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

University of Birmingham

Birmingham, United Kingdom 🇬🇧

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This PhD project is aligned very strongly with Birmingham Global Challenges PhD Scholarship theme “understanding and tackling global challenges”, specifically “Engineering/technology in development contexts” and “Shocks, security, risks and resilience”.

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 supervisory team provides requisite interdisciplinary skills and training needs that span: hazards in a LMICs (Hannah); sensor technologies (Cassidy; Krause); risk governance (Clark); socio-hydrology and resilience (Mao); and engineering for development (Buytaert @ICL).

Funding Notes

The Global Challenges Award comprises of:
Full payment of the tuition fee at Research Councils UK Fee Level for year of entry to be paid by the University
An annual maintenance grant at current UK Research Councils rates to be paid in monthly installments to the Global Challenges Scholar by the University.
Full Time students only.
Tenure of award can be for up to 3.5 years.
See the University of Birmingham website for further details: