Report Cities

Together against flooding

The Indian city of Bhubaneswar is working to curb flooding and unblock drains. Using a game in a smartphone app, citizens are helping to solve the problem.

Text: 
Mathias Peer

The main traffic arteries are clogged with water and commuter traffic barely moves for hours. The start of the year is usually a relatively dry period in the large eastern Indian city of Bhubaneswar, but this can no longer be guaranteed in times of climate change. On a Wednesday morning in late February 2020, local meteorologists reported 78 millimetres of rain within 24 hours, the highest figure for this time of year since records began.

 

Student Aishwarya Nandita is one of Bhubaneswar’s everyday heroes. She works as a volunteer publicising the new app for combating flooding.

Bhubaneswar is the capital city of the Indian state of Odisha and is considered an emerging hub for digital technology in India. Home to around one million people, the city has seen rapid growth, although this has not been planned in every neighbourhood.The effects of this and of extreme weather phenomena are visible. The drainage systems are unable to cope with floodwaters as they become blocked by mud and refuse. Cleaning teams have to be brought in to ensure the rain can run off properly. The authorities in Bhubaneswar have been grappling with the problem for a long time. While the city has numerous waterways for collecting rainwater and diverting it away from the roads, these are blocked in many places by illegal buildings on the banks or by tonnes of household waste.

Weatherproofing Bhubaneswar is an enormous challenge for the city authorities, not least because they lack up-to-date information. They simply do not have the human resources available to monitor on an ongoing basis which areas are currently seeing a build-up of water. There have been no alternative technological possibilities for doing this in the past, but now Bhubaneswar intends to use a new app to solve the problem. Developed by representatives from different departments of the city administration, civic organisations and universities in cooperation with GIZ, the app is an example of how GIZ is working on behalf of the German Federal Environment Ministry (BMU) to assist municipalities in adapting to the effects of climate change.

In the process, Bhubaneswar is counting on the population quite literally playing along. Aishwarya Nandita is here today to explain to residents of the million-strong metropolis how the app works. The 24-year-old student has travelled with a group of volunteers to a marketplace in the city’s Nayapalli neighbourhood, which experiences frequent flooding. She asks people there about their experiences of the floods. A nurse tells her that she regularly has to wade through flooded roads on her way to work, getting her uniform soaked every time.

Sharing solutions

 

There are a number of strategies cities can employ to protect themselves against the effects of climate change, whether in the form of heavy rainfall or heatwaves. Mu City Savior is one example of how the global ICT-based Adaptation to Climate Change in Cities project is establishing ­responsive innovation processes to foster transformative climate change adaptation. Selected cities in India, Mexico and Peru are participating in this global programme. GIZ is working with the German Federal Ministry of the Interior (BMI) on behalf of the German Federal Environment Ministry (BMU) to advise these cities on developing, implementing and scaling responsive digital solutions. The findings from the three pilot cities, namely Bhubaneswar, Guadalajara and Trujillo, will be shared around the world. Using open source software, which is freely accessible and adaptable, allows other cities to benefit too. GIZ has developed the www.climate-digital-cities.com platform to encourage networking. It offers information about the ‘Internet of Trees’ from Mexico and digital support from Peru for locating relatives after flooding.

 

Contact: Teresa Kerber, teresa.kerber@giz.de

 

The roads of the Indian city regularly flood following rainfall.

Nandita produces her smartphone and shows them the app. It is called Mu City Savior, a combination of English and the local language Odia, which translates as: ‘I’m the city saviour.’ But how do people become everyday digital heroes? Very easily: the app is set up like a computer game. It begins by displaying a map of the city on the screen showing the key junctions in the drainage system. Those wishing to advance to the next level have to get out and about. Users are shown by navigation system the nearest position from which they can get a good view of the drain. Once they arrive at that position, the app asks them three short questions: How much refuse is in the drain? How high is the water level? How well is it currently draining away? There are three possible answers in each case and a 50-point reward is issued to users for the leaderboard in which the ‘city saviours’ compete with one another.

The data that is collected is fed through to Seshadev Panda. A former wing commander in the Indian Air Force, he is now the General Manager for Technology at the agency Bhubaneswar Smart City Limited. He worked with local GIZ staff to drive the app’s development. The project was launched in mid-2018 with the intention of determining how digital solutions could help the city in tackling climate change. Flooding was identified as the most pressing issue in discussions. ‘I can still remember it well. On one day, we’d barely had two hours of rainfall and yet the city’s roads were flooded,’ says Panda. ‘That’s when it became clear to us that something finally had to change.’

 

Global network: The Mu City Savior vehicle shows the other locations in the Climate Digital Cities network.

Ninety per cent of floods in the metropolis can be attributed to blocked drains. The water is usually impeded by carelessly discarded packaging, broken branches or rubble dumped illegally. ‘We rely on citizens to help us combat this,’ says Panda. It was this recognition that gave rise to the basic idea for the app. External programmers assisted with its implementation. After a year or so, the first version of the app was ready. It is to be made freely available to other municipalities in future in line with the open source principle. Panda describes the approach as a challenge for the administration: ‘Working with citizens and other partners to solve a problem rather than setting the direction ourselves from the outset was a completely new approach for us,’ he says. ‘It took us some getting used to initially.’

He believes the experiment has paid off. The Mu City Savior data is fed into an algorithm, which uses it to produce a priority list, updated on an ongoing basis, for drainage works. From October 2020, things will be taken a step further, with the city also collecting the information in a new control room which will manage the metropolis’s resources in real time. ‘We could also use cameras and sensors to monitor the drains,’ says Panda. ‘But that kind of technology would be far more expensive and extremely high-maintenance.’

INDIA

 

Capital: New Delhi / Population: 1.3 billion / Economic growth: 6.8 per cent / Human Development Index ranking: 129 (out of 189)

Source: World Bank 2018

 Map India

 

India is one of the ten countries most severely affected by climate change in the world. The subcontinent is seeing an increase in extreme weather conditions.

According to Shabaz Khan, who works as a GIZ technical advisor in India on urban projects for combating climate change and supported the project, there is another key benefit to opting instead for citizen participation: ‘When local residents play their own part in ensuring the proper functioning of the drainage system, they feel a greater sense of responsibility for ensuring that refuse is disposed of correctly in future rather than ending up in drains.’

Volunteer Aishwarya Nandita also appeals to people’s sense of responsibility. She and her fellow volunteers have rehearsed a brief play, which they perform on the street, about students in a hall of residence who lose their books and documents in a flood. ‘We wanted to show that flooding is a problem that could affect everyone if we don’t work together to solve it,’ says Nandita. The performance has been a resounding success: ‘Many people installed the app straightaway.’ It was downloaded some 600 times after the first few information events. Other opportunities will be used in the coming weeks to publicise the app further.

And the idea is already attracting attention beyond the city’s boundaries. Mu City Savior has been recognised by the Indian Government as the best Climate Smart Cities project of 2020. It is making waves as an example of a digital and citizen-centric response to climate change. Around 2,000 kilometres away, the southern Indian city of Kochi lies at the heart of a two-million-strong metropolitan area. The municipality on the Malabar Coast, which experiences regular flooding, has already expressed interest in introducing the app itself. This is good news to Shabaz Khan: ‘Every city wishing to use the app is most welcome to do so.

published in akzente 2/20

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