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Integrating low-cost Wireless Sensor Networks into hydrological risk governance for community-based disaster resilience building in developing countries


Project Description

According to the World Bank (2016), globally natural disasters force 26M people into poverty and cost US$520B in losses each year. Resilience to natural disasters in low and middle income counties (LMICs) is disproportionately low because socio-economic, political, institutional and cultural contexts amplify vulnerability to natural hazards. This project focuses on hydrological hazard (flood, drought, landslides) and risk governance for community-based disaster resilience building in developing countries. Specifically, the project leverages the significant potential of new, low-cost sensor technologies to improve resilience of hazard-prone communities through better preparedness (early warning), and better informed decision making (due to improved data collection, processing and provision at multiple).

In recent years, Wireless Sensor Networks (WSNs) have emerged as useful tools for hydrological monitoring, research, and management. The advancements of low-cost and open sensing, information and communication technologies enable innovative applications of WSNs that support community-based hydrological observations in data-scarce regions. For example, the supervisory team has used open-source hardware platforms including Arduino, Raspberry Pi and Xbee, and web-based visualisation and database technologies to craft prototype applications of WSNs for participatory hydrological monitoring in remote mountain regions.

Successful applications of WSNs require not only good technical design, but also considerations of social factors, such as stakeholders, institutions and contexts. This PhD project investigates the capabilities, potentials and limitations of low-cost WSNs for hydrological risk reduction and disaster resilience building from a non-technical aspect, and provides insights and guidelines for future environmental risk management in developing countries.

The main aims of this interdisciplinary project are to explore: (1) How WSNs can be used to support community-based early warning mechanism, risk governance and resilience building at different scales? (2) How hydrological and risk-related WSNs can be designed for different stakeholders, purposes and contexts? (3) How different institutional designs, stakeholder collaboration models and participatory practices influence the implementation and effectiveness of WSNs? (4) How WSNs can sustainably deliver their services? (5) How the new WSNs can cooperate with existing regional and national monitoring systems as well as other instruments?

The WSN in this project will be designed as a pivot point connecting three cutting edge research topics and environmental applications. (1) It underpins multi-scale assessment and research of hydrological hazards (e.g. landslides, flood and drought), and their mechanical processes. The collected data will be used in spatial and temporal models and forecasts of hydrological and meteorological events, as well as risk mapping and decision-making frameworks. (2) It is compatible with citizen science and community-based approaches, which are very powerful methods for generating and disseminating hydro-meteorological information and knowledge. (3) It is an essential component of the early warning and policy support system that enhance polycentric risk governance and local resilience building. Techniques such as visualisations and graphical user interface design may be used to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the information sharing and decision-making processes.

As noted above, WSNs provide promising opportunities to generate hydrological data, which has great potential for both geo-hydrological disasters research, and risk governance through early warning systems. With collaboration of local partners and end-user communities, this studentship will yield information of direct practical relevance, and support decision-making for water-related natural disasters reduction.

The PhD project will provide a tailored ‘training-through-research’ program, improving the student’s technical expertise, scientific knowledge and transferable skills. UoB’s Wolfson Freshwater Science Laboratories, ECOLAB and NBIF will provide infrastructural support for key technical skill development. The student will receive training in field instrumentation (including sensor networks), data exploration and modelling (including multivariate analysis, spatial statistics), scientific computing (including R, MATLAB, GIS), and gain scientific knowledge of relevance to the project (including advanced socio-hydrology, governance, resilience, and hazard and risk). Also, s/ he will receive transferable skills training (including project management, research dissemination) offered by UoB (e.g. Enterprise & Outreach, International PhD Pathways). This complementary training program will afford the student an excellent academic experience, helping them integrate into a stimulating postgraduate community while broadening their research horizons on an impact-orientated, ODA-relevant project.

Funding Notes

This project is part of the Global Challenges Scholarship.
The award comprises:

Full payment of tuition fees at UK Research Councils UK/EU fee level (£4,327 in 2019/20), to be paid by the University;
An annual tax-free doctoral stipend at UK Research Councils UK/EU rates (£15,009 for 2019/20), to be paid in monthly instalments to the Global Challenges scholar by the University;
The tenure of the award can be for up to 3.5 years (42 months).

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