The drone makes a conspicuous racket as it lifts off on a mission to capture images of the reservoir below. The sight and sound of this strange device stirs interest among locals as they make their way to and from the town of Kasungu in central Malawi. It takes a matter of minutes for a small crowd to form.
A few yards away, Patrick Kalonde is wading through grass and mud. Patrick, an intern at UNICEF working on humanitarian uses of drones, is carrying a plastic container and a ladle and is looking for mosquito larvae. The contrast between high-tech drones and low-tech “bucket-and-spade” science, metres apart, could not be starker – yet both are equally important to the success of our new project to map where mosquitoes breed.
Kasungu, a small town at the base of the picturesque Kasungu Mountain, is the centre of Africa’s first humanitarian drone testing corridor. Set up by UNICEF in 2017 with support from the Malawi government, the corridor is an 80km-wide area for flying and testing drones to help the local people.
Keen to dispel the reputation that drones are only useful for destruction, the UNICEF corridor promotes “drones for good”. Without this programme, getting our project up and running would have been a much more arduous task. You can’t send a drone into the sky wherever you like, so we were delighted when they accepted our request to use the corridor.
So far, projects have been launched in the corridor to deliver emergency supplies to inaccessible rural areas, to map cholera outbreaks, and to train the next generation of Malawians to build and pilot drones. We’re in Kasungu to add the fight against malaria to the list.
The number of deaths attributed to malaria has declined considerably since the turn of the century, yet the disease continues to wreak havoc across Africa. In Malawi, nearly a quarter of children under five years old test positive for the disease. Gains are being made through measures such as providing free mosquito nets, but there is still a long way to go before the goal of eliminating malaria is achieved.
You may wonder what this has to do with reservoirs and drones. Malaria and water are inextricably linked. A few days after taking a blood meal from an unsuspecting human or animal host, the malaria-carrying female Anopheles mosquito searches for water in which to lay her eggs. During the rainy season – between November and April – it is not too difficult for her to come across a small puddle or pool. Mosquitoes flourish during this period – and malaria peaks soon after.