The International Information Center for Structural Engineers

Friday, 26 January 2018 01:00cat

Two Scottish and a Colombian Universities use WhatsApp to predict landslides in Latin America

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The researchers have been training a local community living in an area at high risk of landslides to monitor how their main hillside is shifting over time, by sending photos back to them via WhatsApp

Colombia is a country with serious landslide problems and last April, more than 254 people were killed  in the southern city of Mocoa, as heavy rain triggered flash flooding and a huge landslide of mud, rocks and gushing waters. Hoping to prevent such catastrophes in the future, a research team from Heriot-Watt University, the University of Edinburgh and the National University of Colombia, is working with the residents of an informal settlement in Medellin City, located at the top of a high slope. It is interesting that many of these people feared eviction by the city council if they spoke up about the risks, so a lot of work had to be put into addressing these perceptions. The multi-skilled team, which includes planners, engineers, geologists and architects, has been training the community to identify early warning signs of a landslide, engineer emergency draining solutions and monitor water ingress. By using a combination of civil and geotechnical engineering methods, the residents learn what they are looking for and where they should be monitoring. Then, by taking regular photos at set points from carefully mapped angles during and after periods of rain and sending them to the scientists, the latter can have a clear image of the area and warn the residents if a landslide is imminent.

“There are approximately 44,000 households living in informal settlements in the Medellin Metropolitan Area which are at risk, many of which have no proper foundations”, says Dr. Harry Smith, Director of the Centre for Environment & Human Settlements at Heriot-Watt University. “Working with our Colombian colleagues, we identified an area that was at huge risk and have formed an ongoing partnership with the local community. We installed a monitoring system and trained a community group to collect data and photographs which they sent us regularly on WhatsApp”, he adds.

Dr Gabriela Medero, an Associate Professor in Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Engineering at Heriot-Watt University, continues that "using WhatsApp is important as it records the time and date automatically and is a platform which is globally accessible. These photographs allow us to see relative movements and early signs of differential movements as well as highlighting where water enters and exits the slopes, the volumes of run-off and the impact of paved and unpaved areas. Just a few hundred metres from where we've been working, there were more than 500 deaths due to a tragic landslide back in 1987, and in April this year, 17 people lost their lives in a landslide in the nearby city of Manizales”.

“Based on the monitoring strategies implemented, our aim was to manage rainwater, a major triggering factor for landslides, with affordable mitigation strategies which were able to help the community understand how they could reduce the risk of small landslides within the settlement”, says Dr Soledad Garcia Ferrari, Senior Lecturer in Architectural Design from the University of Edinburgh. “Three levels of water management networks were identified to implement mitigation measures which reflected different levels of responsibility, from households to local authority. Our aim is for the community to learn and share learning of the causes of landslides through monitoring the territory and for communities to continue to take ownership when implementing measures directed at mitigating landslide risk”, she adds.

According to the researchers, this model of monitoring, engineering and community involvement has the potential to work globally and can assist several communities across the world. To achieve this goal, they are actively seeking collaboration with other universities, industry and governments (to facilitate taking appropriate action without creating panic).

The initial project is being funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund through the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), with additional funding now secured through the Global Challenges Research Fund (the British Academy’s Cities & Infrastructure Programme) to roll out the model to two more communities in Medellin City in 2018. The new project will also expand the coverage by applying the developed model to a favela in São Paulo, Brazil, alongside academics from the University of São Paulo.

Source: The University of Edinburgh News


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