Research on seasonal floods reveals the importance of technological and human innovation for last-mile delivery
by Maulik Jagnani and Rohini Pande
February 6, 2023
Jogender Yadav received no warning when his village in the Indian state of Bihar was flooded in 2022. “The river herself tells us when she is coming,” he said.
As river water inundated the village, fights broke out over the preservation of crops and livestock — the livelihood of the citizens. While his wife stayed on the rooftop of their home guarding their property, Jogender loaded his cattle onto a government-provided barge and headed to higher ground. When the waters receded a month later, their entire crop had been destroyed.
New technology can predict annual river floods with increasing accuracy. However, the information that predictive technology yields is often inaccessible to the people like Jogender who need it most. We are working with Google.org to identify what works in delivering flood warnings to the people in India most vulnerable by rising river waters, and have learned both technological and human innovation are necessary to protect the people most vulnerable to the impacts of flooding from the increasing effects of seasonal floods.
Riverine flood-detecting technologies are more valuable now than ever to communities in South Asia like the one where Jogender lives. South Asia is home to the world's largest population exposed to riverine flooding, and as India’s most flood-prone state, Bihar is under constant threat of flooding.
In surveys we conducted in the aftermath of the 2019 monsoon season in rural Bihar, 65% of the households reported a decrease in agricultural harvest and 31% of the households reported damage to their house as a result of floods. Similarly, 25% of the households reported losing at least one livestock during the months they faced floods.
Riverine floods are becoming more variable, both where they occur and when they occur. Jogender noted, “I’ve been seeing floods since I was born, but the villages nearby never used to get submerged.”
A large effort is underway to build global capacity for early flood warnings. Following on a 2022 UN report showing that only half of the countries in the world are covered by multi-hazard early warning systems, UN Secretary-General António Guterres announced that the UN would launch a $3.1 billion dollar “Early Warnings for All” initiative to fill the gaps.
However, general initiatives like this are not enough to protect individuals against riverine floods — which can be abrupt and hyperlocal in their effects. This necessitates a more “surgical” alerting protocol which encourages quick private protective actions.
Furthermore, the increasing variability of riverine floods makes them more difficult to avoid based on community knowledge and historical records, creating great potential for damage in communities that are not used to responding to severe flooding. To this point, Bihar has lacked both technical and logistical capacity to give effective early warnings and help people relocate.