Update: New Project Uses Satellites for Rapid Assessment of Flood Response Costs

The limited ability of a government to rapidly allocate funds for effective response immediately after disasters is a potentially dangerous bottleneck. Can satellite remote-sensing data, ground-based information, hydrometeorological data, and financial instruments be tied together in an effective way to allow for efficient and comprehensive disaster response? Columbia Water Center is investigating this question in a pilot program beginning in Southeast Asia, sponsored by the World Bank.

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Previously posted (10/31/16)

The Columbia Water Center received a grant from the World Bank for a project titled, “Building Analytical Capacity for Rapid Financial Response to Floods.” 

Developing economies face significant challenges in responding to disasters such as floods. The vulnerability and exposure to floods, especially to major flood events can be highly skewed by traditional development, and may come from direct losses of property and life, as well as impacts on health through increased incidence of water borne disease, the mobilization of pollution, and loss of access to water, energy, food, transportation and health services. Losses in industrial and agricultural production and general business productivity can also contribute to reduced household and national income. The limited ability of the government to rapidly allocate funds for effective response immediately after disasters is a potential bottleneck of high consequence.

This research project will explore the design of a science informed strategies for overcoming such bottlenecks. The primary objective of this exploratory research is to assess whether satellite remote sensing data, as well as ground based information can be used to do a rapid assessment of the economic implications at a country scale for a catastrophic flooding event.  If such an assessment is feasible and can be put in the context of the return period of the event using ancillary hydrometeorological data, then a possibility exists for designing financial instruments for buffering the country from such catastrophic risks. The target user would be the Ministry of Finance of that country, with the goal of designing instruments that can lead to a rapid release of funds from event response and relief if such a catastrophic event were to happen. The initial target areas of interest are South and Southeast Asia, with Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia as targets for exploration, given their varied exposure to such events, and state of economic development.

A wide variety of satellite remote sensing data sets are available and will be examined for applicability. A challenge in this context is that floods are accompanies by clouds, which obscure the ability of satellites to see areas inundated by floods. The problem is compounded by the fact that the visit time of satellites to provide stereo imagery of the areas, needed for the assessment varies. Further, while much success is reported in identifying generalized flooding, it is not clear whether the resolution of these data sets can be usefully connected to the property and infrastructure assets that may be adversely affected by the floods, and hence used for economic damage and loss estimation. It is likely that only a subset of the events, namely, those corresponding to persistent and widespread flooding can be identified and characterized. However, these are usually the type of events that lead to significant economic loss and disruption of livelihoods of populations and economic activity. Consequently, this is an important research problem to be addressed. If the results are promising, then this exploratory research project will result in a more detailed proposal targeting one or more countries in the region and engaging them in the development of a financial risk management and disaster response strategy.

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