Technology may help reduce impact of natural disasters | Inquirer Technology

Technology may help reduce impact of natural disasters

08:04 PM October 28, 2013

Short-sighted design is at the root of much of the destruction caused by environmental crises, whether it is flooding, earthquakes or tsunamis. Buildings and critical infrastructure fail because they were not designed to withstand today’s more intense forces of Mother Nature.

Considering the Philippines’ geographical location and physical environment, the country is highly vulnerable to the impacts of natural disasters, especially typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, flash floods and tsunamis.


In a study conducted by the World Bank in 2008, the Philippines was identified as a natural disaster hot spot with about 50.3 percent of its total area and 81.3 percent of its population vulnerable to natural disasters. Based on the 2012 World Risk Report published by the United Nations University Institute of Environment and Human Security (UNUEHS), the Philippines is the third most disaster prone country worldwide with a Risk Index of 27.98 percent.

Heavy and, sometimes, sudden flooding in the Philippines is a major problem, particularly in various areas in Metro Manila and nearby provinces. Recent typhoon Maring is one example of a recent natural disaster, causing a shutdown of many businesses due to the heavy rains and flooding. According to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, it left the country with more than 20 casualties, about 248 destroyed houses and P633 million worth of damage in infrastructure and agriculture.

This is not the first time this has happened. Intense monsoon rains also wreaked havoc in Metro Manila last year and the same thing happened with Ondoy three years ago. Of course, many are familiar with how clogged the traffic is on major Metro Manila roads whenever it rains.

However, technology can provide governments, planners and engineers with essential feedback, offering a better way to predict behavior of the built environment— or soon to be built environment— during a crisis. In effect, advanced technology provides a proactive method to more effectively create disaster-resistant communities.

But needless to say, the government must find new ways to prevent and reduce flood damage. This includes development of infrastructure and long-term maintenance and preparedness in the event of a disaster. Today, technology is available from Autodesk and others that converges architectural, engineering design and geospatial data. Cities have the capability to use precise geospatial data and apply it across the entire infrastructure lifecycle, including operations and maintenance. This integration has enabled significant changes to be made to address town planning and management needs.

Digital 3D Model of a City

One can only imagine how difficult urban planning and management must be, particularly when there is typically incomplete or obsolete data, and various systems that house the data can’t “talk” to each other. The enormous challenge for governments is to address issues arising from land scarcity, rapid land development, and increasing demand for land-related data from the public and private sectors as effectively as possible. This puts a premium on fast decision-making in facilities management, urban planning and public construction projects. Such decisions require government organizations to pull together a wide range of data from internal and external sources, to truly understand that data, and the dependencies between different structures, assets and audiences.

On a grand scale, the creation of virtual city-wide 3D models can help owners, builders, architects, engineers and even the public understand how and where to prioritize restoration efforts in the wake of a disaster so repairs can be made as quickly as possible. This is particularly relevant for damaged utilities networks, whose “up and running” status is essential for life and business to return to normal. Furthermore, the model can be used to more effectively plan the city’s future build out.

Going a step further, if all elements are incorporated in the model, it is possible to simulate real-life disasters on the 3D model and visualize how a particular structure would respond to the disaster effects. Such simulation enables greater learning of the environment to create a suitable maintenance plan, or in the event of an actual disaster, it allows emergency responders to be more prepared and be able to deal rapidly and effectively with emergency situations.


For a first responder like a policeman and fireman, accurate 3D models mean they might no longer need to risk their life exploring an affected site blindly. Rather, they would have at their fingertips a simulated digital environment that provides precise architectural and engineering design data of the building, as well as the surrounding cityscape including underground infrastructure.

If a first responder crew is equipped with iPads showing 3D models that indicate where gas pipes are before they enter a damaged building, it could be life-saving information. Returning to the topic of flooding, emergency planners preparing for the impact of flooding could simulate a 3D city model that includes buildings, digital terrain, and intelligent utility and telecommunications network. This would assist planners to determine power, communications, water and wastewater facilities that may be affected by floods and be able to use the intelligent utility and communications network to determine where power, communications, water and other services may be disrupted.

In the absence of a Digital 3D City Model

Even if the government is not willing to invest in the creation of an entire digital 3D city model yet, there is hope for better natural disaster prevention.  We have seen Autodesk solutions being used successfully by professionals, policy makers and the public to accurately anticipate the impacts of earthquakes on major infrastructure before they happen. Autodesk technology can also be used to understand the potential impact of storms and floods.

For example, Autodesk Infrastructure Design Suite 2014 offers technology to help city planners simulate flooding. The suite’s River and Flood module can analyze rivers to help determine future flood locations. The Storm and Sanitary Analysis module lets you perform analysis early in the design process for many types of projects, including urban storm water drainage network systems, highway storm drain catch basins and culverts, sustainable storm water management, detention ponds and sanitary sewer systems.

Autodesk Robot Structural Analysis has seismic simulation capabilities that allow you to simulate how the as-built environment (buildings, roadways, bridges, etc.) as well as planned structures will perform in various disaster scenarios.

Autodesk’s Computation Fluid Dynamics (CFD) technology simulates the full impact of flooding that occurs, as example when dams collapse. The research has been helping China’s disaster management authorities better understand the full impact of the catastrophic flooding that would occur if one of China’s largest dams collapsed.

With Autodesk SIM 360, structural engineers can test the dynamic response and behavior of materials like concrete, to understand the full impact of flooding that may occur when dams are compromised, to better predict long-term durability.

Realistic visualizations based on data-rich, engineering-accurate models allow everyone to understand these catastrophic events in ways that stacks of complex technical reports and disaggregated data have not been able to convey. Software like Autodesk InfraWorks 360 Pro and Autodesk 3ds Max Design can be used for visualizations that show how structures will react.

Where do we go from here?

As urban population increases throughout Asia, the risks to life and property caused by natural disasters continue to rise as well.  While we understand the dynamics of these disasters better and better over time, we still can’t perfectly predict when and where disasters such as typhoons, floods and earthquakes are going to going to occur.  But we know that they will inevitably come, and we can do a much better job of preparing for them.

Thankfully we now have technology that allows us to model and simulate how the built environment will perform during these events. We have the almost-infinite computing power of the cloud to amass huge troves of data and simulate structural performance in numerous conditions.  And we have the ability to put that wealth of structure data in the form of easy-to-navigate 3D models onto mobile devices and into the hands of the first responders and government officials who need it in a crisis.

But if we don’t act on this new wealth of data and capabilities, it doesn’t do us much good.  How can we help get public and government buy-in on the costs required for needed upgrades to existing and future structures? Visualizations are part of the answer. We have the ability to visualize and animate how those structures will react to a massive flood or earthquake.  Nothing concentrates the mind like seeing an aging or poorly designed bridge crumble in the face of an earthquake of a magnitude that is highly likely to occur in the not-too-distant future.  It’s time for us to get to work.

(The author is senior industry manager, AEC/ENI, Autodesk Asean)

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TOPICS: infotech, Natural Disasters, technology
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