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Two Scottish universities are using WhatsApp to help predict deadly landslides in Colombia by training a local community to monitor how their hillside is shifting over time. The team, which includes colleagues from Heriot-Watt University, the University of Edinburgh and the National University of Colombia, is working with the community of an informal settlement in Medellin City, which is perched at the top of a high slope.

The multi-skilled team, which includes planners, engineers, geologists and architects, have been teaching the local residents how to monitor water ingress, engineer emergency draining solutions and identify early warning signs of a landslide, an event which could devastate their community and similar neighborhoods along the hillside.

The Heriot-Watt team is being led by Dr. Harry Smith, Director of the Centre for Environment & Human Settlements. He said, “Colombia is a country with a serious landslide problem. Casualty numbers are high and growing. 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.

“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.”

Dr Gabriela Medero, an Associate Professor in Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Engineering at Heriot-Watt University, continues, “We trained them to use a combination of civil and geotechnical engineering methodologies so they know what they are looking for and where they should be monitoring.

“They are taking regular photographs at set points from carefully mapped angles during and after periods of rain. 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 100 meters 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. Despite this, when we started, people in this area were more afraid of losing their home than they were of a landslide.

“They feared eviction from the city council if they spoke up about the risks. Some of our work has been about addressing these perceptions, proving that communities can monitor the situation for themselves and finding ways to mitigate the problems they face, including developing water collection methods and emergency draining solutions.

“We’ve also been facilitating meetings between the local council and the community to enable them to work together to create longer term major drainage works as well as finding resolutions to the planning issues that affect informal settlements that fall outwith the boundaries of city authorities.

“We believe this model of monitoring, engineering and community involvement has the potential to work globally. It allows communities, local councils and, ultimately, countries to take appropriate action without creating panic.”

Dr Soledad Garcia Ferrari, Senior Lecturer in Architectural Design from the University of Edinburgh, commented: “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.

“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”

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.

Professor John Underhill, Chief Scientist for Heriot-Watt University, said: “As a global university with five campuses across three continents, we are focused on addressing global problems. The Medellin City project is an exemplar where transformational solutions can assist specific communities and have the potential to be applied across the world. We welcome and are actively seeking collaboration with other universities, industry and governments to achieve this goal.”

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