Mexican engineering team awarded at inaugural ResilienceTech competition for early warning app
Maura Varela, Esai Osorio and Rosalba Peña stood before 1,000 people in Punta del Este, Uruguay, on 2 March as they accepted the inaugural award of ResilienceTech 2022, an early warning system development competition.
The trio of Mexican engineers was awarded for their Dzahui mobile application, which provides early warnings for flash floods to residents in and around Huajuapan de León, a city in the southern region of Oaxaca.
Varela, Osorio and Peña were among the 150 young people from 18 countries who competed in the four-week challenge, in which teams developed accessible and people-centred early warning systems.
The competition aimed to demonstrate that data is not just for experts and scientists but should be available for local communities on the front line of disasters to understand and act accordingly.
Named after the Mixteca rain god, the engineers said Dzahui allows local residents to communicate hydrometeorological conditions throughout the region via a mobile application.
Then, local meteorologists evaluate the information and, if necessary, warn residents that a flash flood is imminent. The app also provides information about evacuation routes and temporary shelters.
The inspiration for the project came after a flash flood in 2009 caused by rain upriver. Despite no rain in the city, flood waters damaged many homes and buildings in Huajuapan de León.
Among the damaged buildings was a store that sold chemicals, which spilled into the river and flowed into the reservoir that supplied the city’s water. “So it was a major emergency that could have turned into a disaster,” he said.
To begin designing the early warning system, the engineers used geographic information systems and fieldwork to study the river basin and tributaries of the Mixteco River.
They used this information to assess the local population's risk and risk perception and found that long dry periods resulted in construction in the flood plain and a lack of awareness of the dangers.
“Within the three strengths of the system, we focus more on the social part: building an early warning system from society for society, where they can take ownership because this reduces institutional vulnerability,” said Osorio.
Along with its community focus, the app was awarded for its cost efficiency and replicability, which make it suitable for implementation in other regions facing similar challenges.
“In other words, we want it to survive over time and beyond administrations because when the community builds, the community oversees and the community also strengthens itself,” Osorio added.
Peña said that another advantage of involving local residents is their knowledge of the territory, including those living in the floodplain and farther upriver. “With this methodology, we do not teach the population,” she said, “we learn from the population.”
Varela said that after the app sends a push notification warning of a flash flood, users may enter the app and find the nearest evacuation route and temporary shelter. “This functionality is for people to evacuate efficiently and quickly,” she said.
Along with the team from Mexico, the runners-up from Paraguay were also recognized for their app, Ikatu Oiko, which provides information to education centres to help them understand risk and better prepare for potential disasters.