Flying a drone in Nsanje: my first emergency deployment

Children from flood-affected Tengani village in Nsanje gather to observe the drone mapping mission
© UNICEF Malawi/2019/Tautvydas Juskauskas

By Tautvydas Juskauskas, UNICEF Malawi

One of the first things I learnt about Malawi, right after arriving in this beautiful country, was that it is prone to floods and drought. The floods four years ago in 2015 were the worst since 1900. Floods in Malawi are a reoccurring natural disaster, made worse by climate change. They leave a lot people without homes, affect critical infrastructure such as roads, schools and health facilities, and increase the risks of malnutrition and water-borne diseases.

In the first week of March, heavy rains fell across much of the country. It was bad enough where I live in Lilongwe, in the central region. Then reports started coming in from the south, saying that vast areas along the Shire river had been flooded, leaving thousands of people without a home. Worse still, these heavy rains and floods in Malawi were just a precursor for what followed, when the devastating Cyclone Idai arrived, bringing further destruction to Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

I work in UNICEF Malawi’s Innovation section as a drone coordinator and pilot. Part of my work is to deploy drones to help with the humanitarian response to natural disasters like this. After receiving a call from UNICEF’s emergency response team, I was quickly deployed to Nsanje District in southern Malawi, to assess the flood damage and impact. At such times, the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DoDMA) usually requests a team of experts, including from UNICEF and other UN agencies, to help assess the situation and the needs of flood-affected communities, and to provide timely humanitarian support.

Together with two other drone experts from DoDMA and the Malawi Red Cross, I became part of a drone assessment team. For five days we travelled around the most affected areas, using drones to collect aerial data and points of verification. Some places we went to had experienced substantial destruction due to floods and heavy rains, while other areas were hard to reach. To get to one village, we even had to travel by boat because the road had been completely flooded.

The drone’s ‘bird’s eye’ perspective helps to identify homes that have been flooded or destroyed
© UNICEF Malawi/2019/Tautvydas Juskauskas

Although water levels receded fairly quickly, we could still see the original high-water marks from the floods on many houses. Most of the fallen structures were mud houses or temporary shelters that had been built along the river bank or in marshy areas. It was sometimes hard to see these fallen houses from ground level but the aerial perspective helped us find the traces of fallen thatched roofs from above.

Some of those structures were in the middle of villages and had collapsed like a house of cards because they couldn’t withstand the heavy rain. This is one reason why poor countries and communities feel the brunt of natural disasters. In rich countries like Japan, buildings are built to withstand strong earthquakes, but in Malawi heavy rain can take down entire houses.

When a disaster like this hits, a kind of snowball effect kicks in. Households are destroyed and farming lands are flooded, resulting in loss of food and income. Schools are occupied by camps of displaced people, disturbing children’s education. Water and sanitation is at risk, leaving communities prone to disease outbreaks.

Drones are not the solution to this, of course, but they can help. Aerial imagery and processed maps have proved to be very useful in verifying initial data from the ground and helping to understand the extent of floods and their impact on communities.

In Malawi, we analyzed the processed maps and applied machine learning (automatic detection of homes, flooded areas and other data points). We provided recommendations to the Malawi Government, so that their community and settlement planning can incorporate risk assessment and evaluation of areas vulnerable to floods.

An aerial view of flood-affected Nsanje, where water from the nearby river has encroached onto the road
© UNICEF Malawi/2019/Tautvydas Juskauskas

This shows that drones can also be used as tools to predict and assess the situation before a disaster, rather than just purely as a response tool. It is my hope that through this work, we can demonstrate the capabilities of drone technology and help the government and other partners utilize this technology for prediction, planning and forecasting, rather than just for emergency response.

Drones have already proven very powerful in first response, helping with search and rescue and assisting reconstruction efforts. However, I believe much more focus has to be put on drones as predictive tools. Aerial imagery can help identify flood-prone, drought-prone or other vulnerable areas, which would ultimately lead to much more effective emergency preparedness and response. This would help us protect children and their families with the help of data that identifies risks and vulnerabilities and informs early response even before a disaster strikes.

Throughout my week in the south of Malawi, our team was closely followed by children. Every day, they came to watch the drone fly. They asked questions about the drone, while following our safety instructions. Despite everything they had been through, they always welcomed us with smiles and curiosity.

Spending time with these children reminded me that the work we do at UNICEF is all in order to protect their lives and rights, and to provide them with the skills and tools to build a better future for Malawi. The safer their environment and communities, the more chance they have to learn and succeed. Our drone programme also includes a component on teaching Malawian students skills in drone technology. I couldn’t help but wonder if some of the children who saw us flying drones today, might grow up to be drone pilots themselves.

UNICEF drone coordinator Tautvydas takes a selfie with Malawi’s potential future drone pilots
© UNICEF Malawi/2019/Tautvydas Juskauskas

You can help

UNICEF estimates funding needs of US $8.265 million to meet the immediate and medium-term needs of children and women throughout the affected areas. The organisation also needs to restock supplies in warehouses, in case of another flood or disaster. If you live in the following countries, you can donate online here:

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