Alison Sneddon

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Posts by Alison

  • Reaching the Last Mile: Challenges and Lessons from Early Warning Systems

    Mexico City, CDMX, Mexico, México D.F.
    July 11th, 2018

    Understanding Risk is a global community of researchers and practitioners working to identify, assess and communicate disaster risk. This year, the fifth Understanding Risk Forum was held in Mexico City. The Forum was attended by 1,050 people from 101 different countries and over 550 organisations, including Practical Action.

    Our session on “Reaching the last mile” focused on communicating risk effectively to the people most vulnerable to disasters. In order for people to protect themselves from hazards, they need to receive information, understand it, and be able to act on the information.

    However, there are many complex barriers faced by vulnerable communities: when information is shared via text message, people without access to a mobile phone can’t receive the information; if information is not communicated in local languages, or if technical or unclear wording is used, people who receive the information may not be able to understand it; and if people don’t know what actions to take, are afraid of losing their possessions, don’t have anywhere safe to go, or do not have decision-making power, they will not be able to act on the information.

    Within vulnerable communities, factors including age, gender, ethnicity, literacy levels, physical capacity and poverty affect the needs, priorities and abilities of people to access, understand, and respond to information.

    For example, a study that Practical Action is conducting in Nepal and Peru found that women and men often have different roles in evacuation. In addition, women experience unique difficulties evacuating related to their gender, presenting challenges related to their clothing, hair length, caring roles and responsibilities, lesser physical strength, and inability to swim. Perhaps because of these challenges, women prefer to evacuate earlier than men. However, because women lack decision-making power, they are often unable to take action until men decide to evacuate, by which time evacuation routes are more dangerous, particularly for women, presenting them with additional risks.

    We were joined in our session by colleagues from BBC Media Action, the UK Met Office, Soluciones Practicas (our Latin America office), and the German Red Cross.

    Lisa Robinson from BBC Media Action shared examples of their work in Bangladesh, where they partner with a local radio station, Oromia Radio, to broadcast a short radio magazine programme which provides practical advice on agriculture, water, sanitation and shelter.

    They also broadcast a reality television series which visits vulnerable communities as they work with their neighbours and local government to build their resilience. They have found that their audiences and listeners trust this information because it is in their native language, specific to where they are, and is easy to understand. As a result, people are using this information to make decisions.

    At the other delivery end, the UK Met Office is working to build the capacity of national meteorological services in hazard-prone countries. Nyree Pinder highlighted the key role that meteorological agencies have in identifying and communicating risk as they work within the government to protect lives and livelihoods. The UK Met Office is working through a range of programmes to build the capacity of national and regional meteorological services to improve climate information services, and is moving towards impact-based forecasting to better meet the needs of vulnerable communities.

    David Lau from Soluciones Practicas highlighted how the team in Peru are engaging with the community to build resilience. As well as installing solar-powered field monitoring stations to measure rainfall using photographs and soil saturation, community groups (brigades) are formed and supported to use these stations, issue evacuation alerts, and conduct drills. In this way, knowledge is owned and trusted by the community, supporting improved resilience in the long term.

    Mathieu Destrooper from the German Red Cross then demonstrated how the early warning system in Peru could be improved to give vulnerable communities more time to prepare: combining upstream water levels, rain forecasts and soil moisture levels could increase the time available from one to five hours, to one to five days.

    However, as well as improving forecasts, there are key questions to consider regarding how to guarantee early action being taken at the community level. Context will affect whether early warning systems are best managed locally or nationally, how to define thresholds for alerting and taking action, and how to share warning information.

    The session brought together a range of voices, perspectives and experiences in reaching the last mile. Our panellists worked in different countries, with different stakeholders and at different levels, engaging with national and local government, media, and directly with community members.

    Across this broad range of experience, a key factor emerged consistently: there are a multitude of factors which affect people’s vulnerability to and experience of disasters. Our work on early warning systems must be context-specific and tailored to the needs of the people who have to respond to warnings in order to ensure action is taken and lives are saved.

    Related links

    Reaching the last mile: addressing gender inequality in early warning systems

    Collaborative mapping creating local flood resilience with global impact

    Advanced Early Warning Systems Protect Lives and Livelihoods in Nepal

    How the community in Bangladesh prepares for Cyclones – BBC Media Action

    Early warning systems are a key component of community resilience to disasters and have the potential to save lives and livelihoods in hazard-prone communities.

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  • Collaborative mapping creating local flood resilience with global impact

    June 1st, 2018

    Worldwide, floods are becoming more intense and unpredictable every year. Communities in developing countries face many barriers to protecting themselves, their homes and their livelihoods from these floods. But a new digital mapping approach, developed by the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance, is helping people to understand this risk, prepare for floods and protect themselves.

    The data gap that undermines resilience

    It’s vital for communities to be able to plan for flood events: by identifying safe places to go and by protecting their buildings, livestock, crops and other infrastructure. But in developing countries this planning is made difficult by a lack of accurate information. Without detailed local maps communities don’t know where the risks or safe places are, or where to find resources to support them, like safe shelters, clinics, or safe sources of drinking water. When community maps do exist they are often hand-drawn, inaccurate and useful only to a small number of people.

