Google’s AI for Floods Warning Tackles Climate Change At Scale

Siddhartha Dasgupta

October 6, 2020

The Ganges – Brahmaputra river basin is one of the largest river ecosystems in the world. Roughly 500 million people live and work in the Ganges-Brahmaputra river basin cutting across India and Bangladesh.

Just to put that number in perspective, that’s more than the population of Europe. Floods during the monsoon season has displaced over 200 million people in ten years from 2000-2010 causing 16,000 deaths. 

In the past ten years, the numbers have definitively increased. Not to mention the tens of billions of dollars in damage to the economies of both India & Bangladesh. Moreover, when one looks at the physical and mental health costs of flood victims, the bigger picture becomes starker. 


What’s the solution?

 The answer lies in developing effective early warning signals. One of the advancements in recent times has been the role of technology in predicting floods. Google’s AI model analyses historical flood data sourced from around the world, to make an accurate prediction for any river basin.

Traditionally, in India the information dissemination with regards to floods warning has been centralized and people don’t know exactly where the flooding will occur. At one level, technology aims to resolve that problem of providing accurate information on the ground.

Google has partnered with the Indian Central Water Commission apart from other international institutes and universities to come with this early warning system based on AI.

The technology giant has installed new electronic sensors that have the capability to transmit water data in real time to authorities. In June, Google reached an important milestone, their early warning systems now cover the entire country of India, which is a mammoth task.  

The protection increased 20x y-o-y( year on year) for India, which means that now 200+ million most vulnerable people spread across 250,000 square kilometres get notifications of floods in their area, all thanks to Google’s AI system.

Encouraged by the success in India, Google has partnered with the Bangladesh Water Development Board to give Bangladeshis access to the warnings and signals. Its particularly more important in Bangladesh, as the country is home to the highest amount of flooding in the world. Currently, Google’s solution only covers 40 % of the country, but it will be extended to the entire country soon. 

On ground Impact 

While its one thing to work with authorities and the government to lay the groundwork for developing better early warning systems for floods, its quite another thing to gauge and understand the on-ground impact.

Hence, along with Yale University, Google has ben visiting remote flood affected areas to better understand the residents’ need for information and what needs to be done to make that information more accessible. 

The Yale-Google team found that 65% of people protect their assets when they receive the warning, before the floods hit them. They also found out that the speed at which the villagers receive the information can be drastically improved. 

Considering the on-ground feedback, Google launches a new forecasting model that’s faster and gives governments more time to prepare and more time to people to evacuate. The insights that comes with the data is extraordinarily rich and helps focus and plan evacuation more effectively.

Data regarding flood depth and the areas where flooding is likely to rise are critical to the people and the government. Till date, there have been 30 million notifications sent out via Google’s flood forecasting system. In terms of accessibility, the alerts can be received in a visual form and has language support of seven Indian languages including Hindi and Bengali. 

The Future

With an objective to protect communities and save lives, Google has been constantly developing, improving, and maintaining digital tools that provide hope to so  many vulnerable people across the world. To improve the delivery of the alerts, Google has partnered with International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent societies to build local groups and networks that can deliver alerts manually to people who don’t have smartphones. 

During the past monsoon season which just went by, the Pandemic disrupted the development of critical infrastructure and  pressurized rescue workers and medical personnel on site. The Pandemic also hit the local networks that were built to alert villagers of an impending flood, because the local networks were dismantled for safety and health reasons. 

COVID – 19 notwithstanding, Google’s efforts in establishing an effective Early Warning System for flooding in India & Bangladesh has made the company a great saviour for millions. It provides a successful precedence of AI being used to tackle the effects of Climate Change, be it measuring the source of carbon emissions or showing the effects of extreme weather.

In fact a grant from Google is enabling an UK based independent think tank, Carbon Tracker to better map gas powered plants and their emissions via satellite images to get a better sense of air pollution sources. 

AI is certainly not a silver bullet when it comes to combating climate change, but experts certainly believe AI & Machines learning will bring new deeper insights as the world tackles Climate Change. 

Source: Yale, Google, National Geographic 

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About the author
Siddhartha Dasgupta

Contributing Author

Sid has been a content solutions evangelist and a digital marketer for 10+ years. Having written for brands such as IBM, Infosys and other technology corporations and startups, he is always at the cutting edge of researching & writing about emerging technologies.

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