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From algorithms to virtual reality, innovations help reduce disaster risks and climate impacts

Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez's picture
(Courtesy of Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre)

Natural disasters such as floods and droughts disproportionally affect the poor and vulnerable people, causing thousands of fatalities each year. If no further adaptation is pursued, climate change induced increases in disaster risk and food shortages may push an additional 100 million people into poverty.
Today, we celebrate the annual World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day. To reduce the impacts of disasters on the poorest and most vulnerable, and build their resilience, it is essential that we collaborate and innovate to bring solutions to the community level. Close coordination with the humanitarian sector is therefore more important than ever before.
The World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) have a strong ongoing partnership with the Red Cross Red Crescent—the world’s largest humanitarian network—and in particular the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre.
Better disaster-risk data for timely forecast and rapid financing

On the operational front, GFDRR and the Climate Centre have helped to link machine learning and rapid financing for flood preparedness. A new, integrated decision support system, called FUNES, links early warnings with rapid financing for early action. Successfully tested during the 2016 floods in the West African nation of Togo, FUNES is a self-learning algorithm for flood forecasting which is embedded into operations by the Nangbéto hydropower dam and the Togo Red Cross to manage flood risks in vulnerable downstream communities. This innovation may enable regions with only a few years of data on river flow, precipitation, and local impact to provide flood risk warnings that can save lives and reduce losses. 

In Togo, this pioneering machine learning approach feeds into a “Forecast-based Financing” (FbF) mechanism for scaffolding disaster preparedness planning with financial preparedness: pre-allocated funding necessary for rapid mobilization of pre-defined early action is triggered to support “just enough, just in time” preparedness, based on scientific forecasts. FbF was developed with the Togo government and Red Cross, with support from their German counterparts. The Togo collaboration won the “Edge of Government” innovation award at the World Government Summit.
This month, the Climate Centre and GFDRR will host a workshop on hydropower and flood management at the World Hydropower Congress in Addis Ababa that aims to upscale the line of thinking to the global level.
Combining art and science to better understand disaster risks
In disaster risk management, the main bottleneck to risk reduction is usually not the lack of information, but rather how this information is communicated and perceived. Experience has taught us that conventional communication of science and policy is not enough to inspire the ambitious thinking and action needed to manage changing climate risks. Building on recent collaborations with artists and designers, several creative approaches were explored to engage FbF stakeholders, including games, art, and virtual reality.

Serious games can be designed and facilitated as playable system dynamic models: they enable participants to experience the complexity of future risks by linking information, decisions, and consequences. The Climate Centre has contributed game sessions to the last three “Understanding Risk” (UR) events convened by GFDRR (see for example this video of the “ignite” talk in London 2014). At the Venice Arsenale, the 2016 UR featured a set of DataSculptures that depicted the hydrological data used to develop the Togo FUNES innovation in a way that combined art and science. Numerous versions of this artistic representation have awakened the curiosity of participants in events including the World Humanitarian Summit (Istanbul), the UNFCCC COP 22 (Marrakech), the FbF Dialogue Platform (Geneva), and soon at the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (Cancun).

An intense virtual reality (VR) experience was shared at the 2016 UN Climate Conference in Marrakech. Upon donning the VR goggles you are transported to Togo, just downstream of the Nangbéto Hydropower Dam. You become a Red Cross disaster manager. Real-world data is used to depict rainfall, dam reservoir level, overspills, and floods. Every few years, you witness excessive rains that fill the reservoir beyond its capacity, threatening the villages in the floodplain downstream. In the first phase, participants have to respond to floods by physically ringing a bell to alert humanitarian teams as soon as they notice flooding, then stamping emergency funding paperwork, and loading boxes of aid on vehicles for delivery to affected communities. In the second phase, players establish the Forecast-based Financing approach: when future flood risk hits, the FbF system automatically triggers funding for pre-defined preventive measures. More information is available in this journal article.

Going forward, the World Bank, GFDRR, and Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre will keep pushing the boundaries of innovation to bring effective disaster risk management and resilience building to scale in developing countries. Share your ideas or stories on innovative ways to reduce disaster risks and increase resilience in a comment below.