Malaysian flood forecasting to save more lives

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In a move that could save many lives, Malaysia is extending its state-of-the-art flood warning system across the country – the first time national-scale flood management has been implemented in a harsh tropical environment. The Department of Irrigation and Drainage has selected River Care Associates and core developers of the system, HR Wallingford, to implement the next stage of the rollout for the technology, which alerts authorities 48 hours prior to a flood and can forecast flooding a week in advance.

The world-leading National Flood Forecasting and Warning System (NaFFWS), has already been successfully trialed in three catchments in Malaysia. The scheme will now be broadened to 11 more river basins in the north-west of the country, before further extensions take it nationwide. Unifying the technological approach across the country is an important move for flood management in Malaysia where a fifth of the population is estimated to be at risk from flooding.

Large areas of the country repeatedly suffer from prolonged and significant floods, causing widespread disruption to communities, businesses and infrastructure. And with climate change and urbanisation expected to lead to bigger and more frequent floods worldwide, early-warning systems are set to become all the more important.

The national control centre for NaFFWS at the Department for Irrigation and Drainage offices, Ampang (credit: Department for Irrigation and Drainage, Malaysia)

Using state-of-the-art technology, the national forecasting system is designed to work under the many challenges presented by the tropical Malaysian environment. It is based upon a three-stage process to develop the system and forecast floods. First, our engineers set up the system by gathering historical rainfall and flow data as well as creating models of the runoff, river channels and flood plains; Second, the data are combined with weather forecasts and on-the-ground measurements to predict water levels; finally, the system is set to run operationally and continuously, with forecasts and warnings automatically generated. A national control centre disseminates flood warnings to each state’s flood response teams, and warnings are also made available to the public via an app.

Emma Brown, project director, says: “At HR Wallingford, we have been involved with the design of flood management schemes for over 70 years, and bring our knowledge and experience to help communities that are vulnerable to flooding around the world. The nationally-consistent approach to flood management taken by Malaysia really raises the bar for early-warning systems around the world. And given that flooding is likely to get worse in many areas of the world, I am hopeful that governments and agencies will prioritise implementing similar initiatives wherever they can save lives.”

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