GLOBHE, UNICEF, mapping out flood-prone areas in Malawi

Countries in Southern Africa – particularly those close to the Indian Ocean – have suffered devastating loss of lives, property and untold damage to infrastructure, owing to unwelcome annual visits of tropical cyclones.

Harbouring the ocean’s shores, Mozambique and Madagascar have borne the brunt of these cyclones, which have become more and more destructive in the last few years.

Malawi has not been spared. Preliminary estimates from the country’s Department of Disaster Management and Preparedness (DoDMA), Cyclone Anna, the last cylone to visit Malawi in 2022 triggered floods that affected more than 865,651 people in southern Malawi: 33 lost their lives, and three were reported missing; at least 158 people were injured; around 100,000 have been displaced and were being housed in 122 displacement sites; while 100,000 students were forced to stay out of school at the time.

In response, the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) engaged drone professionals in the country to asses the scale of the damage and collect data on the affected areas.

Now, the international organisation and its partners have now gone further and have taken on board the services of drone professionals again to map out the areas most likely to be affected by flooding in the future, so preventive measures can be taken.

The drone operators are part of Globhe, the crowd-droning platform that connects drone operators with clients in need of drone data. It’s the largest drone data marketplace in the world, with a coverage of 134 countries.

Below is the UNICEF story.

The Rukuru River is to the Karonga and Rumphi districts what the Nile River is to Egypt: a source of life.

It irrigates maize, rice, and banana fields, and replenishes rivers in which families make fishing expeditions for sustenance and commerce.

Most of the time, the river peacefully cascades down from the mountains in the Chitipa district. However, since the 1970s, the Rukuru River has presented some unwelcome surprises to the people in Karonga and Rumphi: devastating floods that destroy property and claim lives.

Over the past four to five years, both the frequency and the intensity of these occurrences have escalated. Every time it rains, the river breaches its banks, ruining houses, schools, farms, and livestock, exacerbating hunger and poverty among already vulnerable communities.

This year was no exception. The floods devastated Linda Nyirenda’s rice field, leaving her family of five with virtually nothing until the next farming season. The kitchen in her home was also utterly ravaged by the floods. She is presently replanting the rice and plans to sell a portion of it to fund the restoration of her kitchen.

Doing Good in Malawi: Using Drone Technology to Collect Data to Predict Flood Paths

In an effort to lessen the impact of these floods on vulnerable families such as Linda’s, UNICEF Malawi, with backing from UK-based company Advanced RISC Machine (ARM) and UNICEF’s Office of Innovation, has initiated a pilot project in the two districts.

This project, an impact-based flood forecasting and early warning system, leverages high-resolution aerial imagery to support flood modelling, thereby establishing the basis for flood forecasting in disaster risk reduction.

UNICEF commissioned Globhe to collect aerial photos and generate digital terrain models for flood-prone areas. Utilising this data, a high-resolution flood model was developed, which accurately predicts the timing, location, and magnitude of floods and mapping out potential flood paths.

“This level of detailed forecasting and predictability will empower at-risk communities to make informed decisions, strategically planning to minimize loss of life and property during floods,” says Tautvydas Juskauskas, UNICEF Malawi Innovation Specialist.

“Furthermore, it will guide decisions regarding the optimal locations for infrastructure development, such as schools, hospitals, homes, and farms.”

The drone aerial data capture team was led by Alexander Mtambo, a former student of the UNICEF-supported African Drone and Data Academy (ADDA), who currently serves as the Head of Drones Africa at Globhe.

“We’ve gathered data from 6,200 hectares of land along the Rukuru river in Rumphi and another 13,500 hectares in Karonga,” Mtambo explains.

“Drone data capture is highly effective, offering both accuracy and high resolution. This data provides us with an almost true-to-life representation of the terrain features on the ground, enabling us to create a flood risk model map that will accurately guide flood preparedness and disaster response activities.”

Since its establishment in January 2020, the ADDA has trained over 1,000 drone pilots. These trained individuals are spread across Malawi and the wider African continent, poised to respond to such assignments at short notice and in a cost-effective manner.

More Detailed Than Satellites

“The data they’ve collected incorporates ground control points (GCPs), linking them to known coordinates on the ground, thereby providing precise vertical and horizontal positioning on the Earth’s surface,” explains Juskauskas.

“The resolution greatly surpasses that of satellites, which typically offer a 5–30-meter resolution, compared to the five-centimeter resolution for the orthomosaic maps and 50 centimeters for Digital Surface and Digital Terrain models.”

Fidelis Mandalazi, a Systems Analyst at the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DODMA), echoes Juskauskas’ sentiments, noting that the two districts currently lack a functional flood model or an early warning system.

The incorporation of drones in flood modelling will significantly enhance disaster management capabilities and the prospect of safeguarding communities from the destructive impact of floods, such as those witnessed in Malawi this year.

Yobu Kachiwanda, Chief Meteorologist and Head of Public Weather Services at the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services (DCCMS), underscores that this data will only be beneficial if transformed into actionable insights that contribute to building more climate-resilient communities.

“Our participation in a project like this goes beyond showcasing the advanced technical skills we, as Malawi’s youth, now possess,” Kachiwanda says.

“It also demonstrates how these skills can be harnessed to improve the lives of children and their families. Floods can displace families, forcing some to live in camps with inadequate water and sanitation facilities, thereby exposing them to diseases like cholera.”

Mtambo added; “Our involvement in this project can enhance the lives of children by providing their families and the government with information that can prevent them from finding themselves in such situations in the first place.”


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