Smart Cities Can Help Prevent Natural Disasters

Image Credit: AP Photo/David J. Phillip

If Hurricane Katrina taught us anything, it’s that having a preventative mindset towards climate resiliency is just as important as disaster recovery efforts. Except, as we are now seeing in Houston (1), we didn’t implement many strategies that would indicate we learned those hard lessons.

Like many things in America, from climate change to healthcare, we wait until catastrophe strikes then hope the federal government can provide the solution. We can do better.

According to a study by the United Nations, almost 890 million people across the globe live in cities that are at risk from at least one major natural disaster, including floods, droughts, cyclones, or earthquakes (2). And because cities are incredibly complex and dense — with a labyrinth of urban systems like transportation, water supply, sanitation, housing, etc — they are the most vulnerable to devastation from natural disasters.

Smarter cities can help

By designing better-connected infrastructure equipped to provide actionable insight, we can pave the way for truly resilient cities. Flash flooding often occurs simply because trash and debris clog storm drains and city sewers — if maintenance crews had smart sensors alert them when and where these backups were happening, then a lot of the water damage would be avoided in the first place (3). These smart sensors could also detect high levels of toxicities, that could save thousands of people from irreversible body harm like we saw in Flint, Michigan (4).

In 2011, the city of Copenhagen had its own Houston moment when an extreme cloudburst storm caused more than 150mm of rain to fall in under two hours. Critical infrastructure was destroyed, hospitals were forced to evacuate, and nearly €1Billion in insurance claims were filed. In response, the city doubled down on flood prevention and developed drainage solutions that integrate with urban infrastructure (such as stormwater roads that transport water to lakes and harbors). These improvements have since limited surges, captured rainwater as a resource, increased real estate value, and saved an estimated €16Million annual in damages [it’s worth checking out this presentation from the City of Copenhagen in 2013 (5)].

Slide 11: City of Copenhagen’s presentation on Climate Adaptation

We Need To Act Now

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts rising global temperatures could cause an increase of up to 82 cm (32 inches) in sea levels by late this century due to melting ice and expansion of water as it warms, threatening coastal cities from Shanghai to San Francisco (6).

Unfortunately, it’s extremely difficult convincing politicians to spend political capital on “preventative” measures that require planning for what might happen instead of the day-to-day issues in front of them.

We should look to proactive high-risk cities such as Buenos Aires that have already installed smart sensors in over 30,000 storm drains. They can measure the direction, speed, and level of water — combined with data from weather reports and citizen alerts on social media —in order to provide immediate support where it is most needed.

Photo Cred: Fujitsu | Thermoelectric converter unit turns natural energy into electricity (7)

It goes without saying that we should applaud everyone involved in the disaster recovery efforts. The local tech community is doing incredible things to help victims of Harvey (8), as are countless humanitarian organizations that provide emergency assistance. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do a better job at mitigating these emergencies in the first place.