Author(s): Adele Birkenes Lindsey Larsen

Mapping for a sustainable future: YouthMappers tackle global climate challenges

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Since 2015, the USAID GeoCenter has supported YouthMappers, a program that equips university students around the world to use geospatial technology to address local and global development challenges. Now young people from more than 400 universities across 77 countries participate in the YouthMappers network, using their skills to identify and respond to the needs of their communities and support broader mapping campaigns.

Provided with training in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), leadership, and professional development, YouthMappers collaborate with community organizations, governments, humanitarian partners, and local groups to inform decision making for sustainable development. While YouthMappers work across all development sectors, students have shown particular interest in conducting climate-related mapping activities.

Students and alumni of the YouthMappers network-including myself (Adele Birkenes, Geospatial Analyst at the USAID GeoCenter and co-founder/ former leader of Vassar's YouthMappers chapter)-have come of age at an "all hands on deck" moment regarding the climate crisis. We, as young people, have found identity, purpose, and camaraderie in our participation in the YouthMappers program because it enables us to apply our digital skills and university coursework to tangibly tackle the climate-related issues that impact our day-to-day lives. Join me for a low-carbon tour around the world as we learn about the climate adaptation and mitigation work of YouthMappers, with a specific focus on projects related to disaster risk reduction, forest health, and urban sustainability.

Preparing for the Next Disaster

Climate change is making extreme weather events more frequent and intense, exacerbating existing inequalities and disproportionately impacting vulnerable populations. YouthMappers in Bangladesh, Iraq, and Mexico are among the many chapters helping their communities better prepare for and respond to disasters.

  • The Haor region of Bangladesh is a large wetland ecosystem with cultural, biological, and economic significance that is being threatened by increased flooding. To help inform flood mitigation plans in the region, YouthMappers at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology created a risk distribution map of Sunamganj District. Over a period of two days, a group of 15 dedicated students traveled by boat, car, and rickshaw to collect data on rainfall, land use, land cover, and other topographical information. They then used geospatial technology to develop a comprehensive map highlighting potential flood hazards.
  • More frequent and severe flooding is also impacting Iraq, including the city of Erbil. YouthMappers at Erbil Polytechnic University organized a workshop with local government authorities, scientists, and community leaders to share their insights on flood mapping, risk assessment, and mitigation strategies. The workshop provided valuable data for local authorities and empowered the community with knowledge and resources to better respond to flooding events.
  • In October 2023, Hurricane Otis quickly-and unexpectedly-became the strongest Pacific landfalling hurricane on record in Mexico; the affected communities near Acapulco did not have access to the technology needed to anticipate its magnitude and adequately prepare for its impacts. Economically disadvantaged coastal neighborhoods where homes were mostly self-built experienced worse impacts than formal urban settlements. To help decision makers quickly assess the damage to coordinate response efforts, YouthMappers across the country coordinated a Mapathon to generate a base layer map in just 19 days, with nearly 1,000 strategic infrastructure sites completely mapped within one month.

Conserving Forests

Forests help capture carbon and provide other ecosystem services critical to human well-being and resilience. YouthMappers in Bolivia, Malawi, and Uganda are mapping these valuable ecosystems to help protect them. Ultimately, GIS is providing decision makers and community members the information they need to improve forest management.

Promoting Sustainable Cities

Cities face adverse impacts of climate change, but they also play an important role in meeting immediate climate targets and achieving long-term transformative change. YouthMappers chapters in Zambia and Colombia are providing the data to help them do just that.

  • Buses are an important mode of transportation in Lusaka, Zambia. YouthMappers at the University of Zambia are mapping the cities' bus routes to help the Government of Zambia assess their daily carbon emissions. The YouthMappers, together with the Lusaka City Council, Zambian Ministry of Health, and Zambia Road Traffic and Safety Agency, are using this information to encourage people to walk or ride bicycles where carbon emissions from buses are most pervasive.
  • The campus of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Medellín (National University of Colombia, Medellín) is a critical hub of biodiversity in the middle of the city, but not everyone who studies, lives, and works in the area is aware of its importance. The university's local YouthMappers chapter, SAGEMA UN Medellín, undertook a comprehensive mapping of the campus arboretum and botanical garden to help raise awareness of this biodiversity and show the community why conserving the forests of Colombia is key to confronting climate change.

"It's not just about trees; it's our small yet impactful step in fighting climate change and preserving biodiversity…[E]very tree on the map tells a unique story in the global narrative of environmental change." - YouthMappers, National University of Colombia, Medellín chapter

As you can see from this global tour, YouthMappers are applying their geospatial skills to understand the impacts of climate change. They are demonstrating the power of young people to mobilize and directly address climate priorities in their communities and countries. To learn more, please check out the YouthMappers blog, the open access book Open Mapping towards Sustainable Development Goals: Voices of YouthMappers on Community Engaged Scholarship, and the documentary "The Power of YouthMappers: Shining a Light on the Movement."

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