How to use technology to respond effectively to drought and flood emergencies

Monday June 11 2018

By BITANGE NDEMO
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This past week, I participated as a panellist at the Kenya Institute for Policy Research and Analysis’ (KIPPRA) annual conference on Building Resilience to Mitigate the Impact of Droughts and Floods.

The gathering follows increasing concern over frequent incidences of extreme weather conditions in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

KIPPRA data shows a declining cycle for droughts in Kenya. Until 1983/84, when the region experienced the most devastating drought – with Ethiopia being hit the hardest - the problem was not frequent.

There was a lull of six years in the period leading up to another drought in 1991/92 after which the frequency of droughts increased, with more droughts being experienced in 1995/96, 1999/2000, 2004, 2005/2006, 2009, 2011 and the latest 2016/17.

In between the droughts, the region saw devastating floods as recorded in 1982, 1985, 1997/98, 2002, 2006 and 2017.

Almost every year, sub-Saharan Africa experiences either severe drought or floods. Planning should be the core pillar towards achieving zero casualties from these disasters.

KNOWLEDGE UNEXPLOITED

With high unemployment, there should be no reason drainage systems in cities should be clogged to the extent that people drown in flooded streets. Yet these cities are collecting taxes from residents.

The advent of big data analytics has necessitated the metrological departments across the region to provide precise predictions of impeding disasters.
That knowledge has, however, not been translated to effective preparedness.

Even with announcements that severe weather is expected, ordinary folks seem to be caught unaware by many of the disasters that have hit the region. This is largely due to lack of public education.

Planning, in my view, must be long range. From various data sources, the region will experience drought in the next two years and as such planning for drought should have started by now through gathering hay and converting it into silage and burying it in drought-prone areas within the arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL).

Unfortunately, this will not happen but when disaster strikes, entire systems switch to reactive mode.

In Kenya, the government spent in excess of $300 million in trying to respond to the drought disaster of 2016/17.

THE FUTURE THROUGH DATA

As they say in medicine, prevention is better than cure. Much is needed to stay away from reactive responses to disasters to anticipating disasters and providing cheaper but sustainable solutions.

It is possible, for example, to develop water pans and harvesting hay throughout the ASAL regions during the rainy season and using them to mitigate drought.

There will be a need to train livestock farmers from these regions to adopt feeding methods that are more productive than the current random search for pasture that not only wears down the livestock but is of no significant monetary value.

The value from livestock farming comes from the weight the animals gain and this will never come from cattle that are permanently running a marathon.

The cost of converting pastoralists from the current cultural practices of animal husbandry to commercial production is by far cheaper than leaving the pastoralists to encroach on private property and causing damage or death to innocent human beings as was the case in Kenya’s Laikipia County last year.

One of the problems is failure to develop an effective disaster risk management framework that brings together all the agencies responsible for disaster management.

The emerging technologies that will define the fourth industrial revolution have begun to show what the future will look like.

IBM'S GLOBAL INITIATIVE

Just two weeks ago in Paris, at the Viva Technology Conference, IBM and partners launched the Call for Code Global Initiative, the largest and most ambitious effort to bring start-ups, academics and enterprise developers together to solve one of the most pressing societal issues of our time: preventing, responding to and recovering from natural disasters.

To raise awareness and interest in the Call for Code, IBM is coordinating interactive educational events, hackathons and community support for developers around the world in more than 50 cities across the world. Here is how to join the call for code:

  • Developers can register today at Callforcode.org.
  • Projects can be submitted by individuals – or teams of up to five people – between June 18, 2018 and August 31, 2018.
  • Thirty semi-finalists will be selected in September. A prominent jury, including some of the most iconic technologists in the world, will choose the winning solution from three finalists.
  • The winner will be announced in October 2018 during a live-streamed concert and award event coordinated by David Clark Cause.

Additional details, a full schedule of in-person and virtual events, and training and enablement for Call for Code are available here.

DEVELOPING CAPACITY

During a keynote address, IBM chairman, President and CEO Ginni Rometty called on the technology industry “to help build a better future, committing IBM technology and $30 million over five years in the annual Call for Code Global Initiative. Its goal is to unite the world’s developers and tap into data and artificial intelligence, blockchain, cloud and Internet of Things technologies to address social challenges.”

These technologies will rule the future in virtually everything, including management of natural disasters that have become a common feature in our part of the world.

Blockchain, for example, can bring together disparate systems that are currently supposed to manage disaster but which remain a hindrance to effective management due to their silo mentality.

The problem Africa will face in the coming years is how to develop the capacity to meet the future needs that are largely technology-driven.

An IBM press release in Paris says that the company’s $30 million investment over five years will fund access to developer tools, technologies, free code and training with experts.

The winning team will receive a financial prize. Perhaps more rewarding, however, is that they will have access to long-term support to help move their idea from prototype to real-world application.

This includes ongoing developer support through IBM’s partnership with the Linux Foundation.

ENVIRONMENT AND SELF-INTEREST

While technology will help humans achieve the impossible, there are many other tasks that must be done to effectively respond to climate extremes.

The landslides and deep gullies that are being witnessed cannot be addressed with technology.

These are caused by our sins, destroying forests and creating flash floods. We must restock our tree cover.

This, I know, is difficult owing to our cultural practices of land subdivisions that are pushing people to build on steep slopes and loosening the soils, leading to landslides.

There must be a collaborative effort to develop culture 2.0 that holds the environment above their own selfish interests and begin a massive exercise of urbanising much of the overcrowded rural population.

There are no economic gains from excessive land subdivision and destroying the environment.

Sense dictates that we manage land resources collectively by encouraging large-scale farming that comes with economies of scale and building a sustainable future.

In the meantime, I call upon African developers to take advantage of the IBM offer simply because Africa has the advantage of great social challenges that can be turned into enormous opportunity.

The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito