2016/07/26 08:40 Jai Syvitski, “From politics to remote sensing: The Indus Flood of 2010 – unfolding of a disaster and lessons learned”, ISSS 2016 Boulder

Plenary @ISSSMeeting Jai Syvitski @CSDMS, Keynote #isss2016USA, 60th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences and 1st Policy Congress of ISSS, Boulder, Colorado, USA

Day 2 theme:  Global Science and Assessment

Plenary IV: Crisis Science: Anticipatory, Real-Time, and Preventive

  • Description: Adequate resilience and appropriate response (interventions) to crises and disasters and continuous improvement thereof is a growing global need and a social responsibility in view of the seemingly growing number of disasters endangering a growing number of people and even our civilization. Can we do a better job of anticipating, systemically understanding and mitigating the cycles of crisis and recovery by combining exploratory ‘crisis science’ with long-term ‘sustainability science’? Can we unravel the antithesis of incompatible response systems and find new ways to integrate scientific, technological, cultural, ethical, political and economic influences? Preparedness must systemically consider the often emergent interplay of supporting and obstructing factors. Actual interventions (responses) must holistically evaluate the total situation and make decisions, unfortunately to be performed under high uncertainty, extreme stress and time pressure. Despite the often singularity of disasters we have to identify similarities and powerful abstraction in order to support scientific analysis and improved mitigation. A long range target could be an interdisciplinary ‘Strategic Crisis Science’. The panel of international experts will discuss these issues from their different backgrounds and national priorities with respect to preparedness and interventions. We will attempt to establish common grounds and basic solutions.

Chair: Gerhard Chroust, Institute of System Sciences, Johannes Kepler University, Linz, Austria

This digest was created in real-time during the meeting, based on the speaker’s presentation(s) and comments from the audience. The content should not be viewed as an official transcript of the meeting, but only as an interpretation by a single individual. Lapses, grammatical errors, and typing mistakes may not have been corrected. Questions about content should be directed to the originator. The digest has been made available for purposes of scholarship, posted by David Ing.

Presentation by Jai Syvitski, Executive Director, Community Surface Dynamics Modeling System, University of Colorado, Boulder

[Jai Syvitsi]

Jai Syvitski

Open source software, modeling the earth’s surface

Liked DARPA Flood Observatory so much, hired them all, brought them to Boulder

  • They could tell where flooding is today

Could use satellite data?

  • Not a disaster person, more a community person

Indus, knew in Pakistan

  • Very little of water ever makes Indian Ocean, it’s consumed along the way

In 2010, had great observational data on monsoonal event

  • In communication with government
  • A big monsoon, outstanding
  • Flooding in one province, they didn’t get any rain
  • Where rain happens isn’t where floods happen

Problem:  most rivers don’t operate naturally

  • Would normally get avulsion, flying levee banks and then breakout, which could be permanent or not
  • In 19th century, lots of avulsion
  • Today, water is blocked from flood plains, and have a lot of canals:  the largest engineering system
  • Could use satellite approaches

Slow flood, over a month

  • Can outwalk the flood

Postmortem on what happened

Took out 7490 villages, 400 bridges, 190 hospitals

  • 10 million people displaced
  • Yet only #84 of 3784 large global floods between 1985-2010
  • But floods shouldn’t have happened
  • Monsoonal warning system wouldn’t have helped

Problem was diversions, barrages and canals

  • Barrage allows water to flow into canals
  • Slows does water flow, and puts sediment beyond the barrage, leaving the river higher

City wasn’t sure they could keep up with infrastructure in a flood

  • Army Corps of Engineers wanted to open up canal, because they didn’t have a spillway (that would have caused damage downstream, but not deaths)
  • Water still constrained in main channel

International biosphere program, provided information

  • Modification of hydrological cycle
  • The number of floods (big or small) are increasing
  • Initially, thought it was because of climate change, but then found it was engineering failure
  • Another rainfall in Thailand, dam operator got nervous and released too much

River systems don’t run as river systems, they run as pipes

  • Use most of water, until little water gets to ocean (from 50% down to 15%)

In Mississippi, delta is disappearing, local rise, land is sinking

Indus data

  • From 1944, tidal channels are created
  • Delta land loss
  • People have migrated out of delta
  • Generating a 1M person city per week:  where are they going?  They’re going onto deltas, with megacities!

Now that deltas are disappearing, we have people moving off deltas

Fight or flight countries, different approach

  • Vietnam and Amazon live on water
  • USA puts houses on stilts

Supreme Court of Pakistan:  most embankments were not maintained

  • Last minute misdirected attempt to remove earth from crest to fill
  • As flood was progressing down, and people saying it was bad, they wanted to open the spillway
  • That would mean that one of the ministers owning an orchard would have been flooded; had troops standing against national troops

This isn’t rocket science

  • We’re engineering a system, maybe $100B
  • Problem, it’s multiple $100B to maintain the system
  • We irrigate a desert (which is what Pakistan has done, improving the agricultural system), but it can’t deal with natural disasters

Avulsion on the delta

  • Modern deltas:  we want to protect infrastructure outside river banks
  • Keeps water shooting across delta
  • Along the way, sinking the delta

Used to have 50 million people on the delta, now reduce channels, engineer the system (e.g. Vancouver International Airport)

Delta surface elevation processes

  • Not only raising sea level, on delta sinking the land
  • Delta would get sediment, but not don’t allow sediment to get there

We build a large dam every day, and sediment is not getting out to delta

  • Giosan 2015:  Not enough sediment getting out to delta

Jakarta has sunken 4 metres

Italy pumping methane, Venice got upset, stopped

Netherlands are living on a major delta system, spending $140M are trucking in sediment

China is working on ways of opening dam to release sediment, get more growing along Yellow River

In USA, engineering a solution

  • Can’t save the Mississippi, should figure out what should be given into nature

Chao Fraya, telephone poles show road underwater

Climate change is glamourous, but floods aren’t

  • There are other ways that we’re dealing with our earth system that we need to pay attentionto
  • Engineering solutions
  • Abandon systems
  • Work out what can be saved
  • We need more holistic ways


Indus system was developed in 1909 as the largest irrigation system, by the British.  Connection between failure of system and age?

  • British were in Punjab, not Sikh, and did come up to engineering standards
  • Same as flooding in New Orleans during Katrina
  • Engineering standards of the day, but then a few that weren’t (e.g. not as deep as should be), then they fail
  • Parts of the system that are well-engineered, they’re not failing
  • Not putting money away from where people are living
  • Have to make sure engineering is maintained all the way up and down 1000 km
  • People who built their structures as if there will never be a failure, should build for that
  • When open spillways in the U.S., send letter to people licensing the spillway, tell them to get off, will open the spillway
  • Have to build that in, spillways will wipe out everything in the path
  • May not work in every culture
  • In some cultures, people would say won’t move, so spillway may not work
  • In late 1990s, looking at data in pristine rivers, never touched by humans, it was hard, almost gave up
  • Some pristine rivers in high Arctic, but so different from tropical
  • A dam is like a bank, money coming in and out, but when money goes out, you want to make sure you have enough money in the bank to ensure you’ll have it later
  • Worst thing:  too much water in monsoon, could get an overtopping that would destroy the dam, so the best way to deal with it is to release too much water

In the Netherlands, engineers work collaborative with society, a lot of trust of engineers that is different from other contexts.  In UK, piddly little rivers.  Mersey was being shown unfolding disasters, saw that it was a social problem, not biophysical, led to Mersey Campaign.  Are we not acting ethically, when we draw your attention to frames?  Are we not acting ethically when we don’t involve local people?

  • Met with governments, agencies
  • Responsible with national academies
  • Try to find lay of land
  • Ways of working in one country don’t work in others
  • If you say you have a solution to a problem, you likely don’t
  • Can provide warning, e.g. weather system magnitude (e.g. hurricane), the country can choose to react or not
  • We can see dam levels from space
  • We can provide data, but countries dam upstream to impact downstream
  • Can get the information out, but don’t know if to the right people
  • In Thailand, do watermelons on the river system; flood warning gives them 30 minutes warning, fast reaction
  • In Britain, don’t have the fast reactions of Thailand where floods come 10 times per year
  • There were people in Pakistan who wanted U.S. air base to be flooded

#isss, #isss2016