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Residents empowered to have a voice in flood monitoring research

3 July 2020

Ibu Jannah, a 30-year-old housewife, lives with her parents, husband and young son in a three-room house on stilts. The two families have two floors. The ground floor is made of brick, and the upper floor is timber with a corrugated iron roof.

As she watches the water level rising around her home after heavy rain, Ibu Jannah begins the frustrating but familiar process of preparing to move her family to higher ground.

Over the 12 years Ibu Jannah has lived in Kampung Ce’de settlement, annual flooding has seen the family’s livelihood destroyed numerous times, including their motorbike sinking and furniture and possessions ruined. When water levels are high, the family of six is forced to spend days at a time in the upstairs timber room, with more family members joining them upstairs when their own settlement floods.

Ibu Jannah has no choice. For Kampung Ce’de, like thousands of informal settlements around the world, flooding has become a frequent phenomenon that can occur more than twice in a single year with devastating impacts. Low-lying high-density settlements are particularly vulnerable, with limited parks and other green spaces to absorb run-off, and poor drainage systems that are often clogged by waste materials.

Seen from above: Ibu Jannah's cousin crawls through the water-clogged neighbourhood (2017). Image: Noor Ilhamsyah, RISE.  

Residents walk barefoot along a flooded pathway to Ibu Jannah's house (2017). Image: Noor Ilhamsyah, RISE.

RISE is planning water and sanitation infrastructure to enhance communities’ resilience to the effects of climate change, by diversifying water resources and improving storm water and flood water drainage. Having a more accurate understanding of how water levels fluctuate is key to planning infrastructure that is less likely to fail. But this can be especially challenging in informal settlements, which are usually data-poor environments.

PhD researcher Erich Wolff is working to understand the water level variations that affect RISE’s communities, and believes that unlocking local knowledge can reveal a rich perspective on water. ‘The people here already have a lot of knowledge, even though it might not be standardised or structured in a way scientists might like,’ he says.

Erich knows all about structure. A civil engineer and infrastructure planner by background, he has analysed bridges collapsing with the Brazilian Government and studied landslides in Colombia through traditional risk management frameworks and mathematical modelling.

Now developing his PhD in architecture and exploring alternative ways of understanding landscapes and natural hazards, Erich describes himself as a ‘non-conforming engineer’.

With his work, he intends to develop community-based methods to understand water in data-poor contexts. Erich believes this is particularly important for communities living at the forefront of climate change, such as informal settlements in Fiji and Indonesia, which are expected to experience increasingly frequent storms and floods in the coming decades.

‘For my research, I have been combining information from interviews, flood marks and photos to understand floods beyond the conventional methods.

‘It’s not about throwing out traditional methods completely – it’s about making more room for the views of people on the ground, the ones who keep track of change and are the most impacted.  This is why we are supporting and empowering residents to record flood levels and be direct contributors to research’.

Erich's work is documenting and compiling structured evidence of floods in RISE communities. The findings show that water
level variations of up to 220 centimetres can determine if residents can walk around their neighbourhoods, or have to be rescued using rafts.
Top image: Dr Ihsan Latief, RISE. Images and diagrams: Erich Wolff, RISE.


Weather Warriors

Throughout 2018 and 2019 Erich travelled to meet with RISE’s informal settlement residents in Makassar, Indonesia and Suva, Fiji, to begin crafting a systematic data collection framework to document water level variations using photos taken by community members.

The RISE Design & Engagement team decided that flood gauges needed to be staked in the ground across seven informal settlements in Makassar and six in Suva. The aim was to gain a more accurate understanding of water flow and levels, to eventually inform the design of RISE’s infrastructure intervention.

A group of enthusiastic and engaged community members led the RISE team around, showing them where to position the gauges based on their own experiences with flooding. In Fiji, these residents came to self-identify as the bati ni draki – or ‘Weather Warriors’. In Indonesia they became the KePoAir, the ‘Water Monitor Group’.

Ibu Jannah put her hand up to join the Water Monitor Group for her community.

The dedicated RISE Indonesia and Fiji teams were instrumental in coordinating the groups, and were committed for them to be as diverse as possible to reduce the burden on women and the elderly. Community members were trained to take frequent photos of the flood gauges with their smart phones, and send them to Erich and the team at the RISE research hub Melbourne, via internet messaging.

By the end of the rainy season in 2020, the residents in Fiji and Indonesia shared more than 5,000 photos with the RISE team. Of those, more than 500 photos provided researchers with water level references documenting the floods experienced by the communities in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

Daily photos by Ibu Jannah and fellow Water Monitor Group members have already been used to support flood modelling and research.
Image: Noor Ilhamsyha, RISE.

Who benefits from the data?

RISE’s soon-to-be-built green infrastructure – wetlands, biofiltration gardens – will benefit tremendously by being designed to account for the height water levels can reach, and how often it is expected to happen. But with construction still a few months away, Erich believes that the residents who invested their time and energies in to monitoring water levels each day should have access to the results they helped collect.

When sharing the reports from the past two years back to the communities, Erich and the RISE team were touched by residents’ gratefulness at seeing the results for themselves.

‘There are so many wider benefits beyond feeling proud and happy that they contributed to this effort: this citizen science platform encouraged them to mobilise, organise themselves and make decisions; it created a shared identity that they had helped shape infrastructure for their community.

‘I believe in the potential for communities to take this data and fight for their rights – to present it as evidence to their governments to seek help for their neighbourhoods. I hope the residents continue using the information and techniques they have learned to inform their own community strategies for resilience, even after RISE finishes’.

Ibu Jannah is glad to have been part of the research, and she knows more about flooding in her neighbourhood, having been a daily observer of a flood gauge outside her house. She hopes to improve her house someday. For now, a good day is when the household chores are completed early enough in the day so she can relax and enjoy time with her family.

For more information about the flood-monitoring program developed in RISE and its findings, contact Erich at erich.wolff@monash.edu or wolff.erich@gmail.com.

Cover image: Ibu Jannah and her son under an umbrella, gifted to KePoAir members for their efforts.

Friends in research: Erich Wolff wants to understand how water shapes a community (2019). Image: Erich Wolff