Project Noah - forecasting natural disasters in the Philippines | Connect Asia

Project Noah - forecasting natural disasters in the Philippines

Project Noah - forecasting natural disasters in the Philippines

Updated 3 October 2012, 14:12 AEST

When non-stop rain pounded the Philippine capital Manila and surrounding provinces recently, it provided a chance to test the country's new system for forecasting natural disasters.

Project NOAH is the acronym for the Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards - and the idea behind it is to give scientists and residents a better idea of when and where disaster will strike.

Correspondent: Simone Orendain

Speakers: Janice Lagundi; Carlos Primo David, geologist; Mahar Lagmay, NOAH's executive director

ORENDAIN: Project NOAH has a long way to go before it becomes a household name in the Philippines. I spoke to more than a dozen people in Manila's business district during the lunch-hour - and could barely find anyone who'd even heard of it.

At last, I met Janice Lagundi, who was waiting for her bus. She said she was "a little familiar" with NOAH, and that she'd heard it was a way to monitor the weather.

LAGUNDI: If the rain or typhoon will bring more rain and then those flooded levels, we'll need to check those things. And then I think they have a website that shows those areas and then the color coding shows the level of destruction. That's what I know.

ORENDAIN: Don't know - or don't care? That's part of the problem in the Philippines, according to geologist Carlos Primo David. He says the attitude of Filipinos is summed up with the phrase "weather whether lang." That's "weather" like "the weather forecast" and w-h-e-t-h-e-r.

DAVID: If it rains, then it rains.That's essentially what the phrase means. But we refuse to believe that we cannot predict rainfall.

ORENDAIN: David is among a group of scientists and weather experts working on the government's new online hazard prediction tool, Project NOAH. They're hoping to do better than "weather-whether" - in this island nation that's so prone to floods, typhoons, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

NOAH was born out of last December's floods in the country's south that caused more than 12,00 deaths. In response, President Benigno Aquino called on the Department of Science and Technology to come up with more accurate forecasting. Soon after Project NOAH came together.

The project's Executive Director Mahar Lagmay says the first priority is developing high-resolution maps of the country, to identify the most vulnerable areas.

LAGMAY: The topography that is generated is topography that will enable us to see the fault-lines, the landslide scars and so on and so forth.

ORENDAIN: Lagmay is a geology professor at the University of the Philippines in Manila. He says the maps- to be completed in 2013- will be crucial to improving public awareness.

LAGMAY: People can relate to the problem because they see their houses, they see their neighbours' houses. The bridge in their community, the river in their community in relation to the hazards - the flood hazards in particular.

ORENDAIN: He says the project had its first test in August when two weeks of non-stop rain caused serious flooding around Manila. Information was sent out via the social networking site Twitter, radio and television. Lagmay says the project passed.

LAGMAY: Relatively it was successful because what we wanted to avoid was mass death.

ORENDAIN: David's team - which is also based at the University of the Philippines - is in charge of predicting flooding. Part of that involves better rain forecasting, by incorporating data from satellite images, hundreds of newly installed rain gauges and Doppler radar.

DAVID: So if we go to Metro Manila, let's say Quezon City… uhm, there we are…

ORENDAIN: At the university's National Institute of Geological Sciences, David shows me a website that's pulling in data from those three sources.

DAVID: … around 5:00 pm this afternoon a higher chance of rain… it has detected a raincloud in Quezon City…

ORENDAIN: Prior to Project NOAH, hour by hour forecasting for every major Filipino city had never been available. Now, the project's website shows visitors a weather map for the country. By punching in combinations of location, the current forecast, radar data and so on, you can get an immediate idea of what to expect.

Other components of the project - including a storm surge predictor and landslide locater are expected to be completed by 2014.

Lagmay says the challenge now is teaching the public, that the weather isn't just a random, hard-to-predict event. It's something that people can easily learn more about so they can prepare for the worst.

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