Published: Tue Jun 4, 2013
Spoiler alert: She dies.
But she didn’t have to, and the fruits of a Fulbright award granted to Tennessee Tech University civil and environmental professor Faisal Hossain will help to ensure that others will live, thanks to more advanced flood warnings in developing nations like Bangladesh.
Hossain recently spent four months in the Southeast Asian country, training personnel and tweaking a system to help the Bangladesh Forecasting Agency extend flood projections and warnings from three to eight days.
“That’s a big deal because you lose a day in disseminating the information,” Hossain said. “We didn’t just want to do research and write papers. We wanted to create a technology that they could use on their own, that they wouldn’t need to depend on us.”
Hossain trained six forecasters and adapted a system he developed to meet their needs.
“We didn’t want to come in riding on a white horse and hand them the solution,” he said. “You have to get off your horse and show it to them and help them make it their own. We had to listen to their hurdles and their constraints and modify the technology so it fit with them.”
The other part of his mission was explaining the importance of the advanced warning system to the average person.
Enter Bangladeshi production company 19 Film Factory.
Hossain wrote a movie script and collaborated with the company to tell the story of a young woman, Miriam, who dies in childbirth because a flood made it impossible for her to reach a hospital.
With an advanced warning system, she and her family could have left earlier for the hospital, and she would have survived. The 12-minute film, “Rising Tide,” mixes science with the narrative.
”We wanted something that had drama, suspense and a story that would be interesting to my grandmother or my cousin Joe or a taxi driver,” Hossain said. “We tried our best to make it something anyone with 10 minutes to spend could understand.
“It’s raising awareness.”
The film has been presented to the government and several universities in Bangladesh, as well as to NASA in Huntsville, Ala., and the U.S. Agency for International Development. It has also been submitted to several film festivals including Sundance and the Berlin Film Festival. The reactions, so far, have been positive, according to Hossain.
“The real objective was to make people ask questions, and I think that is working,” Hossain said. “When we showed it to the government, they wanted to know if the technology is available, if it can be used now. They want it to predict flash floods, but the technology isn’t there yet.”
The system uses satellites to track levels of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers more than 600 miles upstream of Bangladesh. Previously, forecasters in the nation were unable to access and convert the data, and treaties in the region to share information about water levels do not exist.
Though Bangladesh only occupies 7 percent of the river basin, all of the water in the system flows through the country before emptying into the Bay of Bengal, east of India. Almost all the floods that affect Bangladesh originate elsewhere, making it imperative that data are shared across international borders.
“It was a very cathartic experience,” Hossain said. “It wasn’t the usual research: doing papers, advising students. I was in the trenches, working in a resource-limited environment.”
Hossain developed the system, trained the personnel and produced the film with a grant from the Fulbright scholarship program. The program aims to promote a mutual understanding and exchange of ideas across international borders.