Why nations must prepare for natural disasters amid the current Covid-19 pandemic 

This week, IWMI’s scientists used Google Earth Engine to produce a map depicting the current status of crops around the world.

Giriraj Amarnath, Research Group Leader – Water Risks and Development Resilience (WRDR), International Water Management Institute (IWMI)

A farmer harvesting flood-tolerant rice crop as part of IWMI's bundled insurance project in Bihar, India. Photo: IWMI
A farmer harvesting flood-tolerant rice crop as part of IWMI’s bundled insurance project in Bihar, India. Photo: IWMI

Even a Hollywood scriptwriter would think twice about combining a pandemic with another natural disaster. Yet, this is a scenario currently facing governments around the world. Last week, Tropical Cyclone Harold caused extensive damage in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga in the Pacific. Residents of several towns on lockdown in Spain needed rescuing from flash floods just as the country reached the peak of its Covid-19 outbreak in early April.

The usual response to the displacement of thousands of people affected by drought or floods is temporary shelter in schools or community centers. However, such actions are not recommended at a time when social distancing is critical to containing the pandemic.

Climate forecast maps for the period April-June 2020, based on multiple models and released by the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University, USA, show that both above- and below-average rainfall is anticipated in many regions where Covid-19 is becoming prevalent but disaster preparedness is limited.

Collaboration is key

Countries are declaring states of emergency while climate change is increasing variability in weather patterns, and other risks such as financial shocks are likely. Therefore, the need to build the general resilience of populations and prepare for these intersecting risks is critical. This will require nations to break down existing silos between sectors, including disaster management, health, meteorology, agriculture and finance.

Take India, for example, where almost half of its 1.4 billion citizens work in the agriculture sector. The country is currently in the midst of a prolonged lockdown and Covid-19 is already spreading in crowded slums.

In addition, both village and city dwellers face the risk of flooding, if forecast above-average rainfall becomes a reality. With necessary restrictions on people’s movement also threatening manufacturing and supply chains, the vulnerability of communities to climate risks will increase. Meteorologists will need to work with water, agriculture and health departments to prepare robust disaster management strategies, if lives are to be saved from the perfect storm of Covid-19 and a record monsoon deluge.

Financial experts also need to be in the loop, so they can put in place mechanisms such as cash transfers, loans, grants and insurance policies to support the livelihoods of those affected, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society.

At the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), we recently tested a satellite-based insurance scheme in the Indian state of Bihar to compensate farmers affected by flooding. Farmers who took part in the scheme shared a total payout of approximately INR 800,000 (USD 10,500) when their crops were damaged during the 2019 monsoon.

The product, combining 30 years of historical flooding data, hydrological modeling and 10-m resolution satellite images from the European Space Agency, enabled the insurer to remotely observe the extent and duration of flooding in different areas, and identify those farmers eligible for payouts. Similar systems could help governments to compensate farmers who suffer crop losses due to flooding during the Covid-19 outbreak, enabling them to quickly resume farming.

This week, IWMI’s scientists used Google Earth Engine to produce a map depicting the current status of crops around the world (Figure 1). The map shows, for example, that a large swathe of northwestern India is covered with crops that are ready to harvest.

This technology – which can be used by anyone with a desktop computer and Internet connection – has the potential to help decision-makers get labor and machinery to where it is most needed, while still restricting the movement of citizens elsewhere. Also, if combined with weather forecasting information, such data could help to ensure that crops are harvested ahead of anticipated storms. Helping farmers to retain their livelihoods and ensure food is not wasted will contribute to building the resilience of communities in these challenging times.

Figure 1. Map showing the present state of maturity of crops around the world. Source: International Water Management Institute (IWMI).
Figure 1. Map showing the present state of maturity of crops around the world. Source: International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

Just months ago, no one would have dreamed that the entire world could be brought to a standstill in the way we have witnessed in recent weeks. However, we have learned that governments, the private sector and civil society can mobilize and act quickly when threats become apparent.

This agility can be applied to building longer-term resilience and sustainability into water resources and food systems, so they are better able to absorb the next shocks that arrive. An important part of this will be future-proofing such systems to accommodate risks from multiple hazards – from climate change to pandemics and technological failures. We must think creatively, stimulate cross-ministerial collaboration, and harness all types of scientific innovations and data – from earth-observing satellite images to disease-testing technologies.

If the past weeks have taught us anything so far, it is that anything is possible and that, in 2020 at least, the truth is most definitely stranger than any fiction Hollywood could concoct.

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