Tackling Coastal Flooding in Monrovia Slums: Understanding through partnerships, one community at a time

By Carter Draper, Project Coordinator at Open Cities Monrovia, David Luswata, Technical Advisor at Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, Grace Doherty, Geospatial Consultant at OpenDRI, and Swati Sachdeva, Urban Specialist Consultant at the World Bank.

In the informal settlements of Liberia’s largest city, Open Cities Africa is introducing a dynamic open data workflow to support urban planning and protect residents from flood.

Section of Doe Community flooded year round

Monrovia is home to a growing population of 1.3 million inhabitants. Flanked on either side by the Atlantic Ocean and mangrove-filled Mesurado and Saint Paul rivers, the capital city has few options for expansion. Two out of three Monrovians reside in the unplanned and slum communities in lowlands and swamps along the Stockton Creek and Du River banks, including Slipway, Doe Community, Saye Town, Logan Town, Clara and Via Towns, and the famed West Point.

Population growth, combined with internal migration from a 14 year long civil war, has led to the rapid expansion of informal settlements in high-risk zones of Monrovia. Today their placement in low-elevation coastal areas and swampy flood-prone land has become a dangerous factor for residents’ health and employment. In some slum communities, heavy rainfall and low elevations mean year-round flooding.

A community’s approach to mobility

Almost 90 percent of the population is living at risk of flooding from the sea, river system, swampland and clogged drains. During the flood period, kids are unable to leave homes to attend school nor is there a space to sit nor play, while the men have to walk through unhygienic floods in search of food. Families, particularly children and women, are hit by cases of malaria, diarrhea, and cholera – all worsened by these waters. Waste and sanitation services are limited, furthering these threats. Few shared toilets exist in the communities, leaving more than 80 percent of residents to practice open defecation in locations exposed to flood. There are no sources of clean drinking water and extremely restricted mobility restricts waste collection and emergency access. During one of our community engagements, Madam Mariah K. Abu, Chairlady of Doe Community Women Association, described her family’s four days displacement from their home due to high water levels.

Attempts to resettle vulnerable communities are complicated by the fact that most residents’ income sources are found in these and neighboring wards: most working in petty trade, temporary odd jobs, street vending, sand mining, port-related employment, small-scale industries, and subsistence fishing. Several donor-funded projects have been geared towards these slum communities in an attempt to address these diverse issues. However, most of these mapping activities over the years, including during the Ebola Virus Disease outbreak, were primarily focused on building footprints, and final products were kept in a silo, even from the communities from where they were collected.

“We believe this project is taking an innovative approach to ensure [slum dwellers] will have access to our own information to help us drive and dictate our development that will benefit every resident.”

Addressing this challenge requires innovative, open, and dynamic data collection and mapping processes to support the management of urban growth and disaster risk. The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) is excited to team up with tech hub iLab Liberia and OSM Liberia – the local community of OSM contributors in Liberia – to introduce the Open Cities Monrovia project: generating data to help unplanned settlements and slum communities be more resilient to flooding and other natural disasters.

The Open Cities participatory mapping aligns with GFDRR’s Resilient Cities Program through a unique partnership between the World Bank and city governments to enhance upcoming or ongoing World Bank supported projects in Monrovia, thereby creating and releasing open spatial data about the built environment, critical infrastructure, and natural hazards. The project will assist key stakeholders like the Liberia National Red Cross Society, City Corporation, and National Disaster Management Agency to utilize risk data towards addressing natural disaster risk in Monrovia through evidence-driven urban resilience interventions. The exercise is inclusive and is based on the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team open data model. Data collected will update OpenStreetMap (OSM) and will be publicly available for repurposing.

Remote mapping and field surveying are implemented in tandem to validate data from above and on the ground

A Dynamic Community Mapping Approach

Informed by the engagements of our stakeholders and local leadership, the Open Cities Monrovia Project developed an integrated data model for field data collection. Our data model references OSM tagging and incorporates eight map features representing multi-sectoral interests in infrastructure, water and sanitation, education, health, finance, and DRM.

Field Mappers undergo data collection training and field exercises

Twenty core mappers entered the field to collect and validate data on the state of key infrastructure. A variety of open source tools were incorporated into the process, including OpenDataKit, OpenMapKit, and Mapillary for field data collection and remote mapping, validation in OpenStreetMap, and integrated editing tools OSM Task Manager, JOSM, POSM.    Stakeholders attended trainings and field visits, representing Liberia Water and Sewer Coporation (LWSC), Monrovia City Corporation (MCC), Liberia Institute of Statistics and Geoinformation Services, and Youth in Technology and Arts Network (YOTAN), a Liberian civil society organization.

YOTAN provided a drone to capture up-to-date, high-resolution images of our target communities, which facilitated successful remote mapping of buildings footprint. Using a community mapping approach, we have mapped over two thousand buildings, hundreds of water, drainage, and solid waste lines, and dozens of key service facilities. Meanwhile our historic flood points dataset extends across the entire Clara Town and Doe Community.

Community-Driven Data Sharing

We’ve been seeing increasing requests for interventions that can make communities more resilient to natural disasters. In one of our meetings in Doe Community, the Community Youth Leader, Abraham Sheriff, indicated to us that the entire community is without any health facility nor a public school. Doe Community leadership has reserved a plot of wetland as a contribution to any initiative that will bring in a school, health facility or community youth center project.

Meeting with community leadership during a stakeholder engagement exercise

Going forward, mapped data will be used to create map products for these communities, and for disaster management and response by stakeholders in government and civil society. Stakeholders have expressed their interest in offline atlas maps accessible by local leadership and residents and interactive digital maps to be shared across LISGIS, Monrovia City Corporation, the Disaster Risk Management Agency of Liberia, and universities. These products will contain comprehensive data on target community flood history, the height of flood waters, water points, solid waste activities, economic facilities, drain networks and much more. As urbanization is on the increase accompanied by diverse challenges, government and development actors need open and accurate data for decision-making  and response, which the Open Cities Monrovia is designed to provide.

As the President of Liberia’s Slum Dwellers Association, Mr. Bestman Toe put it during a World Bank Delegation visit to the project targets communities, “ We have lived here for many years, and these slum communities have produced some of our leaders, including the current President of Liberia. While our advocacy around improving the living conditions in these communities have not yielded any substantial impact, we believe this project is taking an innovative approach to ensure whatever information gathered will not only be in the hands of the development partners, but we will have access to our own information to help us drive and dictate our development that will benefit every resident”.

The Open Cities Monrovia project approach not only brings data back in the hands of the communities, but involves these communities as key stakeholders. The data collected on buildings, economic, health, education, financial activities, flood history, waste management, will be published as open data for all donors, stakeholders, and research to access and repurpose, an approach that sinks at the heart of our target communities!

Follow Open Cities Monrovia’s progress at opencitiesproject.org.

Interested in learning more about the benefits of collaborative mapping for development and disaster risk reduction? Join us on Wednesday, November 14th at the World Bank mapathon as World Bank and partners discuss innovative new workflows for communicating and reducing risk. Register today and follow us on Twitter @GFDRR for the latest updates from #WBMapathon.

Open Cities Africa is financed by the EU-funded ACP-EU Africa Disaster Risk Financing Program, managed by the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery.