When Desert Countries Suddenly Flood, New Data is Required

On the Frontline of Climate Change with Koffi Akopoko, WFP Deputy Country Director Niger 

Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, is also one of the world’s driest. Landlocked and encompassing part of the Sahara, it receives an average rainfall of 365 mm a year. The government, emergency responders, and aid organizations, including Cloud to Street partner the World Food Programme, are, as a consequence, prepared to cope with chronic drought. But flooding, which is devastating wider and wider swaths of populations, homes, infrastructure, and croplands, presents specific—and fatal—challenges.

Koffi Akakpo, the WFP Deputy Country Head of Niger and a trained statistician who has also worked in disaster relief in Jaffa, the Republic of Congo, and Mali, explained the particular difficulties produced by the extreme weather in Niger: “Whether it is drought or rain, we make sure that WFP is prepared to support the government—through disaster response, policing, programming, and other developments—to produce a quick and timely response when emergency comes. It’s our day-to-day work. But drought is a long process; we have time to monitor the evolution of the disaster, make the assessment, but for flooding you don’t have enough time to get and collect information. There isn’t enough tech yet to help us anticipate and collect.”

The 2019 rainy season was one of the most extreme on record. The Ministry of Humanitarian Action and National Civil Protection estimates that more than 211,000 people were impacted by flooding in the 2019 rainy season by September alone; 57 people were killed, 13,300 households destroyed, and at least 4,700 hectares of cropland ruined. In early October the flooding worsened as a consequence of high river levels, continued heavy rainfall and the overflowing of dams in Burkina Faso and Mali, displacing an additional 20,000 people in Diffa. 

Koffi asserts that climate change is behind the increases: “Year after year we’ve found that the impacts from climate change are affecting many populations in Niger and it’s only becoming more and more difficult. We don’t need to prove climate change [is real] because we see that Niger is already affected. For example, one of [the Cloud to Street] models showed that the level of the Niger [river] is the highest in fifteen years—that is something that is very big for the country. More and more people are affected by climate change every day.”

The question, then, is how best to protect and inform those people. As Koffi says, “sometimes the rain comes in the middle of the night. Many people die because of this. If there was a way to tell them on time to leave the place, that anticipation would make a big difference. We need an efficient system that can provide information to the population so that they are aware of the risk of flooding—maybe sent over WhatsApp and SMS or radio in rural areas.”

Cloud to Street is working with the WFP Niger Country Office, as well as a national flood task force that includes the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Ministry of Civil Protection, and OCHA, to strategize how to build a system that will effectively distribute early warnings—what Koffi considers the best defense against flooding. But first comes the technology that determines where and who is at risk, an informational gap that revealed across the world as natural disasters increase. For example, when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City,  FEMA flood risk maps were over thirty years old. That gap is even more extreme in Niger, where civil unrest, colonial structures, conflict around the borders, and limited access to data makes mapping and monitoring floods an issue of resources. As the promises of big data, AI, and the quantity and quality of satellites increase step in step with the ramifications of climate change, it is crucial that those advances center around the climate-vulnerable communities who need them the most.

The Niger river breaks historic record levels in September.
Floods (light blue) are detected outside of historical inundation (maroon to white).
Flooding (dark blue) from the Komadougou Yobe river (light blue)
threatening Diffa city in early October.

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