Charting Change
Charting Change
Charting Change
Charting Change

Agriculture and Environment

Drones on the delta


In Ghana's Volta River delta, the remotely-operated aerial vehicles are going where researchers can't to help study coastal erosion, flooding and migration


Posted by Brian Owens on November 15, 2016

Waves wash ashore at Fuvemeh, a town in Ghana's Volta River delta that’s threatened by coastal erosion and flooding. (Photo: Appeaning-Addo et al. 2015)

River deltas are among some of the most densely populated places on Earth, especially in some developing African and Asian nations. They’re also some of the areas most vulnerable to climate change, with rising seas and increasingly powerful storms driving flooding and erosion.

So how do the people who live in these regions adapt to the changes that are occurring there? That’s what Kwasi Appeaning Addo, an associate professor in the department of marine and fisheries sciences at the University of Ghana, is trying to help determine. He’s part of an International Development Research Centre-supported project that’s gathering information on the changes affecting three major river deltas around the world — the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna delta in Bangladesh and India, the Mahanadi delta in India and the Volta delta in Ghana — and how migration can be an adaptive option for the people who live there. The project looks at a variety of factors using different techniques, including hydrology and economic studies, and surveys of migrants both within the deltas and at their final destinations.

In some of these countries, though, studying deltas can be tricky, as the terrain is difficult or variable and there are sometimes security concerns. Cost can also be an issue, with the expense of using advanced remote-sensing systems or traditional aerial photography not something developing countries can usually afford. With these costs in mind, Appeaning Addo has been experimenting with using drones to monitor coastal erosion and flooding, and studying how those processes affect the people of the Volta delta. 

The drones take pictures and record video of coastal areas, collecting a visual record that’s used to build a database to quantify the changes seen in the most vulnerable areas. “The people in the communities keep us updated, and we move in to capture what is going on,” says Appeaning Addo. (Watch the video below to see footage of flooding and Appeaning Addo explaining his work.)

The drone project is focusing on two communities in particular, both just to the east of the capital, Accra: Fuvemeh, a low-lying coastal town that has suffered from severe floods in recent years, and Keta, a bigger town on a narrow spit of land between a large lagoon and the sea, which has recently experienced erosion rates of up to eight metres per year.

Around Fuvemeh, the drones have allowed Appeaning Addo and his colleagues to better quantify the damage caused by the floods. “About 50 houses have been lost and almost 250 people have been displaced in the last two years,” he says. In Keta, his team is monitoring the effectiveness of major engineering projects, such as huge breakwaters intended to help reclaim land and build beaches. Appeaning Addo says that these structures have trapped some sediment but notes that it’s too soon to say whether the solution will be a long-term one.

Nevertheless, Appeaning Addo believes the data the drones have gathered is already having an effect. He recently showed some footage to a local member of parliament who immediately saw the need for action and arranged a meeting between the researchers and the local district assembly. “We can show them what’s going on and offer solutions,” he says. “It can help them decide whether to try and solve the problem with engineering or by relocating people.”

Drones have not been used in the deltas in India and Bangladesh yet, but Michele Leone, the IDRC project manager overseeing the delta research, says the potential to do so exists. “I’d like to see how useful it is before committing to a larger scale, but we will often use the same techniques adapted to different regions.”

Leone hopes that the data from the project will be used to improve countries’ long-term plans for managing their river deltas. He cites Bangladesh’s multi-million-dollar plan to manage its side of the Ganges delta until 2100 as an example. “It does not explicitly take into account migration as a complex process that needs to be understood far better while planning for the next century,” he says. “If we don’t know where people are going, where they want to go and what allows them to go,” he adds, “there is no chance for these plans to succeed.”

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This is part of an ongoing series of stories on international development projects supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, presented in partnership with Canadian Geographic. The stories appear online once a month at idrc.canadiangeographic.ca.

The International Development Research Centre has been a key part of Canada's aid program since 1970, and invests in knowledge, innovation and solutions to improve lives and livelihoods in the developing world. Learn more at idrc.ca.