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Mitigating Flooding and Drought through Data for Decision-Making

GEOGLOWS projects seek to connect emergency managers, governments with data ahead of flooding. This article is part of a series by Earthzine covering GEO Week in Washington, D.C., Oct. 23-27.

It’s said that water is life. But water, or a lack of it, can cause myriad humanitarian problems. At GEO Week 2017, people from around the world came together to discuss the role of Earth observations and the Group on Earth Observations in managing these issues.

GEOGLOWS (Group on Earth Observations Global Water Sustainability) is a framework for mobilizing Earth observations to mitigate the challenges posed by water—issues of quantity and quality—at the local, regional and national scales around the world. Though the group’s first business meeting was a scant eight months ago, GEOGLOWS participants are already working with strategic partners including the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), NASA SERVIR, the Joint Research Centre and Cemaden.

“GEOGLOWS is providing a framework with an integral perspective of how water touches all the areas of life,” said Angélica Gutérriez-Magness, one of the GEOGLOWS leads and hydrologist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “I hope we are able to provide the benefits of GEOGLOWS so that we can bring those organizations to lead the development and formation of capacities within own institutions and countries. I hope that they see GEO as a strategic partner for the management of their resources.”

Gutérriez-Magness said Colombia is the only country in which GEO initiatives have been implemented as national public policy and cultivating political support and investment is necessary moving forward. As evidenced by this video, non-governmental indigenous groups are calling for GEO’s assistance whether their governments have adopted the framework or not.

In Nepal, understanding using Earth observations to better understand the hydrology of watersheds is important to locals and downstream communities as well. Image Credit: GEOGLOWS

In Nepal, the GEOGLOWS working group on data dissemination, community portals and capacity building in partnership with the European Commission is testing the Global Flood Awareness System (GloFAS) to provide advance warning to communities in Nepal and downstream in Bangladesh. In light of the recent flooding event in Bangladesh, advance-warning systems are more important than ever.

GloFAS is a partnership between ECMWF and GEOGLOWS to combine weather forecasts with hydrological models by adding river networks. Follow Global Floods on Twitter for flooding information around the globe.

“We are not creating the global forecasts, but we are making them better in the sense we’re bringing it from large-scale to little basins where there is no information,” Gutérriez-Magness said.

The GloFAS case study in Nepal shows that the system underestimated the flow in the Narayani river basin but the system accurately predicted the timing of peak flows. Despite underestimating peak flows, GloFAS provides a 15-day lead time on high river flow events.

Basanta Raj Shrestha, director for strategic cooperation at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu, said that because of Nepal’s rugged topography, Earth observations are vital for remote, hard-to-access areas. ICIMOD is responsible for implementing NASA SERVIR activities in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region to integrate Earth observations into environmental decision-making.

“Hindu Kush Himalayas has the largest concentration of snow and glaciers beside the two poles,” Shrestha said. “Water is very intertwined with our life systems, but brings calamities and disasters. Floods have been catastrophic. Millions of people have been displaced, there is loss of agriculture. In that context, Earth observations, technology and innovation need to be more centric to a community or a national system.”

Shrestha said having confidence in an early-warning system at a national level provides actionable information to policymakers. GloFAS can be improved by in situ measurements and local citizen science efforts.

“We need to orient our science toward the challenges on the ground,” he said. “Even if you save one life it’s worth the cost. The key message is to be able to put the use of the model, of knowledge into practice. While designing the system we need a holistic approach and more pragmatic way of seeing how we can address these problems.”

Forecasting streamflow around the world continues to be a GEOGLOWS priority.