Supporting refugees in Northwest Syria

Earlier this year, MapAction was asked by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to send a team to Turkey. Their mission was to provide assistance to humanitarian teams there and in Northwest Syria who are supporting the very large numbers of refugees and internally displaced people that arrived in the region during the first three months of the year following an upsurge of fighting in Aleppo.

The request was to work with two groups of organisations collaborating to collectively manage around 900 refugee camps; the Camp Coordination and Camp Management (CCCM) Cluster, and the Shelter /Non-Food Item (SNFI) Cluster.

Days before the MapAction team was due to travel, the UK and Turkey went into lockdown. Consequently, the team was compelled to switch rapidly to a remote-working approach.

Since late March, they have been helping the Clusters to get a better understanding of the locations and sizes of the camps and the needs of the people arriving and living in them. Camps vary enormously; from just a few tents to up to 93 separate sites within a single camp, and from long-term, static settlements to temporary ones.

As well as cross referencing, checking and cleaning data about camp locations received from numerous sources, the MapAction team developed some simple tools to help do this quickly and easily in future, which will also have benefits for other areas of work undertaken by the Clusters. One tool validates the location coordinates of camps recorded by teams within Syria, another matches them to Syrian administrative areas.

The MapAction team has also been locating aerial images of the camps on OpenStreetMap and using these to develop 900 map polygons showing the shape and size of each camp. As well as helping the Clusters to understand and meet the existing needs of people in the camps, this work will help to inform them about their population densities, which is particularly important in the context of COVID-19.

MapAction helps response to Cyclone Harold

While much of the world was focused on battling COVID-19 last week, a powerful tropical cyclone swept through the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, and Tonga, causing significant damage and loss of life.

With gusts over 170mph and rainfall of 250-450mm, Tropical Cyclone Harold was the worse storm to hit Vanuatu since Cyclone Pam in 2015, and, in some areas, damage has been significantly worse. Entire villages are reported to have been destroyed in the northern parts of the island chain.

In addition to the devastation caused by the storm, social distancing measures had to be temporarily lifted in some areas to enable people to gather in emergency shelters, and this may exacerbate the impacts of COVID-19 in the region. Furthermore, the crisis is largely remaining under the radar, given the ongoing pandemic, meaning little funding is being made available to assist the affected islands, despite tremendous need. What international aid there is has been hampered and delayed by the virus.

MapAction is already delivering support to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the Asia Pacific region (ROAP) to help the regional COVID-19 response. We have diverted some of this effort to respond to the emergency caused by Cyclone Harold, creating situation maps for Fiji and Tonga. These are helping humanitarian teams prioritise and coordinate aid. We will continue to provide assistance as needed.

Helping UN Asia Pacific COVID-19 response

A MapAction team member currently based in New Zealand is providing GIS, mapping and information management support to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Asia and the Pacific (ROAP).

Over the next two months, he will be helping ROAP to support countries that have limited public health infrastructure and resources to cope with the rapid onset of COVID-19. He will be assisted in this work by MapAction’s team of volunteers.

ROAP covers 41 countries in Asia and the Pacific and currently supports these countries in their efforts to ramp up preparedness and response through the UN Resident Coordinators and their offices, as well as local governments.

UN On-Site Operations Coordination Centre course in Estonia

Two MapAction members are currently in Tallinn, Estonia, participating in and helping to facilitate a course for UN On-Site Operations Coordination Centre (OSOCC) Assessment and Analysis Cell teams. Participants are looking in detail at ways in which data and analysis can inform fast-moving and chaotic emergency situations.

MapAction’s CEO Liz Hughes is also in Tallinn this week, taking part in a meeting of the International Humanitarian Partnership.

Thanks to the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance for supporting this important disaster preparedness work.

UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination training

At the end of October, two MapAction volunteers participated in a UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) refresher training course in Neuhausen, Germany. As well as presenting to participants on humanitarian mapping, they supported the simulation exercise with mapping.

These regular training courses enable all involved to enhance and update their skills and knowledge and share insights from disaster responses.

One MapAction participant described the course as a “fantastic week”, while the other described the UNDAC trainees as a “Really dedicated team with interesting first hand experiences from Idai and Dorian.”

We’re grateful to the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance for supporting this important disaster preparedness work.

Hurricane Dorian strikes the Bahamas

A MapAction team is en route to the Bahamas to support the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) as they coordinate the response to Hurricane Dorian. Our UK support base has already been working over the weekend on vital maps and data.

With windspeeds over 160mph, the category 5 Hurricane is the strongest to hit the Bahamas since records began. It is moving slowly westards across the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama.

We are grateful to the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs for enabling us to help provide the geospatial input that’s needed to get aid to where it’s most needed as quickly as possible.

Our thoughts are with all those affected.

MapAction supports Cyclone Idai response

On Friday 14 March, Cyclone Idai made landfall along the south-eastern coast of Africa. With sustained wind speeds of 120mph and heavy rain, it is now recognised as one of the most intense recorded weather events to hit the region. Many affected areas were already heavily waterlogged, making the overall effect even worse and causing extensive flooding.

Hundreds of people are known to have died and hundreds of thousands of people to have been affected, with casualties across Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Madagascar. Many people have been left without shelter, clean water or food.

MapAction initially sent a three-person Emergency Response Team to Mozambique on 20 March at the request of United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) Team. A fourth team member followed a few days later when it became clear that more in-country support was needed. Three MapAction members are currently based in Beira, the city that took the full brunt of the Cyclone, suffering catastrophic damage, and a fourth is in Chimoio, to the West of Mozambique. A further team rotation will travel out this weekend.

MapAction’s highly specialist team is working at the heart of the planning and coordination of the response, providing vital situation maps and information management services needed by all agencies to get help to where it’s most needed, as quickly as possible.


Among other things, the MapAction team in Mozambique is providing analysis of aerial assessments of the affected area, working with UNOCHA, the Red Cross and Save the Children. Photo by Luke Caley

They are supported in this work by our wider team of technical volunteers and specialist staff, who have been working remotely on flood extent modelling and on gathering and sharing useful reference data to help response teams since the disaster happened.

We are grateful to everyone that has donated to our Cyclone Idai appeal, to the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and to the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs for funding this life-saving work.

[Update: video blog ‘Inside the response to Cyclone Idai]