Cartography in a Crisis

Article excerpt

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In the chaos that often follows a natural disaster, maps, aerial photography and satellite imagery can offer some degree of clarity on the scale of the situation that can ultimately save lives. A year on from Cyclone Nargis, Natalie Hoare investigates how maps are sourced, developed and used in the field, and how a lack of high-quality maps and other problems might have affected the humanitarian response in Myanmar

This shows the actual path that Cyclone Nargis took,' says Ian Howard-Williams from the UK's Department for International Development (DFID), pointing to a multi-coloured line snaking its way over a satellite image of the Bay of Bengal. 'We had been watching it when it was just a tropical storm and were obviously concerned because it was heading for Bangladesh. But by Thursday night, it changed direction and we all knew what it was going to do.'

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When Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar last year, it resulted in the worst natural disaster in the nation's recorded history. At 4pro local time on 2 May, a swirling mass of dense cloud and winds of to215km/h made landfall near up the mouth of the Irrawaddy River, driving a devastating tidal surge inland with it. The low-lying, fertile Irrawaddy region--Myanmar's 'rice bowl'--was inundated as Nargis continued its northeasterly path, passing close to the country's largest city, Yangon, before dissipating near the Thai border less than 24 hours later. Some 700,000 homes were destroyed and two million people left homeless.

The precise number of fatalities is still not known (estimates vary between 80,000 and 146,000), but the death toll could have been significantly lower had the world's aid agencies been granted entry into Myanmar. For eight days after the initial impact, the country's military rulers barred entry to almost all international disaster relief specialists and effectively blocked aid--a situation that was condemned around the world, prompting Prime Minister Gordon Brown to denounce the 'inhuman treatment of the Burmese people'. While they tried to get visas, Howard-Williams and the rest of the Humanitarian Preparedness and Response Team monitored the situation via the DFID Myanmar office in Yangon.

Normally, the team would arrive at the disaster zone within a day or two. 'We got there eight days after the cyclone, but we had already started to get an idea of where had been hit the worst and what the most pressing issues were,' says Deborah Baglole, team leader of DFID's Cyclone Nargis response team. 'We were able to set up our team within the Myanmar office, get hold of downloaded maps and other useful local information and work out what we were going to do.'

MAPPING THE EMERGENCY

When a natural disaster occurs, the response from aid agencies typically follows a prescribed chain of events. The first phase involves search and rescue, which tends to last for around two to three days, followed by a 'needs assessment' of aid.

'It's during the assessment and early relief phases that there is a need for basic information about the emergency,' explains Nigel Woof from MapAction, a small NGO that describes itself as 'the blue-light service of the mapping world', providing mapping and other geospatial information following natural disasters. 'Many of the questions that arise are about the extent or geography of the disaster. There can be an awful lot of mistakes made if there is a lack of understanding about where an actual disaster is, where those affected by it are, where the resources are and how to reach the affected people with those resources.'

Maps, aerial photography and satellite imagery are critical, if not vital, for navigation in an emergency, but their real power is in their ability to communicate and share complex information about an ever-changing situation among the different agencies involved. For Baglole and her team, maps enable them to make an assessment of the situation and then make recommendations to NGOs and UN agencies working in the region and channel funds accordingly. …