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Empowering island communities and building climate resilience through participatory GIS mapping

Island community

When Category 5 Hurricane Iota ravaged the islands of Providence and Ketlina (Colombia) in November 2020, rebuilding infrastructure became the government’s priority. However, empowering the island’s community and developing localised adaptation solutions tailored to their needs were also equally vital for long-term climate resilience.

A community-led initiative financed by the Open Society Foundation and UNESCO, and facilitated by ITACA Solutions, Providence Foundation and GITEC, focused on addressing this gap. Through the facilitation of participatory GIS mapping workshops, local knowledge was harnessed to identify climate hazards across each of the 12 sections of the island.

Transparencies overlaid onto satellite imagery and high resolution drone-generated orthomosaics were used to help elicit local knowledge on areas exposed to flooding, erosion, wildfires, and other hazards. Participants at the workshops also mapped the location of key infrastructure, community resources (such as the location of first aid kits, fire stations, and hospitals), as well as critical ecosystems—spotlighting sites requiring priority adaptation efforts. 

GIS mapping

A pilot was also undertaken in one of the island sections to determine levels of household vulnerability, drawing on geo-referenced biophysical, structural and socio-demographic data collected through household surveys with the support of teenagers from the local schools. With the support of the community, a household vulnerability map was then created showing residential properties as having high, medium or low vulnerability, in accordance with the criteria selected by the community as the most relevant.

Gathering local information from the community enabled us to create comprehensive climate risk profiles that combine scientific data and community viewpoints. This co-development approach recognises residents as local experts and elicits on-site understanding of climate risks while enabling evidence-based adaptation planning. 

With climate risks and vulnerabilities highlighted, project participants next developed adaptation roadmaps centred around community-based disaster risk reduction and adaptation measures in each of the 12 island sections. By participating in shaping tailored plans to bolster their community’s climate readiness, residents grew more invested in driving progress. Their intimate on-the-ground knowledge and motivation proved invaluable in delivering these tasks.

Climate hazards

The use of participatory GIS mapping techniques proved instrumental in this project for multiple reasons. Firstly, maps act as powerful boundary objects. Boundary objects are items sitting between science and non- science used by individuals as discussion channels over which multiple perspectives can be argued without the objects losing their own identity. As boundary objects, the climate hazard maps developed supported productive community dialogues about enhancing preparedness and response capacities and were pivotal for the development of the adaptation roadmaps. Second, as the initiative encountered obstacles around “institutional fatigue” amongst over-surveyed residents in the aftermath of the hurricane, maps proved pivotal in retaining participant’s interest in the project.

Since sustaining engagement requires setting clear expectations while demonstrating project impacts, the visualisation of climate hazards and vulnerabilities through map creation proved extremely helpful in increasing peoples’ interest in the project and in demonstrating the importance of their knowledge and engagement. The maps acted as critical products to promote further dialogue and to guide the formulation of concrete actions that the community could take in their territory to reduce vulnerability. 

About the Author

Dr Laura Canevari is an accomplished climate change adaptation specialist with over 12 years' experience in climate adaptation and resilience building. She is the CEO and Founder of ITACA, a technical assistance service provider committed to accelerating climate adaptation through innovation training and adaptation in coastal areas.

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