Data and analysis help prepare for increases in floods and droughts

A warming climate and variability in rainfall are making extreme weather events more frequent. Floods and droughts threaten lives and livelihoods, and can cause billions of dollars in damage due to their lasting impacts on food, land, water and energy systems, and the environment. 

The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) has used its extensive experience in data collection, analysis and modeling to support governments to deal with these extreme weather events in some of the world’s most vulnerable countries. Using remote sensing and satellite data, IWMI has developed bespoke early warning systems and response frameworks to enable governments to better predict, monitor and manage floods and droughts across South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and Southern Africa. 

Pakistan experiences worst floods in history

In 2022, Pakistan was devastated by the worst flooding in its history, leaving around a third of its land under water. The deluge hit all four of the country’s provinces, killing over 1,700 people and impacting 33 million more through the loss of homes, livelihoods, livestock and crops. The Government of Pakistan has estimated that the flood caused around USD 32 billion of damage. 

It is predicted that Pakistan is one of the countries most at risk from climate change. Over the last two decades, the number of major floods occurring in the country has doubled, as the monsoon season becomes more erratic. In addition, warming temperatures affect the quantity and timing of snow and glacier melt; the 2022 floods were exacerbated by extreme heatwaves prior to the monsoon, which melted northern mountains. 

IWMI supports Pakistan’s government

When the floods hit, government departments in Pakistan requested substantial support from IWMI, primarily on mapping and analyzing flood damage, as well as building a resilient framework and guiding decision-makers on relief efforts. This work focused on the provinces of Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. 

IWMI used pre- and post-flood high spatial-resolution satellite images to assess the extent of flood damage, and coordinated with international partners to develop clear, coherent messages and response options. Over the following months, IWMI assessed the damage to crops and infrastructure, including roads and irrigation systems, using satellite imagery and ground sensors. The resulting high-resolution maps were shared with national and provincial government departments, enabling them to carry out assessments of the damage to provide cash disbursements to those impacted by the floods, and to better plan and prepare for future flood events.

Balochistan province was hit particularly hard by the floods, as 25 small dams were damaged and the area was cut off due to riverine flooding. IWMI provided analytical support to the provincial Irrigation Department with flood mapping and better future planning for the Nari and Polari river basins which were heavily affected by the floods.

Systems and plans to predict and manage drought

South Asia is particularly vulnerable to droughts as well as floods, having experienced 50 major droughts since 1990. In 2022, in partnership with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), IWMI launched the next generation of the South Asia Drought Monitoring System (SADMS), covering Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. SADMS uses complex remote sensing data to provide access to weather updates in real time, as well as open-access satellite data, enabling users to forecast, monitor and better manage droughts in the region.

By increasing the lead time on drought prediction, national authorities can develop frameworks for mitigation measures, protecting smallholder farmers from the worst impacts and better stabilizing food production.

The original version of SADMS was developed in 2014 and has been used by farmers and those who manage agriculture and water resources, as well as ICAR, World Food Programme, World Bank partners and others.

IWMI has built on this experience to develop the Zambia Drought Management System (ZADMS) in partnership with Zambia’s Ministry of Agriculture through the CGIAR Initiative on Climate Resilience. Using the same technology as SADMS, ZADMS gathers and provides the information needed by agricultural extension officers and farmers to mitigate drought impacts and identify the best actions to support Zambians through extended dry periods. The system uses data supplied by satellites and other sources at district and national level to generate easy-to-interpret maps and simple bulletins. ZADMS will be launched in 2023.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has only 2% of the world’s renewable water resources, and increasing droughts in the region threaten the livelihoods of millions of people. IWMI launched its MENAdrought project in 2018 and worked with the governments of Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco’s Souss Massa region to produce the first national Drought Action Plans. These plans incorporate information from the drought early warning and rainfall forecasting systems developed through MENAdrought. These systems were embedded in the relevant government ministries to ensure drought management will continue to be supported long after the project ends in 2022. The output indicator from the early warning system categorizes drought conditions into three main classes. Each drought class triggers specific response actions by various ministries, which were agreed during the process of developing the Drought Action Plans.

Weather data and systems to increase resilience

While the only way to truly address the occurrence and intensity of these extreme weather events is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally, there are proven strategies to support countries to become more resilient to the impacts of floods and droughts at a more localized level. Weather data and modeling, for example, can be used to develop early warning systems, which governments can then act upon to create contingency plans to protect populations and food systems from the worst impacts of these events. These plans may include mitigation measures such as importing food or providing supplementary irrigation for agricultural production. While individual countries cannot prevent the next extreme weather event, by using IWMI’s expertise and technical support, they can at least be better prepared when these events occur.

We gratefully acknowledge the Foreign Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and European Union (EU) for funding mapping activities in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, respectively; Global Water Partnership Organisation (GWPO) and World Meteorological Organization (WMO) for contributing to the South Asia Drought Monitoring System; the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and International Development Association (IDA) for supporting ZADMS, and USAID for their contributions to MENAdrought.