The Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH) promotes disaster risk reduction in remote high mountain areas of Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan through hazard, vulnerability and risk assessments, hazard maps, structural mitigation projects, and community preparedness and disaster awareness projects. Its approach combines local knowledge and practices with innovative technologies including geographic information systems, remote sensing and drones, in order to develop policies and countermeasures that are informed by the best available data and adapted to local communities, according to the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN).

Assessing and monitoring hazards as well as surveying damage and collecting data during emergencies in hard-to-reach mountain areas poses many difficulties.  AKAH reportedly uses remote sensing technologies to more easily and accurately map and monitor hazards and disasters in mountain areas with difficult access.  It has mapped several high-altitude glacial lakes in the Baghlan and Badakhshan provinces of Afghanistan, in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) in Tajikistan, including Lake Sarez, and in Gilgit, Chitral and Hunza in Pakistan.

However, at higher altitudes satellite data does not come in high enough resolution to create accurate hazard maps, and cloudy weather often obscures satellite images.  Flying over the areas by helicopter is difficult and dangerous when trying to map areas that are located higher than 4,000 meters above sea level.  In these cases, AKAH has successfully deployed drones for detailed mapping and monitoring of geo-hazards and risks including the size of glaciers and glacial lakes, their condition and state of movement, snow coverage, etc.  Using these technologies, AKAH can identify the level of risk of these hazards to communities and proceed with interventions to enhance their resiliency to natural disasters.

In Tajikistan, AKAH used a drone to map the glacier above Barsem village in Shugnan district, which in 2015 was responsible for causing the debris flow that destroyed over 80 households and critical infrastructure including the road between Tajikistan and China through Murgab.  The drone reportedly provided an aerial view of the overall damage caused by the debris and identified the source of the hazard, providing first-hand images quickly and safely, facilitating an effective response. In other geographies as well, drones have enabled AKAH to create more detailed and accurate hazard maps to improve disaster risk reduction work.

In Pakistan in 2017-2018 the Khurdopin glacier, in the Shimshal Valley of Gilgit-Baltistan, was surging and blocked the Shimshal River, forming an artificial lake. As the area was inaccessible, AKAH, in cooperation with the Gilgit-Baltistan Disaster Management Authority, used a drone to monitor the surge and the lake build-up. AKAH also used a drone to monitor the Badswat glacier when in 2018 Badswat and Bilhanz villages in the Immit Valley of Gilgit-Baltistan were hit by a glacial lake outburst flood, which led to the formation of an artificial lake.  While there was damage to 40 houses and road access was blocked, no lives were lost thanks to timely evacuation as part of AKAH’s disaster risk mitigation activities. Currently, AKAH is monitoring the Shishpar glacier in Hunza in Gilgit-Baltistan. The glacier has been surging since May 2018 and has blocked water flow from an adjacent glacier creating an artificial lake. AKAH is monitoring the lake with remote sensing and drone technologies as well as a camera near the glacier to track the status of the lake and the glacier upstream to alert communities below of the risks and inform response and mitigation measures.

Technological innovations such as drones enable AKAH to carry out more accurate hazard mapping, saving lives and protecting assets and livelihoods from natural disasters.  They also allow for faster, more accurate assessment of damage post-disaster to inform more efficient and effective responses.