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Gov't looks to send river water levels to residents' smartphones to avoid flood damage

In this file photo dated July 9, 2018, houses are swept away by floodwaters and mud from a local river in the Mabicho district of Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, in western Japan, after record downpours. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The government is considering sending real-time information about water levels of small- and medium-sized rivers across the nation to smartphones of local residents to help them judge the need to evacuate in time, government officials familiar with the proposal have told the Mainichi.

The plan is in response to a large number of deaths and casualties caused by widespread flooding of rivers during the historic torrential rains that wreaked havoc in western Japan. Officials hope that the new information provision system on top of the existing alert and warning mechanisms provided by authorities will help people better realize the danger levels.

Preparations are underway to utilize the so-called "crisis management water gauges" that have been getting installed across the country since June by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. The devices collect data only when flooding is possible, and are compact and inexpensive. Currently, 186 such meters are running in 18 prefectures, according to their operator, the Foundation of River & Basin Integrated Communications (FRIC). The land ministry plans to install the gauges at some 5,800 locations along 5,000 rivers throughout Japan by fiscal 2020.

The devices are originally designed to send water level data to servers via cellphone lines so that local governments and others can obtain real-time information about the situation of rivers in the areas. The government is considering going further and relaying the information directly to smartphones and other devices of local residents facing flooding risks. Among the issues being discussed are the accumulation of observation data, the selection of areas and residents to receive relevant water level data and the compilation of guidelines to effectively utilize data for evacuation.

Disaster prevention response programs are better prepared for big rivers. But small- and medium-sized rivers pose greater difficulties in assessing flooding risks and judging the timing for evacuation. In the recent western Japan torrential rains, many people failed to escape in time. A lot of people remained in their homes and became victims of flooding despite repeated warnings over the community wireless system or television. In some cases, instructions to evacuate came too late, after rivers overflowed.

A person associated with the government said many people tend to think that they are safe even when authorities tell them to evacuate. "We want to make a system so that each and every resident is informed in detail about imminent danger and can think about the need to evacuate," said the individual.

(Japanese original by Jun Aoki, Science & Environment News Department)

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