Helping Areas Imperiled By Nature

By Cathy Rainone

uganda 2Yuri Gorokhovich, an expert in mapping natural disasters using Geographic Information Systems, knows he can't single-handedly stop the deadly landslides that occur in Uganda every year.

But what he does hope is that his research will raise awareness about the disasters and eventually help set up monitoring programs that would issue warnings on landslides for communities at risk.

"I think that every small thing that you do counts," says Gorokhovich, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental, Geographic and Geological Sciences at Lehman College, who's a native of Ukraine. "My work can stimulate interest, discussion and activity in that area."

Gorokhovich spent two weeks in July investigating geologic factors and sociodemographic consequences of floods and landslides in the Uganda districts of Butaleja and Bududa that occurred in March. Landslides happen in this part of Africa every year because of heavy rain and poor agricultural practices, but the disaster that struck villages in Bududa was especially devastating.

"It killed 300 people, and it destroyed a clinic and a school in the village [Nametsi] which were the only sources of electricity and hot water, " says Gorokhovich, who conducted the surveys with Tahjib Zaman, a Lehman student majoring in geology, and Shannon Doocy of Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Fearing additional landslides, most of the people in Nametsi and close-by villages resettled to nearby Bulucheke Camp, set up by the United Nations near Bulucheke village. Originally a temporary settlement intended for 4,000 people, the camp now has more than 8,000. New landslides occurred in June and new cracks continue to develop in the ground above neighboring villages, according to Gorokhovich's report, part of which was published on Relief Web, a project administered by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Gorokhovich estimates that at least 29 households are in imminent danger when the next landslide occurs.

He shared his findings with local government officials and offered a solution to the problem: establish a landslide-monitoring program using inexpensive vertical bars along the slope. But setting up such systems in remote villages isn't easy.

"Technically and logistically it's a big challenge for the government and it's not high on their list of priorities," says Gorokhovich. "We'd like to start a program there but local people lack the knowledge to do the monitoring and companies who can do it want to charge a lot of money. It's a sad part of my work." But there is some hope. Gorokhovich's report has prompted the kind of interest Ugandahe's looking for -- at other schools, as well. One student at the University of Western Ontario told Gorokhovich that he plans to do his thesis work on modeling slope stability in this area of Uganda because it would be the best way he could raise awareness of his university peers to the critical needs of the people.

Gorokhovich has mapped other natural disasters in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University and sponsored by a National Science Foundation grant. In January 2008, he was in Peru to map the distribution of people displaced by a magnitude 8.0 earthquake that struck the central coast of the country in August 2007.

Part of his work there involved testing the strength of construc-tion materials in buildings that collapsed, and one hot day a Peruvian woman whose home was destroyed offered Gorokhovich a cup of a local corn drink, chicha morada. "I wanted to give her some money for the drink," says Gorokhovich, "but she refused it and said, 'I'm so happy to see you working on this, I feel like we're not alone.' " Just a few words like that, Gorokhovich says, makes his research worthwhile.

In 2008, Gorokhovich also created computer models of the geographic distribution of people affected by Cyclone Nargis, which hit the Irrawaddy Delta in Myanmar in May 2008 and left 134,000 people dead or missing and some 2.4 million stranded without adequate food, shelter or supplies. The maps and other research he produced were used by the U.N. and the Red Cross to estimate the damage.

Currently he is developing a website in collaboration with a research group from the Center for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University that will allow people to track natural disasters and see how they affect populations that live in the area.

"It's amazing how much global data we have," says Gorokhovich. "A lot of people, including local governments ... anticipating hurricanes, for example, can go on the website and see how many people would be affected. "