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DRONES FOR SOCIAL GOOD

UNDP Maldives takes a “fight and flight” response to climate change

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Ibrahim Adam Fulhu points at an eroded area where a farm once stood. Now there is just a collapsed tree and its broken branches.

“This is nature, and we are powerless against it.”

Ibrahim is a member of the village council in Maabaidhoo Island, a community that was severely affected by the 2004 tsunami in the Maldives. "Every time a wave sweeps in, it expands the eroded area,” he laments.

The Maldives is home to nearly 400,000 people.
The lowest lying country in the world, the Maldives is formed by 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean.
Climate change poses an existential threat to low-lying island countries like the Maldives.

The Maldives is the lowest lying country in the world. It is formed by a chain of 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean, and home to nearly 400.000 people.

It’s a home that now faces the threat of extinction due to climate change. Eighty percent of the islands in the Maldives are only one metre above sea level. Without urgent action, the Maldives, like many other island nations around the world, could soon disappear.

A farm has been flooded, negatively affecting the livelihoods of local farmers.
The shorelines of the islands are already rapidly changing.
Maldives residents are increasingly having to abandon their farms and living spaces due to disasters.
The Maldives is experiencing heavy rains, flooding and extreme erosion of the land.

Scientists predict that rising sea levels will submerge most of the islands by 2050. The shorelines of the islands are already changing rapidly. The consequences of erosion and rising sea levels are visible, and locals are already feeling the effects.

“What we are trying to secure is a future where people can maintain an entire way of life,” says Ahmed Shifaz, who work on climate change and resilience with UNDP. “Storms are more intense and rainfalls heavier. Dry periods are longer, causing water shortages. Rising ocean temperatures brings severe bouts of coral bleaching. Erosion of our land is faster and more aggressive.”


Farmer Ameena Hussain has lost hundreds of banana plants due to flooding.

Ameena Hussain, a local farmer, has experienced these forces first-hand.



"I have lost hundreds of banana plants, which has cost me the income I depend on to sustain my household," Ameena tells us.

One important step towards helping Ameena and her neighbours is creating risk maps, which provide essential data required to inform emergency response plans. Images of the same area taken over time, including before and after a disaster, can help design actions to protect people and property from the hazards of climate change.

Creating risk maps can help provide essential data, which in turn helps design responsive actions.
With 188 inhabited islands spread over a vast area, risking mapping the Maldives can be costly and time consuming.

Creating risk maps isn’t as easy as it sounds, though. In the case of the Maldives, with 188 inhabited islands spread over a vast area, it can be very costly and take a lot of time. To realistically map 11 islands, it would normally take almost a year, time the Maldives cannot afford.

In response, UNDP and the Government of Maldives came up with an out-of-the-box idea. They decided to fly drones across the islands to create three-dimensional maps and chart the topography of the terrain.

And the initial results are very promising: it took just one day for a drone to map an entire island.

The first results of drone-assisted mapping mission of the Maldives
Caroline Briggert of DJI works with the team to review results of the first drone-assisted mapping mission.
The team discusses results of a drone-assisted mapping mission.
Flying out the drone to create risk maps of the Maldives
The mapping shows which parts of the coastal zone is eroded and under threat.

“For me, what’s most striking is the topography of the island over here,” says Umar Fikry from the National Disaster Management Centre, pointing at his laptop screen. "This is usually the side where the island would experience surges during the monsoon. For response, it’s very important to have this visual information. Knowing the possible entry points to the island, and which areas are most prone to hazards, for example, can help us quickly decide how to send relief items.”

UNDP partnered with DJI, the leading drone company from China. The local team is now working with to the Disaster Management Centre and the Maldives National Defence Force to figure out how to get the most out of using drones in disaster planning and relief missions.

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For now they have a complete 3D map of Maabaidhoo Island. The map shows where the coast has been eroded at one end and where the soil is protected by a mangrove plantation on the other. For Ibrahim and other community leaders, it offers important clues about which areas would be safest in case another tsunami strikes.

The map only took one day to produce. Yes, there are many more islands to go, and this is just the beginning. Drones alone cannot resolve the challenges brought on by climate change, but they can be a powerful ally for communities on the frontlines.

A drone flies over treetops in the Maldives.
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Footnote: Story by UNDP Maldives. Photos by UNDP Maldives and DJI
Maldives