Herve Villard: Consistent collection of hazard specific spatial data, and implementation of data sharing mechanism-key to beating perennial devastation from disasters

Editors Pick ” Most of disaster management initiatives or even studies rely on better understanding of the land cover and land use. The best source of land cover information in remote sensed data. Satellite imagery have been used to generate land cover for the integrated flood modeling project in Kigali.”

Herve Villard
Herve Villard HABONIMANA, dearly married to the beautiful Adeline NIWEMUGENI (I wont pretend I know why the names and case sensitive! is It just looks cool) is a Geographer with credentials from the former National University of Rwanda and an MSc from Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation (ITC) in the Netherlands on Geo-Information and Earth Observation for Natural Hazards and Disaster Risk Management. Hereve's firt job was as a geography trainer at Imena College of Karama in the Southern province of Rwanda later followed by the former Rwanda Natural Resources Authority (RNRA) / Lands and mapping department as a GIS Specialist for one year and few months and later joined the University of Rwanda. Currently, beside teaching,  Herve is an affiliate researcher at the Centre for Geographic Information Systems and Remote Sensing (CGIS) of the university of Rwanda.
Herve says, “In the past I used to think that I would become a singer or an actor. I wrote many piece of theaters back in high school and wrote many songs for choirs. After, the university I released three songs, but it was very hard for me to get my songs played on
radio stations. I stopped completely my music career dreams when I joined the
university as lecturer. I rarely play the guitar these days.”
I can only speculate that Herve found GIS to be as good as music!
Qn: Tell us about the National Rwanda Risk Atlas as a tool in Disaster/Hazard risk
Herve: The National Risk Atlas of Rwanda is document that was written by the Ministry of
Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs with
the support from an initiative of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group (ACP), European Union (EU), Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), World Bank, United Nations Rwanda, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNPD). I contributed to the report and the overall project as hazard, vulnerability and risk analyst at the later phases of the project. There were no past disaster studies on Rwanda while the impacts of disaster on the country were increasingly devastating. The atlas’s main aim was first to assess five hazards that affected most the country; landslide, floods, drought, earthquake, and strong winds. Secondly, the assessment the level of risk the country is facing was urgent. It helped the identification of areas with high level of hazards and the level of exposure of the population, crops and important infrastructures like roads, schools, and hospitals. One the success story, is that the national risk atlas of Rwanda is the first of its kind in Africa. Moreover, the atlas relied solely on local expertise.
Qn: Disaster risk management is a vital vertical for Geospatial technology, what are some of the specific tools your team leveraged in development of the Multi-hazard risk index for Rwanda?
Herve: The assessment of hazards and risk in Rwanda relied on many Geospatial tools, The
most important were the Spatial multi-criteria evaluation (SMCE) implemented in ILWIS
which was used on landslides susceptibility mapping, OpenQuake model for
earthquake, CREST model for floods, and the Water Requirement Satisfactory Index
(WRSI) developed by FEWSNET was used for drought.
Qn: How have you used Remote Sensing techniques from your past projects involving
disaster/hazard risk management?
Herve: There is always a linkage between human activities and the ongoing increase of the
impacts of disasters. Most of disaster management initiatives or even studies rely on
better understanding of the land cover and land use. The best source of land cover
information in remote sensed data. Satellite imagery have been used to generate
land cover for the integrated flood modeling project in Kigali. They have been used as
well to assess the landslide hazard and risk susceptibility of Rwanda to cite few
The analysis of remote sensed data is helping the creation of a landslide inventory
Qn: African countries especially the horn of Africa has continued to experience disasters and hazards which devastate communities perennially, what’s your “silver bullet” idea or recommendation to tackling these issues from the eye of Geospatial Specialists?
Herve: In disaster management, we believe that the past can help predict the future. Today, it is hard to find a reliable spatial dataset of the past disaster. The only information you get is normally statistics on the impacts in newspapers or government reports. If a
rainfall event result into flood, it’s hard to know what was the duration of that rainfall,
the depth or intensity of that rainfall. Moreover, it is hard to get information on the total
extent of the area that is affected. Without such kind of information, we will never be
able to predict the future flood events and thus it become impossible to reduce future
impacts of disaster. This apply to all disaster we face in East Africa. There is a need of
consistent collection of hazard specific spatial data, and implementation of data
sharing mechanism. I’m not sure if it is going to be the task of governments or research
institutions, but the need for spatial data collection on every single disaster is crucial for
a better tomorrow.
