Our Burning Planet

THE AGE OF AI

Artificial Intelligence helps save lives in flooding caused by climate change

Artificial Intelligence helps save lives in flooding caused by climate change
AI generated image | Prompt: friendly robot helping human who is on a board during a flood. (Source: Gencraft)

Flood Hub now covers 80 countries, including 23 in Africa. This is especially needed on a continent that is so vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

The role of artificial intelligence (AI) is steadily growing – and disrupting industries, with some fearing AI will threaten their livelihoods. The same can also be said for the climate crisis, as in recent years we’ve seen warmer global average temperatures bring disruptions and devastation to lives and livelihoods.

AI is now increasingly being deployed to try to limit the devastation caused by the effects of the climate crisis. For search engine company Google, this effort has culminated in the Flood Hub, an AI-enabled flood forecasting platform that uses data from each country’s weather services to send out timely alerts for areas that will be affected by flooding.

“Climate change is becoming more of a key rapid challenge that causes increased flooding around the world. As part of our sustainability efforts, we’re using technology to elevate some of the challenges brought about by climate change,” Siya Madikane, communications manager at Google Southern Africa, told Daily Maverick.

“We’re able to inform people that they are in an area likely to receive floods, and that can inform governments and NGOs that we work with to put interventions in place, whether it’s to evacuate people or to prepare them accordingly. This is really just part of what we do in terms of our mission, which is to organise information and make it universally accessible.”

Up to seven-day flooding notice

The platform sends out alerts through Google search and maps to people in select countries up to seven days ahead of the flood event, whereas previously it had been 48 hours, which often isn’t enough time to warn people of the imminent devastation. This was evident in KwaZulu-Natal last year when devastating floods left a path of destruction in parts of the province.

Flood Hub now covers 80 countries, including 23 in Africa. This is especially needed on a continent that is so vulnerable to the effects of climate change. 

The project initially kicked off in India in 2018 when the country experienced intense and frequent flooding as a result of monsoon rains. The project then moved to Bangladesh, also vulnerable to flooding. The project has since continued to expand, with hopes of reaching every country across the globe.

As the planet continues to heat up, disasters such as flooding have worsened, causing about $38-billion in losses to the global economy in the first half of 2022 alone, the Swiss Re Institute estimated.

“While we are happy about the progress we have made to date, there are more countries that we need to cover. Within countries, we want to have more coverage… in terms of geographic coverage where there’s better accuracy,” said Yossi Matias, VP engineering & research at Google, during a media roundtable.

Widening focus

“We’ve been focusing on riverine floods, which are the most common. However, there are urban and flash floods that require a lot of attention from a technological point of view. The work is still ahead of us, but I am pleased that we are already being helpful in an area that covers 460 million people (the combined populations of the 80 countries).” 

Many of those most vulnerable to climate change live along the banks of rivers in informal settlements. Often, these groups are without the necessary communication tools to reach or even know about platforms such as the Flood Hub. 

That’s why Google has partnered with global and local organisations working within these communities to ensure that they, too, are informed of the alerts sent through the platform.

Daily Maverick asked ChatGPT about AI’s role in helping mitigate the climate crisis:

“(AI) is playing a crucial role in combating climate change by assisting in various aspects of environmental conservation, energy optimisation, and sustainability efforts.”

The platform said that AI’s efficient and accurate predictions can be used to significantly contribute to mitigation and adaptation efforts to stave off climate crisis effects. Some of the ways it listed included energy conservation in buildings; analysing occupancy patterns and environmental conditions to adjust energy use in real time, and climate modelling and predictions by analysing historical weather data for more accurate climate forecasts to aid stakeholders to make more informed climate mitigation and adaptation decisions.

There is no doubt that AI has an important contribution to make in the fight against climate change, as can be seen in the platform, Flood Hub. DM

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