Our Perspectives

Drones join the fight against climate change risks in the Maldives


I love drones. I have one that I fly when I want to de-stress. Little did I know when I bought it that I could actually play with it at work!

It all started about a year ago. As senior advisor on disaster risk management at UNDP, I was intrigued to explore how new technology and innovation could support my work.

My agency’s strong focus on innovation in the Asia-Pacific region, has resulted in some really interesting and outside-the-box initiatives. Some of them include, mobile apps on anti-corruption in Papua New Guinea, recovery and rebuilding in earthquake-affected Nepal and electronic waste recycling in China.

So I started thinking about how we could apply technology to our work in reducing risk from disasters. What are the problems we need to address in the next few years? My team and I worked with a foresight platform to design a survey where we asked these questions. We found that very few disaster risk professionals actually knew what technologies were being used for disaster response.

I saw this as a great opportunity. We brought together disaster management practitioners and innovation experts at a regional conference in Bangkok to ideate – brainstorm on problems we face and how innovation could potentially help solve them. 

And that resulted in our conversation with DJI, the leading drone company from China.

Explaining what we were trying to do to enhance disaster preparedness in the Maldives – one of the countries most vulnerable to risks from climate change – was an exercise in learning to better articulate our problems.

Eighty percent of the islands are at an elevation of one metre above sea level.  Rising sea levels threaten large scale submersion of many of these islands. So risk maps are an important source of data, as visual images of the same area taken over time, or before and after a disaster, can help identify changes to physical vulnerability, thereby providing much needed evidence for decision making. Maps can help design actions that need to be taken to protect people and their livelihoods from the hazards of climate change.  

With more than 160 inhabited islands spread over a vast area, our biggest challenge is mapping. To realistically map 11 islands, it would normally take us almost a year, time we cannot afford.

This is when we started to talk about using drone technology to create three-dimensional maps. We spoke to the Disaster Management Centre and the Maldives Defence Force about using drones for search and rescue in disaster events.

Now a few months later, we have developed a 3D map of Maibadhoo, a village that was severely affected in the 2004 tsunami. The map also helps to identify safe areas in case of floods. We can also see where the coast has been eroded at one end and where the soil is protected at another, because of the mangrove plantation and shifting sands.

It took just one day for a drone to map the whole island.

For us, this is just the beginning, one with great promise. What’s most exciting is that this technology is evolving, and that the Government of Maldives and island communities are on board with the innovation process. If we keep innovating and harnessing new technologies, I believe we can find solutions to many of development’s toughest challenges. 

Asia & the Pacific Maldives Climate change and disaster risk reduction Climate change Disaster risk reduction Adaptation Innovation Blog post

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