Track apps

Community science project helps track geohazard risks in Uganda

Elderly people are part of a group of volunteers helping to map out the risk of geohazards in a populated mountainous region of Uganda. Localized data from this initiative aims to identify communities vulnerable to landslides and floods and lead to improved early warning systems.

The Kigezi Highlands is a tropical region in southwestern Uganda that has experienced significant population growth in recent decades. The fertile soils attract subsistence farmers, who typically grow potatoes, pole beans and sorghum, used to make a popular local beer.

Landslides and floods are part of daily life in Kigezi, as the steep slopes of the Virunga Mountains and annual rain between 1,200 and 1,300 millimeters lead to high erosion rates. Today, the threat is growing as farmers cultivate hillsides that were once pastoral land and infrastructure develops. Landscapes are increasingly fragmented and more and more people live close to hazards.

“Most of the farmers in the Kigezi highlands lost their crops during the rainy season, which brings a high risk of famine,” said Violet Kanyiginyaa geoscientist from Mbarara University of Science and Technology in Uganda, currently based at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium.

Kanyiginya coordinates a hazard risk monitoring project in the Kigezi region, which she presented to the General Assembly of the European Geosciences Union 2022.

“Being a geo-watcher has made me famous in the community – it’s even helped me win recently concluded political campaigns.”

In 2019, the Kanyiginya team worked with the district disaster management committee to identify Kigezi parishes facing the highest risks. They appointed 15 “geo-observers” from local communities who were trained to report information on eight different natural hazards using a smartphone app. In 2020, the team was expanded to include “river watchers”, who record daily stream levels in eight different watersheds.

Once geo-observers learn of incidents, often through contacts in their communities, they travel to the site to take photos and verify details, including the type of hazard, when it occurred product and the extent of the affected area. In the first 24 months, geo-observers identified 266 natural hazards, with landslides being the biggest hazard.

Each geo-observer receives a telephone, mobile data and money to cover transport costs. Mostly, Kanyiginya said, they are not being paid for their time. “We want locals to own [these] data and feel like [they are] theirs,” she explained.

Residents of Kigezi cite several motivations for getting involved in the project, with the desire to become a community spokesperson being a common thread. “I wanted the world to know about the disasters in our community,” said a geo-spotter in conversation with the project team. Another shared that “being a geo-watcher made me famous in the community – it even helped me win the recently concluded political campaigns.”

Co-produce a timeline of environmental changes

In an additional part of the project, the Kanyiginya team engaged over 100 older people (mostly in their 70s and 80s) to map out how the local landscape has changed over the past 60 years. Mobile people came together to participate in mapping workshops. Older or less mobile members of the community received home visits.

“Inviting older members of the community to share their experiences of past landscapes – both social and physical – and how they have changed over their lifetimes, is a powerful process for both the storyteller and the listener.”

Socio-economic and historical information anchored participants’ memories of specific time periods. For example, they were asked to describe the roads, wetlands, animals or natural hazards that existed during the reign of President Idi Amin, who ruled Uganda between 1971 and 1979. Common stories from different periods emerged and were corroborated by historical photos and a series of satellite images. The exercise reinforced findings that hazard risk increases with changes in land use, such as cultivation of slopes, abandonment of fallow practices and replacement of natural tree species with species. exotic.

“Remembering past hazardous events is so important in disaster risk reduction,” said Anna Hicks from the British Geological Survey, which studies crowdsourcing and community science methodologies. “Inviting older members of the community to share their experiences of past landscapes – both social and physical – and how they have changed over their lifetimes, is a powerful process for both the storyteller and the listener.”

Make data more reliable

Kigezi’s work is part of a larger program in Uganda which had previously established a network of geo-observers in the nearby Rwenzori Mountains in 2017. A recent analysis from the Rwenzori network found that geo-observer data is more accurate than satellite data for landslides and floods, with fewer false positives.

However, human errors creep into the data. Geo-observers sometimes confuse natural wetlands with flooded areas or enter the wrong dates, and their photos do not always reveal the hazard itself. To reduce these errors, annual refresher workshops address common issues.

Funding has been provided for the Kigezi project to continue until the end of 2023, to be followed by a related 10-year project covering a wider area. jonathan paulgeoscientist at Royal Holloway, University of London, believes that the key to the long-term success of participatory and community-based science projects is to integrate data collection into people’s daily routines, “for example, using social media or WhatsApp , instead of an entirely new app that may not be very easy to use,” he said.

—James Dacey (@JamesDacey), science writer

Quote: Dacey, J. (2022), Community science project helps track geohazards risks in Uganda, Eos, 103, Posted July 22, 2022.
Text © 2022. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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