    A typical community risk map

    The Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance (ZFRA) has developed an approach to address this issue: we have been working to combine collaborative digital mapping techniques with community-based mapping methods.

    Bringing local knowledge to a global scale

    To bridge the data gap in local information we used OpenStreetMap, an emerging open-source platform which is based on contributions from people all around the world: from engineers and humanitarians to mapping enthusiasts. These contributors use aerial photos, GPS and low-tech field maps to give accurate and up-to-date information about their location.

    We were able to take the information provided by this new technology and combine it with the local knowledge of volunteer mappers, who compared the digital information with what they could see on the ground.

    Using this combination of local and global knowledge, we were able to produce highly detailed information which is more accurate, easier to update and easier share. With this information,  more people can be better informed about the risk they face, and so make decisions to keep themselves safe.

    Use case: collaborative digital mapping in Nepal

    In the Karnali river basin in Nepal – , where flooding last year alone killed 135 people, destroyed 80,000 homes and resulted in an estimated £61 million worth of crops lost –   we mapped over 50,000 buildings and 100 km of road thanks to the efforts of a dozen local social workers. They identified agricultural land, community forests, safe shelters and irrigation canals: information which had previously not been captured. This allowed communities to visualise their risks, resources and resilience in a way that was impossible before.

    Comparison of hazard map of Chakkhapur community before and after digital mapping approach

    What this means for flood resilience

    This approach is an exciting step forward which means that communities will have access to information which is specific to their location and helps them to make decisions based on the risks they face and the resources they have. When we know not just where floods are likely to occur, but where, for example health posts, schools and water pumps are, we can think about what risks the flood itself poses to a community: Will safe drinking water be contaminated? Will people have access to health care? Will children be able to get to school or will the roads be washed away?

    This means that communities can plan effectively and take the most effective action to protect themselves from the impacts of flooding, whether it’s raising water pumps so that they are above the anticipated flood water level, relocating supplies or reinforcing roads.

    So far, we have applied this approach in Nepal, Peru and Mexico. There is huge potential for this mapping approach to build resilience in hazard-prone communities around the world.

    Read more:

    Full paper – Integrated Participatory and Collaborative Risk Mapping for Enhancing Disaster Resilience

    Policy Brief – Participatory digital mapping: building community resilience in Nepal, Peru and Mexico

    Related Post – Flood Dynamics in the Karnali River Basin

    Related Post – Floods and Landslides in Nepal, August 2017

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  • Advanced Early Warning Systems Protect Lives and Livelihoods in Nepal

    October 12th, 2017

    An innovative flood early warning system grants life-saving hours of preparation to some of the world’s most vulnerable people. In July, 2016 this system alerted 13,000 people to impending floods 3 hours before the traditional warning system was triggered.

    Nepal is one of the one most flood-exposed countries in the world, and the people who live in the Karnali River basin are also among the most vulnerable. More of the world’s poor live in this area than in any other regional river basin. Poverty plays a significant role in vulnerability and resilience to natural hazards, as those with fewer resources are less able to protect themselves from flooding, and are also impacted to a greater degree by the loss and damage caused by floods.

    With so much at stake, time is crucial for families to protect themselves, their homes and their livelihoods. The current early warning system in place measures water levels upstream of the lower part of the river basin, using real-time measurements to trigger a warning, sent via SMS messages, for communities downstream when a pre-determined threshold is crossed.

    This approach is simple, sustainable and saves lives, but its effectiveness is constrained by the limited lead time it provides. Typically, communities have only two to three hours, making it difficult to save assets, livestock and tools, and presenting challenges for more vulnerable groups such as people with disabilities, pregnant women, the elderly and children.

    With little time to prepare, families are placed at serious risk when flooding occurs

     

    Practical Action’s solution

    With the support of the Zurich Flood Alliance Programme, we worked with Dr Paul Smith of waternumbers[1] and Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM) to pilot a new approach which would increase the lead time and the detail of information provided by the early warning system. This approach is based on probabilistic forecasting, presenting the likelihood of water levels crossing danger and warning thresholds, rather than simply reporting what is happening as it is happening. This information is communicated visually to key decision-making personnel in the DHM. Initial results indicate that this approach could provide up to five additional hours of early warning, and the DHM has now adopted this model and is rolling it out to all major river basins across Nepal.

    Proven success

    During the 2016 monsoon in western Nepal, we were able to see the impact of this new system. When rainfall stations recorded heavy rainfall on 26 July, the forecast generated by the probabilistic system at 8:00 am indicated that the water level would rise above the danger threshold within the next three hours. Based on this, the DHM issued a flood advisory, and over 13,000 at-risk people received SMS messages alerting them to the risk. The danger threshold was crossed at 11:00 am, with water levels reaching 5.4 metres, and peaking at 8.15 metres at 10:00 pm.

    The longer warning lead time from probabilistic forecasts was significant in minimizing the risk to lives and livelihoods as communities gained extra time to prepare, evacuate, and respond.

