MapAction team of mappers in Belize to support country’s response to wildfires and drought

MapAction team members are supporting the Belize national disaster management agency NEMO to get a clearer understanding of the extent and impact of wildfires that continue to spread through southern and western Belize, causing damage to infrastructure, crops, land and livelihoods.

MapAction’s Edith Lendak works with Director of Toledo District Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs Gustavo Requena (right) and NEMO GIS Officer Luwin Tzib (left) to confirm the location of local community settlements in fire-impacted districts. Photo: MapAction

Drought and a lack of rainfall have caused severe ongoing wildfires in the Central American country of Belize. As of May 28th, 10,000 hectares of land and 200 homes had been destroyed, according to the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA). Damages as of end of May 2024 totalled more than $8 million. 

The response to the wildfires is being coordinated by Belize’s national disaster response agency, the National Emergency Management Organisation (NEMO), one of 19 CDEMA members. CDEMA, a long-time MapAction partner, requested MapAction’s support to assist local authorities in getting a clearer understanding as to the extent of the crisis. 

MapAction volunteer members Sam Gandhi, a GIS specialist, and Edith Lendak – who works for green energy company Orsted – are in Belize assisting the Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) and disaster assessment teams out of the National Emergency Management Organisation’s (NEMO) various country offices. MapAction volunteer member Indigo Brownhall, a researcher with the Space Geodesy and Navigation Laboratory (SGNL) at University College London (UCL), is providing remote support. 

MaAction volunteer member Sam Gandhi.

The team’s focus will be on the worst affected areas: the southern region of Toledo, before moving north to focus on Cayo District, where the country’s capital, Belmopan, is situated. 

“This shows the effectiveness of our partnership with CDEMA,” says Darren Dovey, head of emergency response for MapAction. “We were able to quickly understand their needs and advise that sending a MapAction team to Belize would be the most effective way to support them, working with their own GIS teams and supported by the wider MapAction membership remotely,” adds Dovey. 

Head of Emergency Response Darren Dovey.

The maps produced so far cover a range of key data points: the baseline population in each district, disaggregated by age, sex and gender; key ecosystems of Belize, as well as landcover per area. More maps will be created for decision-makers in the next few days and weeks. 

MapAction helps decision-makers get an overview of an emergency by mapping the key data about the extent and impact on communities, land and infrastructure. This helps emergency responders act faster, more efficiently and provide support to at-risk communities.

Each map is created to help decision-makers act faster and more accurately. Some maps are key to search-and-rescue operations – knowing where to send rescue personnel, which areas have been searched and which have not. Other maps might help plot a path for emergency aid to those who need it most, using the fastest and most accessible routes. Another map might outline where people are moving; how a wildfire is spreading or where the largest human need is. 

LISTEN ALSO: Podcast: Towards disaster resilience with CDEMA in the Caribbean

This work is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office.

Meet a MapAction pioneer on International Women’s Day

She survived a volcanic eruption and helped rebuild her island afterwards. Meet Lavern Ryan, a MapAction volunteer and GIS aficionado.

Lavern Ryan in Cottesmore, UK, for HEAT training. Photo: Lavern Ryan

‘Be the change that you want to see in the world’ is a quote often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi but on International Women’s Day 2024, MapAction volunteer Lavern Ryan says it captures her thoughts. “I would like to encourage women and girls worldwide to do just the same. Whatever one sets their mind to, it can be accomplished with strength, determination and prayer,” she adds. 

Lavern is the living proof of her own words; her story reads like a triumph of willpower over circumstances. In 1995, Lavern was displaced from her home island of Montserrat due to a volcanic eruption.

Displaced by volcano

“I remember it like it was yesterday although it was 28 years ago,” Lavern recalled recently in a podcast with GeoMob. Lavern went on to recollect how many people on the Caribbean island of Montserrat tried to head north amidst the “chaos and panic” to get away from the erupting Soufriere Hills volcano. The current population of Montserrat is approximately 5000 people.

HEAR MORE: Podcast: Towards disaster resilience with CDEMA in the Caribbean

Lavern first moved to Antigua, the closest island to Montserrat, but found misfortune to have travelled with her. In September 1995, the Category 4 Hurricane Luis struck Antigua, meaning Lavern had now experienced two major natural disasters within three months. Lavern was 13 at the time.  She went on to complete her secondary school education in Antigua and then a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science in Trinidad and Tobago. She later also studied at Edinburgh University and the University of Dundee in Scotland.

GIS to the rescue

When Lavern did return to Montserrat a few years later, the southern part of the island – still inaccessible today – was covered in pyroclastic flows. Her newfound skills in GIS and remote sensing were serendipitous however, “to identify where the best places were to occupy the northern part of the island.” Timely work as the volcano has continued to erupt since 1995, making half of the island uninhabitable. 

