Flood water monitoring via mobile phones saving lives

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A project funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is providing real-time information on flooding in Mexico, using remote water sensing over cellular phone systems.

Flooding is a global problem. It is the most serious natural disaster in terms of loss of life and it causes significant, long-term societal damage. And flooding is predicted to become an even bigger problem if, as expected, climate change accelerates.

The Emergency Water Information Network (EWIN) funded through the Global Challenges Research Fund looked at how to tackle river flooding in Mexico. The EPSRC-supported project aimed to improve the ability to predict and manage flooding, making Mexico more resilient to flooding damage.

Currently, Mexico is struggling to cope with floods that are increasing in severity and regularity. Low and middle income countries are particularly at risk from flooding, lacking the funds to invest in flood-monitoring infrastructure

Two multidisciplinary teams, one based in the UK and one in Mexico, have worked together to improve their understanding of the flow of water through the Mexican landscape. In particular, they have focused on the city and state of Colima.

Dr Robert Edwards, Reader in Mobile Communications at Loughborough University and PI for the project, explained:

“Flooding washes away great sections of the city, the roads and the crops. Every so often Colima City is heavily damaged by water. Nobody knows what combination of rainfall on the slopes of the local hills causes the floods. In the UK, we have lots of expensive gauging stations at the sides of rivers and lots of historical data, but there isn’t the same history in many developing countries. However, they do have state-of-the-art mobile phone systems.”

The EWIN researchers and engineers have been monitoring flooding in real-time in a series of field trials, using low-cost remote water sensing over Mexico’s high-tech cellular phone systems. Using mobile phone networks, software-defined radio and LoRa wireless technology has enabled the team to overcome the problem of inadequate flooding-monitoring infrastructure around Colima City.

Prior to EWIN, the authorities in Colima might only be able to give residents a relatively brief notice of possible flooding. Now, the sensing technology could enable a much shorter response time, giving people more time to plan and act.

The team has worked with two small companies, specialists in water engineering and embedded electronics, one in the UK and one in Mexico. Edwards thinks this multidisciplinary, global approach leads to much better results.

Edwards said: “Normally, teams work in isolation and take-up is minimal. But, in order to get maximum benefit from research and to solve this global problem, you have to have a multidisciplinary team. You have to have knowledge transfer and buy-in from local communities.”

Professor Oliver Mendoza-Cano, University of Colima, part of the multidisciplinary team in Mexico, said: “We are now working on gaining resources to maintain the network. We need to keep showing local stakeholders that the kinds of systems researched during the project can help prevent flooding and save lives.”