    Find out more

    For more detailed information, please refer to the full article by Paul J. Smith, Sarah Brown and Sumit Dugar, ‘Community-based early warning systems for flood risk mitigation in Nepal’ published in the Journal of Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences.

    [1] A consultancy committed to assisting the management of risks from natural hazards using sustainable, innovative and tailored modelling and analytical solutions

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  • Improving understanding of flooding and resilience in Nepal

    October 12th, 2017

    In Nepal, accurate understanding of flood risk is limited by inaccurate or outdated information. Five innovative techniques have been used by Practical Action and partners to address these challenges and share the information with communities and government authorities.

    This blog outlines these five techniques, which are detailed in full in this report.

    Rivers originating from the Himalaya are a vital resource for around 10% of the global population. The rivers irrigate land, supporting the agricultural livelihoods of communities living across the 255 million hectare wide Terai plain in which Western Nepal is located. However, heavy rainfall during the monsoon season can cause a rise in water levels that mean these rivers become a source of devastating floods.

    Practical Action has been working with the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology in Nepal and an interdisciplinary team of geoscientists, engineers, social scientists and architects from the University of Edinburgh to better understand the flood risk faced by these communities.

    An accurate understanding of the areas at risk of flooding is of critical importance to preparedness and resilience. Access to this information helps communities, local and national government agencies and civil society groups to act effectively to protect vulnerable people, livelihoods and infrastructure. Decisions on where to build emergency shelters and land use can be influenced by this information, for example.

    The Karnali River is highly dynamic, changing pathways, shape and depth as it transports millions of tons of sediment along the river bed

    1. Variable levels of sediment

    Rivers which originate from the mountains in Nepal carry millions of tons of sediment during monsoon season. This sediment can change the shape of the underlying river channel, meaning that the water level alone does not indicate the amount of water in the river.

    Solution: Using an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler we measured the amount of water in the river at different times of year and at different cross-sections of the channel. We were also able to use this technology to measure flow velocities for the first time. We also measured the size of sediment grains on gravel bars and in filtered water samples. These measurements were then used to accurately calculate the quantity of water in the river so that flood levels could be predicted – enabling resilient land management, irrigation practices and crop usage.

    2. Outdated topography maps

    Satellite data is crucial for mapping flood risk. However, the maps currently being used in Nepal are based on data from 2001, but the course and elevation of the river has changed significantly since then.

    Solution: We developed more detailed flood risk maps using up-to-date and in-depth satellite data. This allowed us to analyse how flood risk is affected by changes to the river shape and to identify areas at risk that were previously overlooked.

    3. Channel migration and switching

    Channel migration occurs when a river bank is eroded causing the river to move across its plain, while channel switching occurs when the accumulation of sediment causes a river to change course. If either occur during a flood, the new channel position may put unprepared communities at risk.

    Solution: Using optical satellite imagery, we were able to map out the historical channel pathways of the Karnali River and to understand the frequency and patterns of river channel movements. This enabled the identification of areas most vulnerable to flooding.

    4. Social dynamics

    Communities often change as result of development or in response to disasters like flooding. This change can be caused by anything from new economic opportunities or business openings to new community arrivals, people moving to find work or whole families being displaced by flooding. These all contribute to changing demographics and vulnerabilities which authorities need to be aware of in order to protect communities.

    Solution: We interviewed community members to determine how flood risk interacts with their day-to-day lives. We found that the region is undergoing major social transformation which, while increasing the availability of cash and opportunities, is exposing people to new vulnerabilities. For example, the rise in concrete housing construction creates a sense of security in communities, but means that homes are less mobile and more valuable, increasing the potential loss due to flooding.

    5. Construction techniques

    Nepal has many examples of traditional flood-resilient construction methods. However, these have been displaced by modern techniques and materials, like reinforced concrete. Although it is easier to verify the resilience of concrete buildings than comparable traditional designs, they require different skills and technical expertise to build and are more expensive. Therefore, modern construction is not always appropriate for vulnerable communities who may not have the resources to safely construct and maintain modern designs.

    Solution: We studied the construction methods of homes and shelters in a range of settlements and proved the resilience of some traditional techniques such as using timber posts to elevate main living floors. We concluded that hybrid construction systems should be developed, which bring together both traditional and modern methods, and that evolving systems should only use concrete where essential to guarantee resilience without unnecessary costs for households or contributions to climate change.

    Rising water levels put the communities who live near the river at risk of flooding

    Next Steps

    Rivers like the Karnali, which have high and variable sediment loads, directly impact the people living near them, and we need to better understand how their changing behaviour affects flood risk.

    We also need to be able to share knowledge about safe and resilient modern building techniques so that investment in structural development effectively reduces the risks of flooding and other hazards.

    The team conducting this research project was formed from a range of disciplines across physical and social sciences. The benefits from working together and sharing knowledge and learning across the team became increasingly evident as the project progressed, resulting in greater insights into the challenges and potential solutions to those challenges related to flooding in the Karnali basin. Using an interdisciplinary approach to research, whilst challenging, can ultimately lead to unanticipated leaps in knowledge.

    The full report can now be accessed here.

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