Citizen science for landslide risk reduction and disaster resilience building in mountain regions

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Civil & Environmental Engineering


Mountains are hotspot of natural disasters, in particular those related to landslides. At the same time, scientific understanding about the natural processes that cause these disasters is lagging behind, because of the complexity of the physical environment and the difficulties facing data collection. The impact of these disasters on society is very high, especially because mountain regions often host less developed infrastructure and vulnerable populations. As a result, there is an urgent need to improve our understanding about how natural disasters in mountain regions occur, how they can be mitigated, and how people at risk can be made more resilient.

This proposal will leverage recent technological and conceptual breakthroughs in environmental data collection, processing and communication to leapfrog resilience building in data-scarce and poor mountain communities in South Asia. In particular, we identify three convergent evolutions that hold great promise. First, technological developments in sensor networks and data management allow for participatory and grass-roots data collection and citizen science. Second, web- and cloud based ICT makes it possible to build more powerful analysis and prediction systems, assimilating heterogeneous data sources and tracking uncertainties. Lastly, this enables a more tailored and targeted flow of information for knowledge co-creation and decision-making.

These evolutions are part of a trend towards more bottom-up and participatory approaches to the generation of scientific evidence that supports decision making on environmental processes, which is often referred to as "citizen science". We believe that a citizen science approach is particularly promising in remote mountain environments, because improving resilience and humanitarian response in these regions are inherently polycentric activities: a wide range of actors is involved in generating relevant information and scientific evidence, in decision-making and policy building, and in implementing actions both during a hazard and before and after. It is therefore paramount to strengthen the flow of information between these centres of activity, to make best use of existing knowledge, to identify the major knowledge gaps, and to allocate resources to eliminate these gaps.

We will use the Karnali basin in Western Nepal as a pilot study. The Karnali basin is a remote and understudied basin that suffers from a complex interplay of natural hazards, including hydrologically-induced landslides and cascading hazards such as flooding. Over the last years, these hazards have caused serious damage to local infrastructure (e.g., roads, irrigation canals, houses, bridges) and affected livelihoods (e.g., 34760 families in the August 2014 floods).

Using cost-effective sensor technologies, we will implement grass-roots monitoring of precipitation, river flow, soil moisture, and geomorphology. We will use those data to analyse meteorological extremes, and their impact on spatiotemporal patterns of landslide risk. By merging these data will other data sources such as satellite imagery, we aim to generate landslide risk maps at unprecedented resolution.

At the same time, our participatory citizen science approach will enable us to design and implement a framework for bottom-up and polycentric community disaster resilience, based upon knowledge co-generation and sharing.

Lastly, we will build upon the existing community-based flood early warning system implemented by our partner Practical Action Nepal, to create a comprehensive multi-hazard early warning system and knowledge exchange platform. For this, we will leverage recent developments in open-standards based, decentralized data processing and knowledge dissemination, such as mobile phones and web-interfaces.

Planned Impact

We aim to maximise impact creation through the following strategies:

* Tight integration with national and local stakeholders:

Our consortium is designed to maximise links with relevant stakeholders and policy-makers at all levels. As a Nepal-based organisation, Practical Action Nepal has more than a decade of experience working in the Karnali basin working with local communities, NGOs, and government institutes. They long-standing and successful collaboration between Practical Action Nepal and IIASA ensures local buy-in, as well as the goodwill required to ensure attendance to workshops, training, participatory monitoring, and related activities. At a national level, Practical Action, as well as SOHAM and Tribhuvan University give us direct links into several government entities. For instance, Co-PI prof. Nayava of SOHAM is past director of the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, Ministry of Science, Technology & Environment. Lead PI Buytaert has collaborated for several years with SOHAM and Prof. Nayaval, ensuring a smooth and productive collaboration.

Our strong local network is evidenced by the number of letters of support from the following partners:

- Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM), Ministry of Science, Technology & Environment, Government of Nepal
- Department of Water Induced Disaster Prevention (DWIDP) , Ministry of Irrigation, Government of Nepal
- Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development, Government of Nepal
- Kathmandu Living Lab (a Nepal based SME)
- Snowland Integrated Development Centre (Local NGO)
- Women Peace Society Nepal (Local NGO)

At an international level, our collaboration with UNESCO's Communication and Information Sector (Co-PI Neupane) and Buytaert's existing contacts with the Cross Cutting Thematic Unit for Disaster Risk Reduction at UNESCO (Dr Makarigakis), will enable maximum impact at the international policy level.

