GIS Mapping Project to Provide Data for Water Infrastructure Improvements Aiding Refugees

Water – sustainer of health, dignity and life – is at the heart of the mission of Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-USA) in Uganda, which hosts one of the largest refugee populations in the world and has enormous water infrastructure needs.

EWB-USA, a nonprofit organization that provides sustainable engineering solutions in developing countries, has worked in Uganda on a variety of water, sanitation and hygiene initiatives, including developing standards for solar water pumping. This year, it started a water system Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping project to provide accurate geolocation and other data for sustainable water infrastructure development in the West Nile sub-region of Northern Uganda.

Trimble donates equipment to support GIS water asset inventory

The water asset mapping project is partially supported by the Trimble Foundation Fund, which has donated GIS and mapping technology solutions for the water inventory project. In 2019, the fund recommended a grant of $100,000 for EWB-USA and its professional Engineering Service Corp (ESC) to support ESC’s efforts to significantly develop its global disaster response, recovery and resilience engineering work. 

For the Uganda water system project, high accuracy GIS solutions will support the inventory of about 120 water installations, and ultimately a master plan to address the limited water capacity in Uganda, said Zoe Pacciani, Country Director – Uganda, and Regional Director for Eastern/Southern Africa, for EWB-USA. 

The project also will have the ripple effect of demonstrating the power of GIS for accessing information on systems virtually, as well as the development of training programs for local engineers to learn GIS capabilities, including sharing knowledge with a local group of women GIS engineers, Pacciani said.

“We started with this inventory and it rolled into looking at master planning and design,” Pacciani said. “It rolled out even further into a recognition that there’s a limited capacity in Uganda, and a limited understanding of the power of GIS and GPS equipment, and how that can be captured in the cloud, accessed virtually, and stored so it can be reached even in the capital city of Kampala or globally.”

Trimble R2 GIS survey Juru water system
Field Engineer Joseph Tabule Jolley conducts a survey of the Juru water system to aid design of the system, which will feed into the overall master plan for the Nakivale refugee settlement. Nakivale is in Southern Uganda, Isingiro District. Photo​​​​: EWB-USA

Refugee response leaves mismatched water systems

The East African country of Uganda hosts one of the largest refugee populations in the world and currently has more than 1 million refugees, including more than 900,000 from South Sudan. A majority – more than 64% – are children under the age of 18, and women make up 86% of the refugee population. 

Uganda is generous to refugees, giving them relative freedom of movement, equal access to primary education, healthcare and other basic social services, and the right to work and own a business. Following a huge influx of Sudanese refugees starting in 2016 into Uganda’s West Nile region, a variety of nongovernmental organizations provided about 120 different pumped and piped solar water systems for drinking water and sanitation needs in different refugee settlements. 

The solar water systems were installed with varying levels of engineering expertise, resulting in a network that would benefit from being inventoried, redesigned, and in some cases, rehabilitated for an overall upgrade and optimization, Pacciani said. For example, “we don’t know what pumps are in there in order to operate and maintain them,” she said. “We don’t know if the pipe diameters are sufficient for the supply.”

As a result, it is costly to maintain the systems, and an asset inventory will document the location and condition of the water systems and guide improvements so the network can be handed over to a public utility to meet current and future needs. EWB-USA’s team brings the necessary engineering expertise and is qualified to inspect and qualify the installed systems.

The asset inventory is also expected to have other positive ripple effects, including the creation of training modules for local engineers to increase their GIS and mapping skills, a platform for asset management, and a better-planned water system overall.

Christian Brodbeck, an engineer in the College of Engineering at Alabama’s Auburn University and mentor to a student EWB-USA team, is leading training for the Uganda water system inventory. Brodbeck is already familiar with the region after supporting a project in the summer of 2018 and 2019 to install water distribution systems in underdeveloped communities in neighboring Rwanda.

“What we really hope to do, with Christian’s help, is to develop a training program where we are skilling up local engineers to be able to use GIS equipment and software,” Pacciani said. “We're looking at developing training modules that then we, as a country office, can deliver to local engineers.”

Water system Uganda
The GIS water system inventory project by Engineers Without Borders-USA in Uganda will enable the network of water systems installed at varying levels of engineering expertise to be inventoried, redesigned - and in some cases - rehabilitated for an overall upgrade and optimization. Photo: EWB​​​​-USA​​​​

Remote learning as a COVID-19 workaround

Planning for the Uganda water inventory project started in the spring of 2020, with Brodbeck planning to conduct a one-week training course in-country in the fall. Those plans however, were upended by the COVID-19 global pandemic.

