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When Waters Rise: Cross-Border Science for Global Flood Response

Around the world, flooding is wreaking havoc on people’s daily lives with increasing magnitude and frequency. Communities in Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Cameroon are experiencing some of the worst floods in a decade, as they sweep across western and central African borders.  

In Pakistan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Australia, and the United States—such as in Florida and Kentucky—communities have faced multiple dangerous and deadly floods in 2022. These unprecedented flood events have killed thousands of people, displaced millions, decimated farms and businesses, and destroyed homes and habitats. 

The World Bank reports that about one and a half billion people are at risk from flooding, one-third of whom are living in poverty, making them more vulnerable to migration pressures and economic insecurity. While flooding can be a natural phenomenon that can help provide fertile soil and sustain wetlands, today’s floods are becoming more frequent, dangerous, and deadly, as a result of human-caused climate disruption and development in urban, coastal areas.  

When flood water crosses national borders, “transboundary floods” can be even more catastrophic without international cooperation around emergency management, such as early warning systems. In a recent Science Unusual webinar, hosted by the International Science Reserve, a group of panelists explored the role scientific and technical experts can play in large-scale, international flood prediction, prevention, preparation and response. 

Speaking on the panel were:  

  • Nora El-Gohary, Professor of Construction Engineering and Management, The Grainger College of Engineering, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign 
  • Njoki Mwarumba, Assistant Professor of Emergency Management and Disaster, University of Nebraska Omaha 
  • Anthony Torres, Chief Meteorologist and Head of Global Science Operations, Currently weather service  
  • Campbell Watson, Senior Research Scientist – IBM Research, Global Lead, Accelerated Discovery—Climate & Sustainability 
  • Ugochi Anyaka-Oluigbo, Environment and Conservation Journalist, Nigeria (Moderator) 

Here are three big takeaways from the discussion: 

1. Breaking down borders between social scientists and other types of scientists who study floods will lead to better outcomes for people and communities.  

Njoki Mwarumba kicks off the discussion on why we need to break down siloes. 
Nora El-Gohary on how scientists can help reduce the impacts of floods on infrastructure.

2. Using atmospheric data to predict flooding impacts is just the beginning. Protecting the most vulnerable requires a stronger analysis on how the atmosphere interacts with oceanic and local land systems, and human habitats.   

Anthony Torres on where meteorology interacts with other disciplines and AI to predict floods. 

3. Scientists should work to understand indigenous knowledge in order to better collaborate on early warning systems that save lives. 

Njoki Mwarumba discusses the impact of leaving entire regions out of advances in technology, like early warning systems.
Anthony Torres on building two-way streets of communication between communities and scientists.

4. Artificial intelligence is enhancing our ability to predict and prepare for floods. But we must simplify access to increasingly complex data processes and improve their usage across borders. 

Campbell Watson shares his thoughts on AI and its impact on flood modeling. 
Campbell Watson discusses how IBM is researching and responding to global floods.

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Academy Staff
This article was written by a member of the Academy staff.



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