Zimbabwe disaster response body gets drones

We are sure the it was already in the works, but surely it cannot just be a coincidence that – barely a week after the first ever drone conference in Zimbabwe – one of the country’s government bodies has announced that it will be using drones for disaster response during this rainy season.

With the country facing floods and potential cyclones this summer, the Civil Protection Unit (CPU) has said it has received eighteen unmanned aerial vehicles, which will be used for surveillance and reaching flood-hit areas countrywide.

The news was revealed by the CPU acting Director, Nathan Nkomo, during a SADC regional symposium on the impact of climate change on humanitarian issues, hosted in Victoria Falls by the Zimbabwe government in collaboration with the regional body and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“The drones were donated by the ZRBF (Zimbabwe Resilience Building Fund),” said Nkomo in an interview. “Naturally roads and bridges always bear the brunt each time cyclones visit our country. They are sometimes washed away and this when drone technology is fully harnessed.”

The Zimbabwe Resilience Building Fund (ZRBF) is a development initiative whose overall objective is contributing to increased capacity of communities to protect development gains against recurrent shocks and stresses, like natural disasters and related civil strife.

The fund aims to achieve this through timely and cost-effective response to emergencies, rolled out via existing safety net and other relevant programmes. 

Nathan Nkomo

And their donation to the civil protection matrix of the country and comes at a time the Meteorological Services Department has warned of heavy rains and flooding in some parts this season.

In disaster response situations, drone technology is useful for operations like search and rescue and accessing structural integrity and the scale of damage before sending in people and bigger machines.

In 2019, a team of drone enthusiasts flew some drones to assess the damage in the aftermath of Cyclone Idai in Manicaland, Masvingo, Midlands and Mashonaland East Provinces.

“The storm affected more than 270,000 people leaving 341 dead and many others missing,” read a final report on the cyclone by the Red Cross, released in August last year. “17,608 households were left homeless, twelve health facilities damaged, water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure were damaged, 139 schools were affected, 33 primary schools and ten secondary schools were temporarily closed, and 9 084 learners were affected.

“In agriculture, more than 50 percent land under maize crop, banana plantation and tubers like yams was wiped away, eighteen irrigation schemes affected, at least 362 cattle and 514 goats and sheep, 17,000 chicken were lost whilst 86 dipping facilities were damaged. Road infrastructure was grossly damaged with above 90 percent of road networks in Chimanimani and Chipinge damaged and 584 km of roads being damaged by landslides.

“Bridges were also swept away.”

Zimbabwe, like the rest of southern Africa, had a La Nina rainy season in the last year, which saw abnormally heavy rains characterise the summer – and fears of flooding and other tropical cyclones. This season, normal-to-above-normal rains have again been forecasted. It is good news for farmers, but it also means that some community somewhere will lose a school, a bridge, a road or a home.

And the CPU, according to Nkomo, needs to be prepared for such sad eventualities.

“I am happy to say that disaster preparedness starts with planning,” said Mr Nkomo. “We have planned education and awareness programmes in various districts, but within the confines of Covid-19 pandemic.

“We must have infrastructure like drones and warehouses which supports the ideas we have. We need drones and luckily we got eighteen from a partner (ZRBF) and we will eventually use them to collect intelligence in the event that bridges and roads are swept away.”

After getting the drones, Nkomo said the next step would be the training of personnel to operate the drones and get the best out of them. He added that his organisation would also acquire servers to store all the data that the drones will gather in the course of their operations.

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