relies on how African governments support and access to datasets.
Despite other challenges facing Africa on the adoption of data utilization such as the digital divide, there is good news in the landscape, as resilience will be built by the project to overcome barriers to adoption such as awareness, expertise and cost in using the data.