Drones and Cyclone Ana’s aftermath in Malawi

The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) in Malawi is working with a drone training school and drone start-ups to determine the actual scale of damage caused by Tropical Cyclone Ana and, among other things, identify faster ways of getting help to the people who need it.

It is cyclone season in Southern Africa and recently, Tropical Cyclone Ana wreaked havoc across Malawi’s southern region, causing floods that severely damaged homes, roads, schools, and health facilities.

The cyclone, which struck in late January, also washed away tens of thousands of hectares of crops.

According to preliminary estimates from the Department of Disaster Management and Preparedness (DoDMA), the floods have affected more than 865,651 people in southern Malawi: 33 have died, and three have been reported missing so far; 158 people have been injured; around 100,000 have been displaced and are being housed in 122 displacement sites; while 100,000 students are said to be out of school.

“In collaboration with the African Drone and Data Academy (ADDA), UNICEF is assisting Malawi’s Department of Disaster Management Affairs to assess damage using drone collected images,” the organisation said. “The drones have helped to speed up the assessment process and informed planning for response activities.”

The assessment team was led by ADDA graduate and drone technician Dumisani Kaliati, whose team collected aerial images of the affected area and mapped a flood-affected spot around the usually busy Kamuzu Road in the town of Chikwawa.

Kaliati said the drone imagery was immediately able to determine an area surrounding Kamuzu bridge was particularly problematic as the road had been destroyed by floods in three places, rendering the flow traffic between Chikwawa and Blantyre impossible.

“The fact the road was cut meant emergency supplies couldn’t reach affected families in Chikwawa and Nsanje. In total we mapped 26 hectares of land in three hours,” said Kaliati, who shares his drone journey in his own words here.

“Drones provide a quick, cost-effective way of collecting high-quality geospatial data, which was used to generate high-quality maps. These maps contain useful features such as geographical coordinates and land elevation details, useful in decision making on issues like where to locate and build emergency shelters.

Kaliati (left) and Scheibenreif. Picture: UNICEF

“The images provided a bird’s-eye view of the affected area, which has been crucial to the emergency response. It gives the planners a realistic picture of the problem at hand and helps rescue workers to be more effective.”

Aside from assessing the damage wrought by the cyclone, the aerial images Kaliati and his team collected were also used to develop orthomosaic maps which may be useful to inform future decisions – like giving people prior warning about damaged roads so traffic can be redirected in time.

Moreover, when combined with other sensors such as infrared and lidar, data collected by drones can provide useful insights such as heat signatures and underground object detection, which are critical in rescue missions where people and animals may be invisible to the human eye.

Michael Scheibenreif, UNICEF Malawi innovation specialist, said incorporating drones into the emergency response effort had shortened the time it would have taken to conduct a needs assessment and follow-up with response activities.

“The reduction in planning and response time can make a difference between life and death,” Scheibenreif said.

As part of the cyclone response effort, UNICEF Malawi is also collaborating with the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services (DCCMS) to develop a flood model that will be able to predict the extent to which floods will continue to damage infrastructure.

The model is being developed along the North and South Rukuru rivers in the Rumphi district, in the country’s north. Once in operation it will help reduce loss of life, property, and livestock.

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