Since 2002, Lavern has been the GIS Manager for the Government of Montserrat. She works closely with the Island’s disaster management authorities and cares for a broad portfolio: from leading hydrographic surveys and conducting aerial drone mapping to training the next generation of enthusiastic humanitarian mappers on the island.

“I really admire Lavern’s attitude to her life and work,” says MapAction’s Alan Mills, who has worked with Lavern for many years. “She not only juggles all her government duties on Montserrat with her priorities  to her family and friends, she still has time to advocate across her community, kids and adults alike, of  the importance of maps and geoinformation in everyone’s lives and apply all those skills with energy to spare.”

Lavern is interviewed by BBC Scotland at a MapAction simulation exercise in May 2023. Photo: MapAction.

So what has Lavern’s work entailed most recently? “The capturing and processing of drone aerial images in Montserrat was an important aspect which helped with the successful implementation of enumeration for the 2024 Montserrat population and housing census,” Lavern told the MapAction communications team. 

VIDEO: What is MapAction?

Never stop learning 

Despite having more than 20 years GIS experience under her belt, Lavern continues to refresh and broaden her skillset. During a recent visit to the UK, Lavern attended courses, training and talks at key institutes. 

At the UK Hydrographic Office in Taunton, Lavern had the opportunity to meet with other UK Overseas Territory delegates and engaged in discussions on hydrographic action plans, governance and marine spatial planning. There was also a focus on the need to upskill her use of software to conduct hydrographic surveys as part of Montserrat’s commitment to the International Convention on Safety of Lives At Sea (SOLAS). “This helps us to fulfil our international safety obligations,” says Lavern, the technical lead for conducting hydrographic surveys on the island of Montserrat.

READ ALSO: Gender in Maps, a MapAction report (2023)

“I also visited the Joint Nature Conservation Committee  (JNCC) offices in Peterborough,” adds Lavern. “My focus there was to wrap up a project we were working on with respect to storm surge modelling.”

Lavern also managed to squeeze in a refresher security course, a prerequisite for all MapAction volunteers who deploy. Lavern began to volunteer with MapAction in 2019 and has been involved in several remote responses to natural disasters in the Caribbean since 2020. She expects to be involved in more this year, often together with the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA). After all, the Caribbean has its own season, she told GeoMob: “Hurricane Season,” from June to November each year. Her skillset will forever be needed.

READ ALSO: “We see real outcomes.” MapAction impact in Central Asia in partnership with CESDRR

MapAction’s internal and external capacity building programmes are funded by USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA).

Podcast: Towards disaster resilience with CDEMA in the Caribbean

Renee Babb, GIS specialist with the Caribbean Disaster and Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) – a longterm MapAction partner – and Lavern Ryan, a GIS specialist with the government of Montserrat and also a MapAction volunteer, talk with MapAction’s Alan Mills MBE on the GeoMob podcast about CDEMA and MapAction’s decade-long relationship.

Find out why they say there is a fifth season in the Caribbean: “Hurricane Season.”

READ ALSO: MapAction renews partnership with the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency

A longer version of this podcast was originally broadcast by GeoMob here.

This work was kindly supported with funds from USAID’s Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance.

MapAction renews partnership with the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency

Liz Riley, CEO of CDEMA signing the MoU in an online signing ceremony
Liz Riley, CEO CDEMA

MapAction is proud to renew its Memorandum of Understanding with the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) for another four years. 

MapAction’s collaboration with CDEMA and its participating countries through training and building capacity, enables better integration of geospatial technologies into disaster risk management.

The new MOU will support CDEMA’s capacity to provide geospatial expertise to its deployment teams, allow for GIS training across participating states and provide geospatial mapping and technical support upon request. 

Executive Director of CDEMA Elizabeth Riley stated, “The renewal of our MOU supports our vision of a digitally transformed CDEMA, essential to positioning CDEMA for the future. We are committed to the integration of digital technology into all areas of CDEMA’s operations and we thank MapAction for supporting us on this journey.”

Climate change and it’s growing impact in the Caribbean is well documented. Liz Hughes CEO, MapAction said, “We know the Caribbean region suffers particularly from extreme weather conditions as a result of climate related changes around the world and we recognise that we will all need to work together to support CDEMA in the challenging role of leadership through this. This past year alone, we have done just that on the St Vincent and Grenadines, Suriname and Guyana emergencies demonstrating the possibilities of remote support even where emergencies have become increasingly complex.”  

Recently MapAction has worked with CDEMA to implement a successful simulation exercise, undertake training courses and create a multi-faceted virtual platform that hosts risk management data and information that’s accessible to stakeholders to facilitate analysis, research, greater awareness of risk management and climate change adaptation in the region.

We look forward to the opportunity to learn from CDEMA and share the experience, knowledge and skills in the region to partners worldwide.

USAID logo
This work was made possible thanks to the generous support of the U.S. Agency for International Development Bureau for Humanitarian Affairs as part of a programme to improve cooperation in the humanitarian sector.