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Over the past two months, Pakistan has been hit by the heaviest rainfall on record, causing devastating flooding and some estimates reporting that one-third of the country is underwater. The flooding has affected at least 30 million people, killed more than 1100, and so far, has sent nearly half a million people into relief camps.
In a recent statement, UN Secretary General Antonia Guterres referred to the disaster as a “monsoon on steroids…that requires urgent, collective action.” And as authorities wait for the water levels to recede, it is yet unclear what the extent of the damage will be.
The main contributor to the flooding? Nearly three months of record rainfall.
But as Dr. Sana Khan warns, many of the extreme weather events that are becoming more frequent, are linked directly to climate change. “The data suggests that it’s not going to stop here. Pakistan and the rest of the world is going to continue to face more natural calamities and at a scale more extreme than what we’ve experienced before.”
Khan, a Palladium Data Scientist who previously worked with NASA developing forecast models for rainfall-triggered landslides, explains that data science has a role to play in responding to and coping with natural calamities like the flooding seen in Pakistan. “By predicting these natural disasters ahead of time, aid or disaster management agencies have ample time to act and save lives based on predictive modelling and any early warning systems in place.”
While some parts of the country experience severe monsoon season every year, as Khan explains, there’s ample proof that weather patterns will continue to worsen and get more extreme and it is now up to governments to shore up their infrastructure in response. “Unless we start adapting and making our infrastructure more resilient, countries will not be able to cope. We need to get serious and pay attention to what the data is telling us and rather than mitigating these phenomena, look for adaptations.”
So, where does data science come into play?
Data science not only provides useful insights and monitoring tools, but as Khan adds, you can also simulate scenarios of natural disasters. “Modelling approaches and simulations using AI can give us an overview of the possible scale of the devastation, for example how many people or what local areas would be affected, so that we can plan to evacuate people if needed, but also make future plans around where we should or shouldn’t rebuild villages.”
In the case of Pakistan, she adds, having the data is critical for better water resources management, for improving infrastructures like canals, drainage systems, and building dams to store water during monsoon seasons. Despite relatively low carbon emissions, Pakistan is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change; home to glaciers that due to climate change are rapidly melting, and a severe dry season that most recently caused record breaking heat and drought. Swings between such extreme weather events can be especially damaging, especially heavy rainfall in areas struggling with drought.
In the short term, she explains that recovery efforts will and should be focused on those who have been displaced. But the longer-term impacts will be a bit more complicated. “People have lost their homes, livelihoods, their livestock, and crops. This will affect food security, it is going to affect health and the overall economy, so how can we use data to rebuild better? AI can help us identify risk factors and we can plan to mitigate those. AI can play a vital role in increasing our resilience to climate change.”
“At least in Pakistan, there’s now a clear consensus that climate change is a problem,” Khan notes. “Now they can work towards human-centred solutions that will be viable for the overall ecosystem.” She adds that despite the devastation, the silver lining for her is that she is seeing more of a global conversation about climate change and how to adapt to its affects.
“The solutions to adapting to these disasters already exist,” she says. “From infrastructure updates that plan for the future, to nature-based solutions like conserving and planting mangroves along the coastline of Pakistan to help prevent coastal flooding, we’re not without hope, but we must act soon.”
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