How to Protect Refugee Camps from Floods and Cyclones Using Geographic Information Systems

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Late last year, following the escalating violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar for camps over the Bangladesh border. Bangladesh is a known disaster-prone country where they face diverse types of disaster every year. The area around Cox’s Bazar where Rohingya refugees from Myanmar reside has become increasingly fragile to rain, winds, and tropical storms.
Early December to February, I visited the camps by providing Geographic Information System (GIS) technical support and witnessed firsthand the scale of operations managing the camps.
Two main objectives during my support is first manage the camps for new arrivals providing them the best location for shelter, WASH facilities, women and child protection/friendly spaces and road networks. Second, most of the makeshift shelters are built in steep slope valleys and stripped of vegetation and are largely at risk from flooding and landslides in the upcoming monsoon and cyclone season.
Some of the challenges the team has been experiencing include:

  • Finding their way in the zones to demarcate shelter and WASH facilities;
  • Collecting and monitoring data within assigned zones avoiding duplication and;
  • Checking areas for risk of flood and landslide.

Mapping techniques have proven to be highly effective but have essentially remained unchanged – using paper maps instead of traditional GPS devices to navigate and collect data. Given the scale of the challenge, modern GIS tools, and community-based mapping we had a real opportunity to create a customizable, responsive, and integrated solution. The solution we chose was Collector for ArcGIS.
Mapping Camp Households with GIS and UAVs
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Collector is a tool produced by ESRI that facilitates easy map-based data collection that operate offline, and seamlessly integrate with desktop mapping solutions. For example, we used collector to easily mark the area of a shelter adding information such as how many people live inside, among other factors to help us with risk and hazard planning.  The use of Collector of ArcGIS has helped field staff needs for locating zone boundaries and, plotting planned and existing facilities.
While web maps are wonderful, the higher the more detailed the imagery the better.  We were lucky enough to find publicly shared imagery at a 10cm resolution with contour, flood and landslide analysis from monthly drone flight by IOM/UNHCR and publicly shared across different organizations.
The level of detail, usefulness and accuracy has motivated Caritas Bangladesh to use mapping in all our working areas. Caritas Bangladesh with Catholic Relief Services’ technical support is working together on a UNHCR funded project and has been assigned to work on five (5) zones (now called camps).
Community Involvement is Critical
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During my support, I noticed there is a lack of involvement from the community or Rohingya refugees themselves. Participation is essential in emergency planning to assuring the people follow the recommended actions to reduce their risk.
To make the map meaningful, we trimmed households into 3 categories: low, moderate and high hazard, helping households easily identify what hazard level they fall into. Then we go down to the community for participatory feedback, identifying gaps related to cyclone preparedness and disaster risk reduction (DRR).
This helps us to create a much better DRR plan retaining the precision of GIS, possibly adding vulnerability data creating in-depth risk maps, and applying the social awareness of the community.
Lesson Learned
GIS and mapping can be done through a variety of means and using a variety of technologies. It provides both the community, planners, and policy-makers to think spatially about their environment. Shelter and facilities location data collected is tangible data, but mapped data can also be intangible and qualitative, such as creating a sense of ownership and belongingness leading to empowerment and sustainable development.
You can have the best map in the world but if nobody knows about it or uses it, it is NOT the best map in the world. Community participatory mapping can not only improve your programing and your map but also assure that the map is used.
By Janeen Cayetano, GIS Analyst for Catholic Relief Services
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