Qn: In using geospatial technology, data is very important in numerous dimensions, in the Rwanda Risk Atlas you produced, data has been highlighted under every section as a requirement for the assessment. What are some of these datasets that are key for achieving a comprehensive result in similar projects?
Herve: Every disaster requires specific information on the hazard and exposed elements.
Meteorological and geological hazards, like drought, floods, and landslide requires
data on rainfall. One needs information on soil’s hydraulic properties, drainage
channels (depths or cross sections), land cover, detailed rainfall properties (intensity,
depth, duration, and frequency), topography, past flood hydrographs or extent
maps…for better assessment of floods. A reliable and complete landslide inventory is
always the basis for any landslide study. The list is long, but one needs more that
simply impact data aggregated at an administrative boundary.
Qn: How would you describe the Geospatial Landscape in Rwanda, in terms of adoption,
heterogeneity of opportunities, open source vs commercial acceptance?
Herve: Today, I will say that commercial software dominates Geospatial Landscape in Rwanda at nearly 100%. Open source tools are only used by few experts for specific tasks.
Qn: Exposure assessment, vulnerability assessment and risk assessment, what is the
fundamental difference that would inform the choice of analytical methodology employed especially in GIS environment from your experience.
Herve: The exposure is solely the result of hazard and elements at risk maps. With a hazard maps, you simply overlay it with your maps of population, socio-economic
infrastructures, protected areas…to get information on what is exposed or not to the
hazard (what is located in hazardous locations). Vulnerability on the other hand is a
very complex concept. From social science to natural sciences the concepts of
vulnerability are interpreted differently. Defining the vulnerability concept your study will
follow should be the first action to take. Vulnerability is multi-dimensional, dynamic
(change with time), scale dependent and site specific. Thus, any vulnerability
assessment need to take into consideration all those components of vulnerability. In
our countries where little has been done in the past on vulnerability assessment,
extensive literature review on what has been done in other places should be the
starting point. Field characterization of the elements at risk and historical records of
disaster impacts are also very important when it comes to the understanding of how
exposed element like the population, buildings for instance resists or are affected by
the impacts of a hazard of interest. Finally, the risk is generally the product of hazard,
the number of exposed element, and vulnerability. Although it is not straightforward as
one might think.
Qn: How is the Geospatial Industry organized in Rwanda, what are the structure of
Professional Networks, Bodies or Societies that oversight excellence in the industry?
Herve: The Geospatial industry in Rwanda was pioneered by the Centre for Geographic
Information Systems and Remote Sensing (CGIS) in the late days of the second
millennium. Since 1999, the CGIS started training GIS and Remote Sensing
professionals that went to work for various public and private institutions in Rwanda
and abroad. The CGIS created as well most of the baseline spatial data currently used in Rwanda. Later, private and public sector got involved actively in the industry. ESRI
joined the scene by opening there office in Rwanda and other multiple private companies are now offering geospatial services across the country. The sector has grown so fast and become very important in almost of the sectors of the country’s life. Geo spatial technologies are currently used in environmental planning, urban planning, land administration, health, agriculture, roads planning, rural settlements planning…I think today, Rwanda Land Management and Use Authority (RLMUA) has the official responsibility for the creation and storing of most of national spatial data.
Qn: What’s your take on GIS and especially in the African continent?
Herve: The geospatial industry is growing fast across the continent. Many universities and
training centers are now offering trainings on GIS and RS which increase the number
of professionals in the domain. Decision makers are increasingly being aware of the
usefulness of GIS and RS in planning, evaluation of the performance of national
policies, environmental monitoring, and decision making in general. That said,
geospatial technologies are no longer solely used in delineating administrative
boundaries. On the other hand, there is a need to decrease de dependence on
commercial software why not the creation of our tools. There are still challenges
associated with limited access to satellite images, although even the freely available
are not exploited at the fullness. Probably, I might be speaking about my country
thinking that the whole continent is performing the same. It is true that there is a
general lack of data on some countries for various reasons. There are wars, lack of
local professionals, and some countries are too big to be mapped seen limited
economical and human resources they have. But what is most important is that most of
the countries are aware of the importance of GIS on the everyday life of a country.