By Liana Razafindrazay and Abdoul Oubeidillah, Ph.D.
As I landed on a dark evening at the Prince Said Ibrahim International Airport of Moroni-Hahaya, in the Union of the Comoros, I was both excited and nervous. I was excited because it was the first time I visited the country. Comoros has a strong historical tie with my country of origin, the island of Madagascar. It is located a few hundred miles away from the west coast across the Mozambique Channel. The islands of Grande Comores, Moheli, and Anjouan make up the archipelago. I was nervous, though, because I was wondering if our team could complete the technical challenges we had set out to overcome.
A car picked me up from the airport and I got a little dizzy from the bumpy ride. With the mysterious shadow of the Karthala volcano on my left and the deep calm Indian Ocean on my right, I couldn’t help but wonder in silence, “Is data a priority investment in this country? Could it be comparable to, or maybe even more urgent than, certain types of physical infrastructure?”
The Open Data for Resilience Initiative (OpenDRI) project in the Comoros started in June 2016. Its objective is twofold: first, fill data gaps by building assets using OpenStreetMap (OSM) tools; and second, develop an online data-sharing platform to centralize and share risk data in the country.
The project is funded by the ACP-EU Natural Disaster Risk Reduction program, and implemented by the Global Facility for Disaster Risk Reduction (GFDRR) of the World Bank. It is to be executed in the Comoros Islands in collaboration with the Direction Générale de la Securité Civile (DGSC).
The DGSC is the agency responsible for civil protection and emergency management across the islands. The Centre d’Analyse et de Traitement de l’Information (CATI) within the DGSC is the group that operationally supports in the organization’s information management needs. They collect and analyse data that is relevant to the risks and vulnerabilities associated with the different hazards the Comoros faces. This OpenDRI activity expands upon earlier projects and is geared towards strengthening the capacity of the CATI team to improve their use of geospatial data for more informed disaster risk management decision making, by providing the tools to better visually represent the information they use. The project also aims to promote greater collaboration among institutions and create a synergy between key technical ministries for the coordination and organization of their activities in data collection and analysis.
During the execution of the project, about 40 technical staff from various institutions attended a training on Geographic Information System (GIS) and using open source applications, such as OSM. Fieldwork was then undertaken in two villages – Salimani and Bangoi – that were chosen because of their vulnerability to floods and sea level rise. Salimani, home to 4,000 people, is located on the western coast of the island of Grande Comore and its highest point is only 27m above sea level. The village is eight miles from the capital, Moroni, and seven miles from the foot of the Karthala volcano. Three rivers converge there, making it vulnerable to flooding, volcanic ash and lava, and coastal inundation.
To protect the village from the floods brought upon by the converging rivers, the local community of Salimani built a levee that was destroyed in 2012. The community is now trying to rebuild the levee using a local fund of 10 million KMF (USD 20,000) and local materials. Another levee, in place to protect the village from the strong Indian Ocean waves, has also been partially destroyed. Further to the south, the village of Bangoi experienced a similar 2012 catastrophe, mainly as a result of floods that originated from a river crossing the village.
Technicians from CATI and other institutions carried out fieldwork in the villages of Salimani, Bangoi, and part of Moroni. The team collected data building by building to locate critical infrastructures and housing using a combination of modern technology and traditional field papers and survey forms. Teams of two used camera and GPS equipped tablets loaded with the open source application, OpenMapKit (OMK), which allowed the survey of buildings and the simultaneous collection of their attributes. The teams mapped about 10,000 buildings on the island of Grande Comore. After a thorough quality check, this data is now available to anyone on the global OSM database. Decision-makers now have access to data that helps them prepare, respond to, or mitigate risks in Salimani, Bangoi, and Moroni.
The awareness raised of the importance of data through the implementation of the OpenDRI project was even more valuable than the technical work. While this pilot project focused on the two villages of Salimani and Bangoi, a lot more has to be done to support the Union of the Comoros’ government, civil societies, and citizens in mapping the rest of the country. Future engagements can build on the work done and OSM experience acquired through this project. In fact, local consultants have already presented the project to the Scout Organization, civil societies, and even to the Army leadership. The head of DGSC also met with mayors throughout Grande Comore to acquaint them with the benefits of the project and suggested that they support mapping their own municipalities for the purpose of sharing the data openly on the platform.
As I left the “Perfume Isles”, named after the romantic scent of ylang-ylang flowers, I no longer felt nervous. Instead I felt a warm satisfaction, knowing that a small technical project like OpenDRI could be the catalyst for something much bigger in the Comoros, and that it has the potential to save lives.