In response, the team moved the GIS and mapping training to remote classes in October, taught by Brodbeck from Alabama. “We’re doing ‘train the trainers’ right now so they can go out and train other people on how to build a GIS from the ground up,” he said. 

The remote training comprised six days and included lessons on GPS and GIS, an ArcGIS Esri tutorial, and demonstration of Trimble equipment and TerraFlex software. “If everyone seems to be collecting data and moving forward with building a GIS, it may not be necessary for me to go over there,” he said. “Thanks to cloud-based technologies, a lot of this can be done remotely.”

These training capabilities “will be a huge benefit that I think a few of us had not even realized when we started on this project back in March or April,” Brodbeck said. “I think there’s so many different avenues that having the software and the equipment is going to allow the Uganda team to help out people around the country.”

“We’re starting small and working out the bugs,” Pacciani said. “The hope is that this cascades out to so many other different people and different groups.”

Uganda water system GIS Trimble Centerpoint RTX
During the global pandemic, cloud-based technologies are making it possible for remote training from the U.S. in the use of high-accuracy GIS hardware and software. Photo: EWB-USA

Accuracy and reliability are indispensable in remote locations

The team in Uganda is working with three sets of equipment from Trimble. Each set includes a Trimble R2 – a compact, durable GNSS receiver for the collection of precise data in a range of geospatial applications, a Trimble TDC600 handheld data collector with Trimble TerraFlex field software, and accessories (pole, mount and hard case.) The R2 will support real-time correction services through CenterPoint RTX for accuracy of better than 2 centimeters, enabling field engineers to perform positioning fieldwork in the remote locations without relying on traditional VRS networks or a local RTK base station. The team also will use the cloud capabilities of Trimble TerraFlex field software and Esri’s ArcGIS online to set up data collection protocols from anywhere in the world, including setting up remote assessments.

High-accuracy GIS data is an important feature of the water asset inventory project, Brodbeck said. “Anytime we’re working with an inventory of systems, one of the biggest challenges is collecting accurate data, both geospatially and in terms of the information we input as we build our GIS. We have to make sure we can have reliable geospatial accuracy that works anywhere in the world (without cell phone data) that can give us four centimeters.” 

Robust, reliable GIS solutions are also necessary in remote areas such as the dusty, rolling hills of the West Nile region. “If you are working in a region where you're maybe five or eight hours away from home, and you're planning a trip, the last thing you want is to have your equipment fail you to where now you just wasted a day of travel to get out there,” Brodbeck said.

Trimble TDC600
The Uganda GIS teams are working with three sets of equipment, with each including the Trimble R2 GNSS receiver for collection of precise data, a Trimble TDC600 handheld data collector (shown), and Trimble TerraFlex field software. The R2 supports real-time correction services through CenterPoint RTX for accuracy of better than 2 centimeters. Photo: EWB-USA

Data supports creation of a streamlined network of water systems

The inventory of the 120 water systems will start with 20 installations, Pacciani said. In October, she spent two days in the field using the equipment to conduct a survey of the Juru water system with Field Engineer Joseph Tabule Jolley. That survey will aid the design of the system that will feed into the overall master plan for the Nakivale refugee settlement in Southern Uganda, Isingiro District. It is the oldest refugee settlement in Uganda, formed in 1958. 

“As we build the inventory, one of the things that’s critical in this project is we develop the GIS so we can use the inventory to manage it as well,” Brodbeck said. This includes recording the make and model of the pumps, the diameter of pipes, and the types of fittings and connectors. “While we are inventorying it, we are building it out in a way that we can use it to actively manage the water systems that are in different states of operation and built to different standards.”

In the end, the team will put the information into a format that will be handed over to a water management authority. “That’s one of my goals,” Brodbeck says, “to make this a tool that’s very useful to the people who are on the ground utilizing it.” 

Pacciani expects the 120-system asset inventory, plus the designs, upgrades, networking and asset management development, will take all of 2021, and possibly into 2022, to complete.

“Instead of just doing asset management, we are prioritizing having that redesign, so we are putting together a functional network and prioritizing handing it over to a local utility,” Pacciani said. “I would see that running 18 months at least, so we’ve got a long haul.”

Zoe Pacciani Engineers Without Borders-USA
Zoe Pacciani, county director - Uganda for EWB-USA, tests a GIS data collection system from Trimble on the Juru water system in a district that is the oldest refugee settlement in Uganda. Photo: EWB-USA
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Trimble Geospatial

Trimble Geospatial provides Land Surveying, GIS, Scanning, Mobile Mapping, Remote Sensing, Photogrammetry and Forensics professionals with industry leading hardware and software solutions.