Mapping for emergencies: An update from Haiti

I’m now back in Britain having spent the last few months in Haiti working for MapAction, supporting the earthquake reconstruction work. I left with change in the air. Clouds have now moved into what was a clear sky, rain is getting increasingly frequent, almost every night, and there’s a breeze that can almost be described as cool (although unfortunately, it didn’t penetrate the canvas of our tents).

Chris working in Haiti for MapAction

Working in Haiti for MapAction

In light of the imminent rainy season and the hurricane season that will follow shortly afterward, efforts at recovery have almost been put on a back burner in favour of risk management and avoidance, as preparations (call it a battening down of hatches) are made to get through the next 4 or 5 months.

Mapping and GIS is playing a major role in these preparations with direct influence on everything from identifying camps situated in flood prone areas, finding safe alternative camp sites, modelling wind and water hazards and tracking landslide zones. While the use of remote sensing and height data has been invaluable in some of those tasks, collecting field data is still absolutely essential.

A Jacmel neighbourhood

A Jacmel neighbourhood

A couple of UN agencies have been buying GPS units in bulk and sending out large teams (up to 100) mounted on motorbikes to record information on schools (often used as health stations or shelters), spontaneous camps or road conditions. This recruitment is also extended to anyone who already has a GPS unit. I was scheduled to travel 4 hours up and over the mountains to Jacmel, a city on the southern coast of Haiti, on a field assessment and training mission to the UN base there.

Word got around and I quickly received a request from by the GIS Manager of the Logistics Cluster to turn on my GPS unit and waypoint every bridge and each instance where a landslide had caused a road blockage, adding that it’d also be appreciated by their engineers if I got out of my truck and took pictures of the bridge structure and foundations. Happy to do it, of course!

Jacmel - City of Love

Jacmel – City of Love

Unfortunately, the situation with the CNIGS (the Haitian mapping agency) has not progressed with the same urgency, with plans for alternative offices bogged down in negotiations between the various parties. This is due to both scheduling conflicts and also the sheer difficulty of travelling around Port au Prince. However, in the interim, a plan has been developed to integrate CNIGS personnel with the international mapping effort at LogBase, the UN’s main Logistics Base.

There are already 4 CNIGS staff working in rotation with the IOM’s (International Organisation for Migration – UN Cluster lead for camp management) GIS unit . The plan calls for expansion of this arrangement across the other major UN Clusters – Shelter, Logistics, Health, Education and Information Management – in addition to the creation of a central CNIGS office with a dedicated prefab unit of its own on LogBase .

This benefits all parties. The international community gains the datasets, expertise and knowledge of CNIGS mapping staff while the CNIGS staff gain valuable experience in rapid mapping techniques and disaster management from the perspectives of the various clusters. It’ll also be a good countermeasure against declining international mapping capacity as UN staff contracts end and they rotate out.

And so I’m back home. Although I won’t be on the ground this is by no means the end of my involvement with the GIS effort in Haiti. I’ll still be involved remotely and expect to be in daily contact with CNIGS and the people I’ve been working with there every evening.

Chris Phillips

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