In July 2010, monsoon rains came to Pakistan in a Biblical way. Three months’ worth of rain fell in just one week. Historic flooding ensued in the weeks to follow — spanning 600 miles along the flood zone of the Indus River Valley — taking the lives of as many as 1,600 people. The flood waters also displaced as many as 20 million.
If only the warnings of historic flooding had come more swiftly and more accurately, it’s possible some of those who perished could have lived to tell about it. Countless numbers of the nearly 2 million homes destroyed might still be standing. And relief aid to refugees of the floods might have reached villages in need with greater precision and speed. If only…
Humanitarian aid efforts in the months after the flooding have been generous, but have paled in comparison with Haitian earthquake relief, and the world’s response to the aftermath of the 2004 Asian tsunami. But, additional assistance continues to arrive. In at least one instance that assistance hails in part from an unconventional source – NASA — with a native son of Pakistan leading the charge.
Growing up in a rural mountainous area near Gilgit, Pakistan, Sadiq Khan never experienced first-hand any of the devastation that more often than not wreaks havoc on the country’s densely populated, lower lying regions like Punjab and Sindh. But, a few years following the untimely death of a friend in the 2005 earthquake that killed upwards of 85,000, Khan, a graduate research assistant at the University of Oklahoma (OU), along with associate professor Yang Hong of the school’s Remote Sensing Hydrology Group, developed a proposal to build Pakistan’s capacity to reduce the risk of life and agricultural damage during natural disasters. And a specific proposal focus – developing an early warning system for flooding – would prove serendipitous.
On the heels of the catastrophic floods, Khan and Hong received a half-million dollar grant in August for their three-year project from the Pakistan – U.S. Science and Technology Cooperation Program that Pakistan’s government and the U.S. Agency for International Development are funding. Of the 28 projects (out of 270 applications) chosen for funding, Khan’s ranked as the most relevant to society.
“Pakistan has been limited by a lack of human resources, training for personnel, and data availability,” said Khan, who is also a 2008-2011 NASA Earth Sciences Graduate Fellow. “So, the reliability of the current flood-warning system in Pakistan is poor, and likely the reason flood mortality was unusually high. They’re using an older generation of hydrologic models, probably from the 1980s, that don’t require remote sensing data.”
So, where does NASA come in? Well, Khan, NASA collaborator Shahid Habib, head of applied sciences at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and other colleagues will work to train Pakistani scientists to access and use free data from several of NASA’s remote sensing satellites in what are called predictive hydrometeorological models. These models can improve the ability to forecast floods accurately and with more warning time.
Starting in mid-November, Khan and others will begin three years of training researchers at the National University of Science and Technology in Islamabad to use a flood model they developed at OU in collaboration with NASA that makes use of a lot of NASA data.
They’ll use precipitation data from NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission satellite, because heavy rain causes most of flooding. The model also uses a whopping amount of other NASA remote-sensing information: digital elevation (Digital Elevation Model), topographical (Shuttle Radar Topography Mission), radiometry (Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer), and land cover data (from an instrument aboard NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites), as well as soil moisture estimates from Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer – Earth Observing System Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer – Earth Observing System.
“The plains agricultural regions – the ‘bread basket’ of Pakistan – suffered extreme damage in the floods and the deaths were heartbreaking,” Khan explained. “So, it’ll be an honor for me to go back home, visit affected areas that are home to more than 100 million people, evaluate needs, and work with my government to create a 21st-century flood-warning system that can prevent this level of suffering from flooding from occurring again.”
— Gretchen Cook-Anderson, NASA’s Earth Science News Team; Images courtesy of the NASA Earth Observatory (top) and Sadiq Khan (bottom).