* Research on participatory methods, resilience building, and disaster governance

We will not only collaborate closely with relevant actors, but at the same time contribute to the scientific basis of impact-oriented research. Our Work Package 3 focuses on an analysis of knowledge co-generation & risk governance in data-scarce and multi-actor systems. This will include a thorough analysis of social learning, contextualization of decision-making, and the development of participatory methods of knowledge sharing within the Karnali basin. Together with Work Package 4, which deals with the implementation of developed tools for operational disaster risk reduction and resilience building, it will enable a direct and continuous feedback between the natural science activities (work package 1 on hydrometeorology and work package 2 on earth-surface processes) to ensure that the generated knowlege is scientifically sound, practically useful, and policy relevant.

* Capacity development and training

Based on our interactions with relevant stakeholders, we have identified specific training courses, the details of which are given in the Pathways to Impact document. Past experience with similar projects (e.g., Buytaert's ESPA-funded Mountain-EVO project) has also highlighted the value of employing locally-based researchers and enabling research visits to UK and European counterparts. Through consortium member Tribhuvan University, we aim to hire 4 Nepalese researchers (see Justification of Resources). We have allocated resources for research visits for each of these researchers, for Nepal-based investigators, and for relevant project partners (e.g., Amatya of the Nepalese Department of Water Induced Disaster Prevention, whose CV is included).


10 25 50
publication icon
Paul J (2018) Citizen science for hydrological risk reduction and resilience building in Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water

Description i) We have identified two field localities, Sunkuda and Budhiganga, near Dadeldhura, western Nepal, that were carefully selected based on geological and social science considerations. Both localities are medium-sized (~1000 inhabitants), but very sparse villages sitting atop large landslides. These places satisfied geological and social science constraints, for example the landslides had multiple, complex causes, they are active and likely to fail soon, and the inhabitants were amenable to our being there.
ii) We have identified "social mobilisers" or "community champions" in both places, who will be crucial in fostering long-term sustainability. At Sunkuda we spoke to the retired headmaster of the local secondary school, who introduced us to the head of the local village development council. They were both very keen on the research, and arranged a meeting for us at the secondary school with all the teachers. They have counterparts at the other site, Budhiganga, who will act as "community champions". We thought that going through schools would be a good idea because (i) teachers are generally the best educated and respected people in the community, and (ii) having school pupils there enables us to provide training. Currently, their involvement is limited to arranging meetings, assisting in the identification of suitable installation sites, and helping to obtain access to certain locations. But in the future the goal is to make the project sustainable after we leave, which will require a deep understanding and acceptance at the local level of what the project aims to achieve. So the "community champions" will be important in digesting and interpreting our data, before feeding it back to everyone else. Currently, the involvement of the social mobilisers is limited to arranging meetings, assisting in the identification of suitable installation sites, and helping to obtain access to certain locations. But in the future the goal is to make the project sustainable after we leave, which will require a deep understanding and acceptance at the local level of what the project aims to achieve. So the "community champions" will be important in digesting and interpreting our data, before feeding it back to everyone else.
Exploitation Route We envisage that impact will be delivered via the routes outlined in the 'Pathways to Impact' statement. We will continue to develop the impact plan as the project progresses.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

Title LIDAR Sensor (River level/ distance sensor) 
Description The developed sensor uses near infrared (NIR) laser pulses to derive distance with an effective range of approximately 30 m. This is a novel application for LiDAR lasers, which are not typically used in such small, static sensors to measure distance to water. The wavelength of the light (905 nm) has not been used before for this purpose, and the water surface has surprisingly good reflectivity to it. The Arduino-based datalogging system is novel, allowing, for example, measurement frequencies to be varied in the field. 
Type Of Technology Systems, Materials & Instrumental Engineering 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact A key impact is baseline data collection for new flood early-warning systems via a wireless link, for real-time data display in nearby villages on LED boards, as well as the sounding of an alarm when critical threshold(s) are reached. The next steps are development of solar power and realtime data transmission. 
Title Ultrasound sensor (river level/distance sensor) 
Description Uses ultrasonic pulses to derive distance with an effective range 5-7 m. The developed equipment is low-cost (compared to industry-manufactured ultrasonic sensors) and originally used in the automotive industry; the Arduino platform allows alterations to measurement frequency, for example, to be made easily in the field. 
Type Of Technology Systems, Materials & Instrumental Engineering 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact The sensors have been Installed in Nepal, Tanzania, Somalia and South America. Training has been provided to the local communities in their use, and in Tanzania they will eventually be taken over by Tanzania Water Authority. The sensors provide baseline data to help quantify environmental flows with benefits such as assisting local farmers forumlate annual irrigation schedules, for example. 
Description Stakeholder Meeting at the Inception of the Landslide EVO project, Kathmandu, Nepal 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact The meeting was held for potential beneficiaries of the Landslide EVO project. There were 25-30 attendees from academia, NGOs and local government. The meeting included a discussion of the project outline, potential locations for the research and timeframes. The key outcomes included identification of interested parties and their potential involvement with the work, suggested fieldwork schedule and a list of priorities for immediate action.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017