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New U.N. tool designed to enhance flood prediction, disaster planning

A new prediction tool could help leaders mitigate flooding disasters -- such as the flood pictured inundating the New Windsor Bridge with waters from the Nepean River at Windsor in the north west of Sydney, Australia, in March -- according to researchers at the United Nations. File Photo by Dean Lewins/EPA-EFE
A new prediction tool could help leaders mitigate flooding disasters -- such as the flood pictured inundating the New Windsor Bridge with waters from the Nepean River at Windsor in the north west of Sydney, Australia, in March -- according to researchers at the United Nations. File Photo by Dean Lewins/EPA-EFE

Oct. 1 (UPI) -- Researchers with the United Nations have developed a new tool that generates instant, accurate street-level resolution maps of floods worldwide since 1985, the agency announced Friday.

The free online World Flood Mapping Tool is designed to help countries -- particularly those in the Global South, where flood risk maps are rare and often badly out of date -- prepare for and protect against catastrophic disasters, it said.

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"Floods in the past decade have impacted the lives of more than half a billion people, mainly in low- and middle-income countries, and resulted in damages of nearly $500 billion," Vladimir Smakhtin, director of U.N. University's Institute for Water, Environment and Health, said in a press release.

"We need to prepare now for more intense and more frequent floods due to climate change and hope this tool will help developing nations in particular to see and mitigate the risks more clearly," Smakhtin said.

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An estimated 1.5 billion people globally -- nearly one-fifth of the world's population -- live at risk for exposure to intense flooding, according to U.N. University, an academic and research arm of the United Nations based in Tokyo.

A majority of forecasting centers in flood-prone countries, however, lack the ability to run complex models, said Hamid Mehmood, a specialist at the Institute for Water, Environment and Health, who led the tool's development.

Floods like those that hit Europe earlier this year, which killed more than 200 people and caused billions of dollars in damages, are now up to nine times more likely because of climate change, he said.

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The high death toll was described as a "monumental failure of the system" by an official with the European Flood Awareness System.

"As temperatures continue to rise the number of flood events will increase along with their severity," Mehmood said in a press release.

"No place is immune -- and yet remarkably few regions, even in wealthy countries, have useful, up-to-date flood maps because of the cost and difficulty of creating them," he said.

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Created by U.N. University's Institute for Water, Environment and Health, which is located in Hamilton, Canada, the flood mapping tool allows government users to adjust multiple variables to help locate gaps in their nations' flood defenses and responses, the agency said.

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It can also be used in planning for future development of all kinds -- for example, where to build or upgrade infrastructure or develop agriculture, based on flooding risks, it said.

The new World Flood Mapping Tool lets users adjust variables to help locate gaps in flood defenses and responses, and to plan future development of all kinds. Image by UN University-Institute for Water, Environment and Health

The tool makes flood maps at 30-meter resolution -- street-by-street level -- over the Internet, with a planned upcoming version for commercial users, such as insurance companies, offering more precise building-level resolution.

It uses the Google Earth Engine combined with Landsat data dating to 1985 -- a vast catalog of geospatial data enabling planet-scale analysis capabilities -- to identify temporary and permanent water bodies while integrating site-specific elevation and land-use data, the agency said.

Combined, these data produce a detailed map of flood inundation in recent decades, with available overlays of population, buildings and land use.

The new tool will also record new floods soon after they occur to provide the most up-to-date maps to assess overall flood impacts and plan for the future, U.N. University said.

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An agency-led study found maps -- generated in less than a minute -- using the tool had 82% accuracy when compared to documented flooding events in Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Cambodia, India, Mozambique, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

In addition, the tool can help estimate disaster-related insurance rates, flood-related human and economic losses and potential supply-chain disruptions, Mehmood said.

A flood risk prediction component will also be added to the tool in 2022 and it will use artificial intelligence to generate current and future flood risk maps for three climate change scenarios at the city, district and river basin levels.

"Painting a detailed picture of the historical and potential flood risk areas will be invaluable for any urban and regional planning department," Duminda Perera, a researcher with the Institute for Water, Environment and Health, said in a press release.

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