With wealthier governments' efforts to combat the tangible impacts of climate change seen to be lacking, Bangladesh is proving to be one of the leaders in lessening the effect of one key impact of climate change, writes Anir Chowdhury.

"Flood control [in Bangladesh] must be our first duty," famously remarked Bangladesh's founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whilst inspecting the catastrophic flood disaster of 1974.

Ahead of the UN's COP26 Climate Change Conference, the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) under the leadership of the Ministry of Water Resources and the a2i (national digitalisation programme) have teamed up with the Google Flood Forecasting Initiative to enhance flood forecasting and warning system to millions in remote parts of Bangladesh, the world's largest flood-prone delta.

Bangladesh has kept its economic development dynamic by tackling multiple disasters at different times. Through a fast-paced and robust digitisation programme, Bangladesh is significantly modernising and in-turn contributing to the economic development of the nation. With more funding available, this has brought greater examination and investment to the country's disaster management system.

By processing the BWDB's existing five-day flood forecasting data, Google uses Hydrologic and Hydraulic models and artificial intelligence to provide various types of forecasts and warnings through improved flood maps to the local community. The system works on an instantaneous basis, with the ability to provide anywhere from three hours to three days warning before the onset of floods. Massive data analysis and machine learning have significantly improved flood forecasting.

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Using Google's Android operating system, users receive forecasts through push notifications. Piloted during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the intelligent forecasting system sends warning messages through Google Maps and Google Feeds about flood zones, including expected water level rise and fall, flood depth and intensity, safety advice with contact details for emergency services and supplies, and even harvesting advice.

There is ongoing collaboration with Google to further increase this forecasting or early warning time. The program was piloted in 2020 in 36 sub-districts of 14 districts along the Brahmaputra-Jamuna and Padma rivers bank. In 2020, 1 million notifications were sent to the people of flood-hit areas through 300,000 Android phones. During the monsoon season between the 13th and 31st August 2021, over 2.9 million notifications were sent to 1.5 million unique users, with a click through rate of 3.5 per cent. Today, data from the 2021 flood season in the Ganges rivers is included in the forecast, covering 55 districts and 99 sub-districts, helping to further improve the data in the forecasting system.

However, relative to the population of Bangladesh, the number of Android phone users in remote areas is still low. To address this, there is ongoing discussion with mobile networks to find a way of sending predictions via text messages. Thankfully, toll-free Interactive Voice Response (IVR) is already available in Bangladesh. Moreover, disaster-related information at the national level is effectively reaching marginalised communities through System 1090 hotline for disaster warning in advance.

Under the proposed flood forecasting system, the names of the nearest shelters will be made available to local people through Google Maps and Google search. Through these improved flood forecasting and warning systems, more marginalised people and communities in remote areas can be reached and, more importantly, reached at the right time. These undoubtedly positive models for disaster management are supported by the CEO of Google himself, Sundar Pichai.

Such improved forecasts facilitate broader initiatives like pre-emptive social safety nets to implement in the near future. Research shows that cash transfers before peak flooding in Bangladesh not only provided immediate relief by protecting food security, but also enabled households prevent the loss of productive assets. Beneficiaries were less likely to borrow after the flood and borrowed less at lower rates. After three months, they had higher consumption, higher well-being and higher earning potential.

It would not be an overstatement to note that at a time of pressing need for action on climate change, countries that are already on the receiving end of its impacts are successfully and effectively finding innovative solutions to compensate for the lack of meaningful and tangible actions by richer nations. Ahead of the COP26, rather than wait for developed nations to take historic steps to address climate change, Bangladesh stands out for its efforts in tackling the climate crisis through determination, innovation and technology partnerships.

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