Home > Technology + Innovation

Disaster response planning around the globe

Disaster response planning around the globe

By Peter Slater, Engineering, Fathom

Why does it take so long to deliver national infrastructure? Lets take, for example, a new port on the Mediterranean coastline. Any change to the natural and built environment has a significant impact on its local surrounding, not just commercially and environmentally, but practically too. Is there sufficient power in the grid to meet this new demand? Can the local transport infrastructure handle the increase in transit? What about the hospitals? The sewers? The list goes on. Poor planning leads to, well, poor performance. A new port at standstill due to traffic, left idle with intermittent power or temporarily closed to deal with an unforeseen environmental impact is not just embarrassing to those involved, it can–and does–cause injury and death. So thousands of experts spend years undertaking investigations to ensure every possible mitigation can be put in place to ensure a smooth construction and operation. 

But what about when a port floods? With no warning, huge changes take place; power goes out, transport shuts down, hospitals become inaccessible. In an ideal world, we would have the same thousands of experts and years of time to plan all conceivable permutations of the disaster to develop an appropriate disaster response plan. However, natural disasters are very hard to predict. This makes it a significant challenge to allocate the equivalent time and resource into planning for natural disasters as one might do for the supporting infrastructure systems that are consistently in demand.  

So where does this leave us? For the most part, it’s an uncomfortable lottery, in which disaster could strike communities that have only been allocated minimal preparation for the management of the consequences of such events. 

However, there are numerous projects going on around the world tackling this, using advanced technology and high-quality data to provide informed decision making that can help communities respond to natural disasters. Here are just two examples: one around the creation of an integrated digital twin encompassing the UK’s critical infrastructure, to plan and invest in climate change adaptation and resilience matters. The other looks at catastrophic flood risk in Tajikistan and Zimbabwe, to help the UN protect vulnerable communities against food shortages. 

Tajikistan and Zimbabwe

Flooding can severely restrict food supply in low-income countries. It destroys crops and food stores, kills livestock, obstructs supply routes, and leads to higher food prices. 

The UN World Food Program (WFP), the world’s largest humanitarian organization, contracted flood mapping platform Floodbase to supply emergency flood analytics for countries affected by food insecurity. Many countries participating in the WFP are at heightened risk of food shortage because they lack local flood data. To provide reliable, consistent flood alerts regardless of data scarcity, Fathom’s modeled risk data is supplementing earth observation (satellite) data and hydrometeorological data.

WFP needed reliable data to understand where flooding is occurring in real time and where catastrophic floods are likely to strike in the future. This intelligence enables them to deliver food and funds to at-risk communities quickly in emergency situations. It also allows for the prioritization of repair to assets contributing to long-term food security, such as water harvesting systems.

Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of people in Zimbabwe live below the poverty line and the country ranks 108th of 119 in IFPRI’s 2017 Global Hunger Index. The devastating effects of climate shocks are intensifying already-severe food shortages here. 

Floodbase provides WFP Zimbabwe with emergency maps of forecasted flood events. These support an accurate understanding of the immediate impact of flooding on communities, agriculture and important assets; intelligence proved critical in 2022 during Tropical Storm Ana. During this emergency, the maps shaped WFP Zimbabwe’s first response to major flooding in two vulnerable regions, Chidodo and Mushumbi Pools. Further, they supported vital communications for government decision-makers who urgently needed accurate information on the floods’ impacts and locations.

Fathom’s Global Flood Map also helps WFP Zimbabwe understand the country’s risk to infrequent severe flood events. Thanks to the flood intelligence data provided, WFP Zimbabwe has made planning decisions that identify and protect communities most at risk of high-impact floods.

Meanwhile, Tajikistan has the highest malnutrition rates in Central Asia. Nearly one third (30.1 percent) of its people are undernourished and it has a long history of severe floods that compound food insecurity. The World Bank reports Tajikistan as the country most vulnerable to climate change in Europe and Central Asia.

Projects in Tajikistan that have benefited from flood data include a disaster management system for the Government of Tajikistan’s Committee of Emergency Situation and Civil Defense. The government and the University of Central Asia have further used Floodbase for country-wide flood-risk planning and infrastructure vulnerability assessments. In addition, flood risk maps have allowed institutional partners to understand downstream flood risks in Dushanbe and surrounding areas.

The UK 

Under climate change, the UK’s critical infrastructure faces greater disruption and costs, as natural disasters such as flooding become more frequent and more severe. When an asset floods, the ensuing disruption is not limited to the network to which the asset belongs. For example, an electricity substation could knock out power for a water treatment plant. And this cascading impact on interconnected asset networks can result in even wider consequences for society and the local economy. 

To tackle this, providers need to work together on integrated climate change adaptation, mitigation, and resilience measures. 

The challenge is that utilities and other asset owners work independently, meaning it’s different to model their interdependencies. This was recognised by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and resulted in the creation of CReDo–the Climate Resilience Demonstrator. Originally created by the Centre for Digital Built Britain and now steered by Connected Places Catapult, the aim of the project is to create a digital twin of the UK’s infrastructure networks, across traditional sector boundaries. 

The project is still in development, though a prototype of the platform was built for East Anglia, thanks to a collaboration between Anglian Water, UK Power Networks, and the BT Group. For this, Fathom provided CReDo with pluvial (rainfall), fluvial (river) and coastal data for the region under a range of climate scenarios for 2030 and 2050, as well as today’s climate state. 

The prototype can illustrate the potential effects of flooding on assets by predicting:

  • which sites would be affected by high water levels under different climate scenarios, for the different types of flooding – fluvial, pluvial, and coastal – and across a range of return periods
  • which assets in the network might fail or suffer as a result of cascading impacts
  • the resulting economic costs to the providers, and the wider societal impacts and costs.

Thanks to the prototype’s success, CReDo is now able to scale up the platform across new regions and partners including the transport sector and local authorities, and for additional climate risks beginning with extreme heat.

In summary

Reducing uncertainty lies at the heart of appropriate investment into disaster response planning, enabled by high-quality input data. At Fathom, we’re committed to enhancing the quality of this data and the power of processing methods to help communities be better prepared, enjoy improved social and economic outcomes, and have more resources, time, and space to further contribute to tackling their–and our–global challenges.

These projects are just a few examples of how actionable flood data can strengthen decisions (by decision-makers including country planners, disaster managers, first responders, and government focal points) on how to protect vulnerable communities from flooding and climate change. What is hopefully clear throughout these examples is not just the value of data, but also the importance of collaboration, with partners coming together to plan and invest in climate change adaptation and resilience matters, together. 

Peter Slater is part of the engineering team at water risk intelligence firm Fathom. He works closely with engineering and architecture consultancies around the globe, helping to improve their understanding of how flooding interacts with the natural and built environment. With a degree in civil and structural engineering, and a passion for technology, Peter’s particular focus is on integrating flood data into different platforms and digital twins.