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Press Release 07-088
System Brings Innovative Flood Forecasts to Vulnerable Residents of Bangladesh

High-tech instruments give residents 10 days' flood warning

Five regions along the Brahmaputra River are receiving early warnings of upcoming floods.

Five regions along the Brahmaputra River are receiving early warnings of upcoming floods.
Credit and Larger Version

August 2, 2007

For the first time, a high-tech forecasting system is providing residents of rural areas of Bangladesh with up to 10 days' notice of potentially deadly floods, including floods that are occurring at present along the Brahmaputra River.

Scientists funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and affiliated with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and Georgia Institute of Technology developed the system.

The forecasts are being distributed directly to communities, and individual households when necessary, in the vulnerable flood plains of the Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers.

The system uses a combination of weather forecast models, satellite observations, river gauges and new hydrologic modeling techniques to predict when major rivers will crest in selected regions of Bangladesh during the nation's often devastating flood season, which runs until October.

"This is cutting-edge technology, in which we analyze information from a number of sources to generate forecasts of the probability of major flooding," says NCAR scientist Thomas Hopson, who helped develop the forecasting system. "This is the first time that long-term flood forecasts are consistently reaching many rural individuals in Bangladesh, such as farmers and fishermen."

Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable regions on Earth to rising waters, and past floods have left hundreds of people dead, displaced millions and caused economic havoc.

"The application of this technology will help people in an environmentally stressed area of the world," says Cliff Jacobs, program director in NSF's Division of Atmospheric Sciences, which funded the research. "This creative effort is a wonderful example of 'science in service to society.'"

The forecasts are part of a larger initiative, known as Climate Forecasting Applications for Bangladesh, to improve flood and precipitation warnings in the low-lying nation. Peter Webster of the Georgia Institute of Technology is the principal investigator of the overall initiative.

Hopson and Webster have provided one- to 10-day forecasts to Bangladeshi agencies since 2003, but the forecasts often have not reached rural regions, where many residents lack radios and even electricity.

This year, the nonprofit Asia Disaster Preparedness Centre has established a network of governmental and nongovernmental organizations, as well as volunteers, to distribute the forecasts to more than 100,000 residents in five districts along the Brahmaputra and Ganges, including impoverished families living on islands known as river chars. The centre's Ramasamy Selvaraju and A. R. Subbiah are overseeing the distribution efforts.

Additional areas of Bangladesh will receive forecasts in coming years.

Almost every other year in recent decades, the Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers have flooded for periods ranging from a few days to a month or more, often with catastrophic results for local residents. In July 2004, about 500 people died and 30 million were displaced as floods inundated much of central Bangladesh. Farmers and fishermen can easily lose a year's worth of income in a single flood.

Residents of the largely impoverished districts in the forecast area have said that advance notice of floods could help them ward off some of the worst impacts of rising waters. If they had sufficient warning, they could harvest at least a portion of their ripening crops, move some livestock to safety, encircle fish ponds with nets to prevent fish from escaping, and stock food and other supplies.

"The goal is to help very local, grassroots economies," Hopson explains. "The forecasts can also alert relief agencies to prepare to bring in drinking water, cholera tablets, and other essentials in case of a major flood."

Hopson, Webster, and Georgia Institute of Technology scientists Carlos Hoyos and Hai-Ru Chang have worked to create forecasts that go out more than 10 days, thereby giving residents additional time to prepare for floods. Over the next year or two, Bangladeshis will begin to receive 20-day forecasts, followed by one- to six-month seasonal forecasts over the coming years.

The team will also study the feasibility of applying the forecasting system technology to other vulnerable countries, such as Cambodia and Vietnam.

The project also has received funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the relief agency CARE.

-NSF-

Media Contacts
Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734, cdybas@nsf.gov
David Hosansky, UCAR/NCAR, (303) 497-8611, hosansky@ucar.edu

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, its budget is $7.2 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $593 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

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