How AI can turn “smart” sewers into our first line of flood defences

Somerset, 2014. Image: Getty.

The UK will need to spend £1bn a year on flood management to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, according to the national Environment Agency. The organisation’s chair, Emma Boyd, said “we can’t win a war against water by building away climate change with infinitely high flood defences”, and warned that entire communities may need to change location due to flood risk.

More frequent extreme weather events – particularly flooding – are a hallmark of climate change. By their very nature, such events are unpredictable and can do substantial damage to communities. Significant floods occur in the UK every few years, so the way flooding is managed can have a major impact on how much damage is done, while poor strategic decisions such as building on historic flood plains can leave new communities vulnerable.

Coastal defences – including sea walls, buffer areas and evacuation plans – can help to protect towns and cities against flooding from storm surges. But inland flooding caused by excess rainwater requires more nuanced solutions. Humans have altered water courses such as rivers, streams and canals for centuries, and every change affects the way the ground responds to flooding. Today, artificial intelligence (AI) can use data to help make decisions about how water should flow in and around human settlements, to avoid the worst effects of flooding.

Introducing AI to the sewers

In cities, every drain is an opportunity to adjust the movement of water. At the University of Sheffield we worked with partners to create the CENTAUR system (Cost Effective Neural Technique to Alleviate Urban flood Risk), which uses AI to manage the flow of water in cities. The system works by installing “gates” in the sewer network that can control the flow of water from one part of the sewer network to another. Sensors are also added, to monitor water levels on either side of the gates.

The gates can be controlled remotely during extreme weather events, to prevent flooding in important areas. For example, if a part of the network starts flooding downstream, the system can detect rising water levels and close a gate upstream, to slow the flow of water or divert it into other parts of the sewer with spare capacity, and thereby prevent water from overflowing onto the street.

The “smart” bit, implemented by researchers at the university, was to create computer software that is capable of managing these systems independently of humans, and learning from its mistakes. The control system makes use of fuzzy logic – a way of interpreting uncertain conditions, such as the actual water level – and making decisions in those situations.

The CENTAUR system has proven successful in pilot installations in Coimbra, Portugal (2017) and Toulouse, France (2018). It has a relatively low cost, in the tens of thousands of euros, which means it can be easily incorporated into existing flood defence programmes. There are limitations though: if there is no spare capacity for water in a city’s sewers, then managing them with AI in this way would have very few benefits.

The limits of AI

The major issue when defending against floods is that water has to go somewhere. In small floods, water might be able to be diverted so that no area gets flooded. But during larger floods, the priority is not preventing flooding altogether, but managing which areas flood, and limiting the danger to people, property and key infrastructure.

Often, flood defence strategies divert flood water from urban areas into rural farmland and areas where fewer people live. To do this, water is either held upstream from urban areas by partially blocking rivers, or encouraged to move downstream more quickly by dredging or expanding rivers.

Some places may fare worse than others. Image: John D. Fielding/Flickr/creative commons.

While innovative flood management systems such as CENTAUR can help to protect people living in urban areas from flooding, the water has to be diverted. Decisions about which communities are offered greater protection from flooding, and which are left with limited defences, have the potential to set communities against one another. That’s why these higher level decisions cannot be left to AI.

Many different groups need to be involved in such decisions. Farmers might be in control of some drainage channels, water companies are generally responsible for the sewerage network, and environment agencies are responsible for river systems. Of course, the communities that are affected are also entitled to a say on it all. Local, regional and national governments must listen to and negotiate with all of these groups, to create a sound strategy for flood prevention.

These discussions have major implications, not just for the UK, but for the way nations deal with climate change around the world. The costs of stopping climate change will be very high for some countries – especially those which depend on coal for economic development, such as China. Yet for others – such as the Maldives, which is threatened by flooding from storms and rising sea levels – the cost of inaction will be far greater. Smart technology can help to mitigate the consequences of climate change, but it will take global action by world leaders to prevent it from reaching crisis point.

The Conversation

Jonathan Sykes, PhD Candidate, University of Sheffield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


This election is our chance to treat housing as a right – but only if we listen to tenants

The Churchill Gardens Estate, Westminster, London. Image: Getty.

“You’re joking, not another one... there’s too much politics going on at the moment..!”

Brenda of Bristol’s televised comments in 2017, when told that another election was to take place, could just as well have been uttered when MPs voted to call a general election for 12 December this year. 

Almost immediately the politicking began. “A chance to transform our country”. “An opportunity to stop Brexit/get Brexit done”. ‘We can end austerity and inequality.” “A new revitalised parliament.” “Another referendum.”

Yet dig behind the language of electioneering and, for the first time that I can recall, there is mention of solving the housing crisis by all the major parties. I can welcome another election, if the result is a determination to build enough homes to meet everyone’s needs and everyone’s pocket.

That will require those who come to power to recognise that our housing system has never been fit for purpose. It has never matched the needs of the nation. It is not an accident that homelessness is increasing; not an accident that families are living in overcrowded accommodation or temporary accommodation, sometimes for years; not an accident that rents are going up and the opportunities to buy property are going down. It is not an accident that social housing stock continues to be sold off. These are the direct result of policy decisions by successive governments.

So with all the major parties stating their good intentions to build more homes, how do we ensure their determination results in enough homes of quality where people want to live, work and play? By insisting that current and prospective tenants are involved in the planning and decision making process from the start.

“Involved” is the key word. When we build new homes and alter the environment we must engage with the local community and prospective tenants. It is their homes and their communities we are impacting – they need to be involved in shaping their lived space. That means involvement before the bull-dozer moves in; involvement at thinking and solution finding stages, and with architects and contractors. It is not enough to ask tenants and community members for their views on plans and proposals which have already been agreed by the board or the development committee of some distant housing provider.

As more homes for social and affordable rent become a reality, we need tenants to be partners at the table deciding on where, how and why they should be built there, from that material, and with those facilities. We need them to have an effective voice in decision making. This means working together with tenants and community members to create good quality homes in inclusive and imaginatively designed environments.

I am a tenant of Phoenix Community Housing, a social housing provider. I am also the current Chair and one of six residents on the board of twelve. Phoenix is resident led with tenants embedded throughout the organisation as active members of committees and onto policy writing and scrutiny.

Tenants are part of the decision making process as we build to meet the needs of the community. Our recently completed award-winning extra care scheme has helped older people downsize and released larger under-occupied properties for families.

By being resident led, we can be community driven. Our venture into building is small scale at the moment, but we are building quality homes that residents want and are appropriate to their needs. Our newest development is being built to Passivhaus standard, meaning they are not only more affordable but they are sustainable for future generations.

There are a few resident led organisations throughout the country. We don’t have all the answers to the housing situation, nor do we get everything right first time. We do know how to listen, learn and act.

The shocking events after the last election, when disaster came to Grenfell Tower, should remind us that tenants have the knowledge and ability to work with housing providers for the benefit of all in the community – if we listen to them and involve them and act on their input.

This election is an opportunity for those of us who see appropriate housing as a right; housing as a lived space in which to thrive and build community; housing as home not commodity – to hold our MPs to account and challenge them to outline their proposals and guarantee good quality housing, not only for the most vulnerable but for people generally, and with tenants fully involved from the start.

Anne McGurk is a tenant and chair of Phoenix Community Housing, London’s only major resident-led housing association.