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. Floods in Malawi are a reoccurring natural disaster, made worse by climate change. They leave a lot of people without homes, affect critical infrastructure — roads, schools and health facilities — and increase the risks of malnutrition and water-borne diseases. The floods in 2015 were the worst since 1900.
In the first week of March this year, heavy rains fell across much of the country. It was bad where I live in Lilongwe, in the central region. Reports started coming in from the south, saying that the Shire river had flooded, leaving thousands of people along its banks without a home. Worse still, these heavy rains and floods in Malawi were just a precursor to what followed. Cyclone Idai arrived, bringing further devastation to Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
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.
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.
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 of the places we visited 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.
Although water levels receded 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 the ground, but the aerial perspective helped us find 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.
In a disaster like this, a kind of snowball effect kicks in: when homes are destroyed, and farm lands are flooded, food and income are lost. Displaced people end up in schools for shelter, disturbing children’s education. Water and sanitation come under 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 using machine learning (automatic detection of homes, flooded areas and other data points). We made recommendations to the Malawi Government, so that their community and settlement planning can incorporate risk assessment and evaluation of areas vulnerable to floods.
This shows that drones can also be used as tools to predict and assess the situation before a disaster, rather than just 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 it for prediction, planning and forecasting, rather than purely for emergency response. This would help us protect children and their families with the help of data that helps to identify risks and vulnerabilities and informs early response even before a disaster strikes.
Throughout my week in the south of Malawi, children closely followed our team. Every day, they came to watch us fly the drone. They asked questions 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 all the work we do at UNICEF is 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 to succeed. Our drone programme for Malawian students also includes a component on 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.
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 areas affected by Cyclone Idai. 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 now:
Tautvydas Juskauskas is Drones Lead, UNICEF Malawi.