Remotely piloted aircraft help to assess needs of people fleeing conflicts and persecution in Mali, Nigeria and South Sudan.
NIAMEY, Niger – For many people drones conjure up images of remotely piloted aircraft bristling with missiles, used for military ends. But in conflict-affected parts of Africa, versions of the technology are being used by humanitarian aid organizations like UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, to plan relief responses and save lives.
Drones are increasingly in use in countries like Niger, Burkina Faso and Uganda to help map huge populations of displaced people, assess their needs and figure out how best to get assistance to them. They are also being used to evaluate environmental damage caused by displacement.
“There are numerous peaceful applications of this technology, whether in human rights, aid delivery, or settlement mapping,” says Andrew Harper, head of UNHCR’s Innovation unit, noting that the potential use for drones is “overwhelming.”
The technology has come into its own at a time when record numbers of people have been uprooted from their homes by wars and persecution, more than three million of them by conflicts in South Sudan, Nigeria and Mali that have caused widespread displacement both within and across national borders.
In eastern Niger’s Diffa region, the need for enhanced information management has become increasingly urgent since Boko Haram attacks last June forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes or refugee camps.
As of late October, more than 250,000 men, women and children had been displaced since 2015, many of them seeking shelter in up to 100 informal sites that had sprung up on either side of the main west-east highway from the capital Niamey, with some 20,000 in two camps.
The desperate mix of humanity included internally displaced people (IDPs) as well as Niger returnees and Nigerian refugees. Vulnerable to Boko Haram raids, the population is very mobile, making it difficult to track and map them as they move in search of safety and assistance.
UNHCR turned to a self-taught Nigerian drone maker, Aziz Kountche, to help understand the dynamics of the population movements. He created a simple but effective drone that looks like a model airplane. The T-800 M, which has government authorization to operate in a frontline area, captured video and still images to convert to accurate maps of the new settlements, which will be crucial in supporting the humanitarian response across an area the size of Belgium.
“With the use of the drone images, we want to provide a new level of mapping to strengthen our analysis of the context,” said UNHCR External Relations Officer Benoit Moreno. The images enabled the UN Refugee Agency and its partners to visualize the situation in the sites and identify and meet needs for multiple services, including water systems, latrines, education facilities and health care. It also aided registration of the displaced.
The small aircraft was used to provide detailed bird’s eye images of the two camps in the region, Sayam Forage refugee camp and Kabelawa IDP camp, and it revealed the considerable environmental damage caused by people cutting firewood around the spontaneous sites in an area where two thirds of the land is affected by desertification. The next drone flight should take place early next year.
In neighbouring Burkina Faso, where more than 32,000 Malian refugees remain four years after fleeing conflict in their homeland, UNHCR has been using a more sophisticated drone to monitor the needs of refugees. Many live in the arid Sahel region, too fearful of returning to Mali despite the signing of a peace accord last year.
At sprawling Goudoubo camp, home to some 9,640 refugees near the town of Dori, UNHCR recently piloted a four-propellor drone over the camp’s 12-kilometre-long and five-kilometre-wide area. Unlike the Diffa drone, this one used a video camera to film the shelters, primary school, market, health centre and the road to Dori.
In this harsh, beautiful and extensive environment, use of the drone has provided invaluable video information on how to provide assistance and ensure a sustainable daily life in an area of very few natural resources and infrastructure.
“Aerial views and camp mapping can help reshape our ability to respond to short-term and long-term needs. For instance, we could track the evolution of the locations of the shelters and the movements within the camps, but also document the evolution of the environmental context and the available natural resources in and around the camps. This would also help better prevent and mitigate the risks of natural disasters,” said Alpha Oumar, head of the UNHCR field office in Dori.
Meanwhile in Uganda, which hosts more than half-a-million South Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers, UNHCR hopes to use drone technology to look at how refugee settlements grow and evolve. The project will focus on Bidibidi, which was opened in August and now shelters more than 200,000 people who have fled fresh fighting that erupted in Juba in July.
Part of a strategy to make more systematic use of drones, the machines will be used to show the settlement in various stages, from a small settlement in August to becoming one of the largest refugee-hosting areas in the world.
For UNHCR, the projects in hand are likely just the beginning. “We must recognize technological opportunities for the now, and more importantly for the future,” Harper says. “This is one example of technology coming online that we must utilize for the organization. If we can harness the potential of these interventions, we will not only do our job more efficiently but have a greater impact on persons of concern.”