Drones for social good: UNDP Maldives takes a 'fight and flight' response to climate change
Ibrahim Adam Fulhu points at an eroded area where a farm once stood. Now there is just a collapsed tree and its broken branches.
“This is nature, and we are powerless against it.”
Ibrahim is a member of the village council in Maabaidhoo Island, a community that was severely affected by the 2004 tsunami in the Maldives. "Every time a wave sweeps in, it expands the eroded area,” he laments.
The Maldives is the lowest lying country in the world. It is formed by a chain of 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean, and home to nearly 400.000 people.
It’s a home that now faces the threat of extinction due to climate change. Eighty percent of the islands in the Maldives are only one metre above sea level. Without urgent action, the Maldives, like many other island nations around the world, could soon disappear.
Scientists predict that rising sea levels will submerge most of the islands by 2050. The shorelines of the islands are already changing rapidly. The consequences of erosion and rising sea levels are visible, and locals are already feeling the effects.
“What we are trying to secure is a future where people can maintain an entire way of life,” says Ahmed Shifaz, who work on climate change and resilience with UNDP. “Storms are more intense and rainfalls heavier. Dry periods are longer, causing water shortages. Rising ocean temperatures brings severe bouts of coral bleaching. Erosion of our land is faster and more aggressive.”
One important step towards helping Ameena and her neighbours is creating risk maps, which provide essential data required to inform emergency response plans. Images of the same area taken over time, including before and after a disaster, can help design actions to protect people and property from the hazards of climate change.
Creating risk maps isn’t as easy as it sounds, though. In the case of the Maldives, with 188 inhabited islands spread over a vast area, it can be very costly and take a lot of time. To realistically map 11 islands, it would normally take almost a year, time the Maldives cannot afford.
In response, UNDP and the Government of Maldives came up with an out-of-the-box idea. They decided to fly drones across the islands to create three-dimensional maps and chart the topography of the terrain.
And the initial results are very promising: it took just one day for a drone to map an entire island.
“For me, what’s most striking is the topography of the island over here,” says Umar Fikry from the National Disaster Management Centre, pointing at his laptop screen. "This is usually the side where the island would experience surges during the monsoon. For response, it’s very important to have this visual information. Knowing the possible entry points to the island, and which areas are most prone to hazards, for example, can help us quickly decide how to send relief items.”
UNDP partnered with DJI, the leading drone company from China. The local team is now working with to the Disaster Management Centre and the Maldives National Defence Force to figure out how to get the most out of using drones in disaster planning and relief missions.
For now they have a complete 3D map of Maabaidhoo Island. The map shows where the coast has been eroded at one end and where the soil is protected by a mangrove plantation on the other. For Ibrahim and other community leaders, it offers important clues about which areas would be safest in case another tsunami strikes.
The map only took one day to produce. Yes, there are many more islands to go, and this is just the beginning. Drones alone cannot resolve the challenges brought on by climate change, but they can be a powerful ally for communities on the frontlines.