EU Aid Volunteer uses digital mapping to help prepare for disasters in the Phlippines (Reliefweb.int)

arnoudTyphoons, earthquakes and floods often occur in the Philippines, one of countries most directly affected by the changing climate and natural disasters, such as the 2013 typhoon Haiyan. VSO EU Aid volunteer Arnoud Keizer from the Netherlands spent nine months with the Filipino government and communities affected by disasters, supporting national efforts to use science and technology to prepare for and prevent future devastation.

Where floods, typhoons and earthquakes are the norm

74 year-old community leader Anita Ayuban, from the region of Bohol, Philippines, has lived her entire life facing floods and typhoons. “One year we suffered a very strong typhoon. Our roof was blown from the house so we went underground for safety…but it became full of water,” she recalls, adding, “I was very afraid, especially for my children”.

Anita and her family were eventually rescued by neighbours, but she has since remained haunted by the devastation a natural disaster can bring when a community is unprepared.

Driven by a desire to help her community prepare better for future typhoons, Anita is one of forty local community leaders in the town of Alicia in Bohol who participated in an OpenStreetMap workshop conducted by VSO volunteer Arnoud Keizer. It is one of several workshops Arnoud has been conducting in disaster-prone areas across the Philippines in an effort to help communities prepare more effectively for future natural disasters.

Digital mapping and flood modelling

“Disasters happen all the time here, yet a lot of the emphasis is on how to respond instead of preparing for and actually preventing disasters”, explains Arnoud, whose professional experience in the Netherlands managing large infrastructural projects on waterways focuses almost entirely on disaster preparedness and prevention.

His OpenStreetMap workshops train community leaders how to use GPS devices to digitally map their villages, making use of the free online software with the specific purpose of mapping critical infrastructure e.g., hospitals, schools, pharmacies, police stations, etc.

“Knowing in advance where important buildings at least risk of flooding are located; which places are most suitable for evacuation centres and how likely a place can be reached after an earthquake is lifesaving information”, explains Arnoud.

OpenStreetMap is freely available online and its data is uploaded, stored and managed by volunteers, making it an ideal platform for disaster preparedness. After Arnoud trains community leaders, they in turn mobilise local volunteers to support the process of GPS mapping their communities, enabling volunteers to actively participate in disaster preparation measures.

“The capital city of Bohol suffered a major earthquake in 2013, killing more than 200 people, and it was digitally mapped in the aftermath…but so much damage and destruction could have been avoided if it was mapped and the disaster planning had been done in advance”, says Arnoud.

Preventing future disasters

When he’s not conducting workshops in disaster-prone areas, Arnoud spends his time in the capital city of Manila, managing components of the Disaster Risk and Exposure Assessment for Mitigation (DREAM) project, run by the Filipino government. It is a nationwide programme for creating sophisticated 3D hazard maps that can be used for identifying which areas are most likely to be affected by flooding.

The project’s goal is to produce flood maps for the country’s major river basins, with the aim of producing the most accurate flood maps possible for disaster-prone communities.

“I visited Tacloban recently, and it was really devastating to see an evacuation centre had been placed so close to the sea where a lot of people died…our project could have prevented these type of casualties because if you compare the OpenStreetMap for the area with the hazard maps it is clear that it was not a safe location for an evacuation centre”, says Arnoud, reflecting on the importance of his work.

Arnoud is not the first VSO humanitarian aid volunteer to undertake a long-term placement in the Philippines. According to government colleagues working on project DREAM, he has helped to advance the work of his predecessors.

“We have had four EU AID volunteers support the project so far and each of them is very special to us because they’ve contributed to some of the essential gaps where we’ve faced limitations… doing this kind of work is very sensitive because it relates to the safety and well-being of people,” says Enrico Paringit, who heads Project DREAM in Manila.

Back in Bohol following her OpenStreetMap training, community leader Anita has strong faith in the potential of digitally mapping her community with the support of local volunteers. “Mapping critical infrastructure helps you know where it is safe to go so you can have a proper plan in place…which I believe will save lives.”

The EU Aid Volunteers initiative gives thousands of Europeans the opportunity to engage in humanitarian aid around the world. To find out more about initiative, visit the EU Aid Volunteers page.

This article was originally published online on 21 October 2014 in Reliefweb.int. It can be accessed here.

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