• As urbanization rates skyrocket worldwide, cities large and small are grappling with increased disaster risk as infrastructure buckles underneath the weight of rapidly growing populations.
  • In flood-prone Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, public safety officials are working to better protect residents from recurrent flooding, which disproportionately impacts the city’s many makazi holela – unmapped, resource-poor informal settlements.

  • GFDRR is supporting Dar es Salaam’s efforts to secure vulnerable neighborhoods through the Ramani Huria initiative, a community-mapping project that trains university students and local community members on platforms that create open-source maps of the most flood-prone areas of their city. Using novel technologies, including Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), commonly known as drones, volunteers better understand vulnerabilities in their community, and put crucial information in the hands of those who need it most.

Even on a good day, Osiligi Lossai has a tough job. As Ward Executive Officer of the Tandale neighborhood in Tanzania’s flood-prone capital, Dar es Salaam, Lossai helps coordinate emergency services for a part of the city that urgently – and regularly – needs them.

Like clockwork, every year during the rainy season, Tandale battles powerful floods that sow chaos in their path, tearing through makeshift homes, disrupting transportation routes, ravaging lives and livelihoods, and provoking outbreaks of deadly water-related diseases. “It is very dangerous because this water is dirty, and there are small children everywhere. The children can get diseases…A lot of people are scared now but they still want to live here,” said a young man from the Buguruni kwa Mkanda settlement after watching coursing waters engulf his community and heighten his risk of contracting cholera, malaria, dengue, or yellow fever.

Buguruni kwa Mkanda and Tandale are among Dar es Salaam’s countless unplanned, under-resourced, and largely unmapped informal settlements that sprawl across 80% of the city and suffer most when disaster strikes. “People who are living here are low-income and their living standard is…poor,” Tandale Ward Executive Officer Lossai explained. “And this is because, the place is, itself, it is forgotten. It is forgotten in terms of planning, infrastructure, roads, no water networks.”

Encouragingly, Dar es Salaam’s informal settlements are now gaining the upper hand. Supported by the World Bank through its Global Facility for Disaster Risk and Recovery (GFDRR) and its partners, Ramani Huria is an enterprising project enabling communities formerly “off the map” to band together and put vital, accurate, and timely risk information in the hands of Ward Executive Officers and other decision-makers when they need it most. 

Ramani Huria has enabled community members and university students in technical fields to collectively turn the tide against flood risk in ways that – until now – were all but unthinkable. Using cutting-edge technologies, including GPS and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, also known as UAVs or drones, they are discerning the geographic locations of roads, streams, floodplains, and other relevant features to help create highly accurate maps of their neighborhoods. The raw data they produce is then fed into publicly accessible tools such as OpenStreetMap and InaSAFE, two “wiki” sites for the cartography and disaster relief communities.

Sourcing information from OpenStreetMap and InaSAFE, authorities can identify areas at greatest risk of flooding, and simulate disaster scenarios. Residents, in kind, can now know ahead of time which structures in their neighborhood stand to be impacted most in the event of disaster, and make a credible case for more resources when disaster strikes again. They can also locate latent water accumulation zones with drone-led aerial surveys of local topography. “We’re not delivering risk maps to clients, we are building up capacity and institutions to do maps better and forever,” says Edward Anderson, Senior Technology & Innovation Specialist at the World Bank and manager of GFDRR’s support of Ramani Huria.

Need for such capacity is bound to grow. Disaster-prone communities like Tandale, rife with structurally unsound, improvised housing, are on course to proliferate as the world’s urbanized population – projected to top 5 billion people by 2030 – continues to rise and weigh more heavily on vital infrastructure in cities around the world.

Dar es Salaam is no exception, the threat it confronts is indeed more dire than most. Experts predict that Tanzania’s capital will grow by a staggering 85% through 2025, making it far and away the fastest-growing city in Africa. As demand for housing outstrips supply, informal settlements will bear the brunt of the population overflow, and accurate maps and adequate planning will be all that stand between a resilient city and a flooded one. “Without a map, you can’t defeat your enemy,” warns Lossai.

The Ramani Huria project is harnessing the power of community to help local authorities like Lossai and other Ward Executive Officers better allocate resources – be it to repair a clogged water pipe or remove waste build-up from a flood-prone area – more effectively and cheaply than ever before. Prior to Ramani Huria, obtaining these datasets was a laborious undertaking, usually involving chartered flights that can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Now, community members in 21 wards of Dar es Salaam have collaborated to deliver the same information at a fraction of the price, accounting for 1.3 million of the city’s 5.5 million residents.

Volunteers are making direct contributions to the safety of their communities, and gaining new skills along the way. Above all, they are starting a community-wide dialogue on risk and risk management that will endure for years to come. “Tanzanians are taking the lead on Ramani Huria,” explains Francis Ghesquiere, Head of GFDRR, “which not only ensures its sustainability, but also paves the way for the next generation of disaster risk managers, computer scientists, and cartographers.”

The Ramani Huria model has already begun to inspire similar projects in other parts of the country. The Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH) applied the same technology to help the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Human Development set a course for conferring around 300,000 land titles on the country’s many rural farmers. The initiative has already enabled farmers like Sevina Mwangamweru to receive a loan and invest in her farm and livelihood. “We can improve our lives,” said Mwangamweru.

Drones are driving disaster risk management far beyond Tanzanian borders. With GFDRR support, in 2017 various Pacific Islands will be testing various types of drone platforms to identify good practices on the use of UAVs for building identification, agricultural and coastal mapping, as well as long-distance reconnaissance missions for post-disaster impact assessments. Time and time again, this novel technology is proving to be a cost-effective solution for many pressing development challenges, and when put to good use, the sky is truly the limit.