Information and Communication Technologies in Disaster Mitigation and

Document Sample
Information and Communication Technologies in Disaster Mitigation and Powered By Docstoc
					  Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs): A Critical
        Element to Effective Disaster Mitigation and Relief

Disasters often come without warning and in many cases result in untold
human and material loss. Even where disasters are detected in advance, it
is impossible to completely prevent their occurrence particularly, natural
disasters. However, the sufferings can be minimized by creating proper
awareness of the likely disasters and their impact through the
development of a suitable warning system, sound disaster preparedness,
and well designed disaster management programmes that are built around
the application of information technology tools. These measures can
make a big difference to those finding themselves already engulfed in the
cycle of poverty that tends to increase their vulnerability due to lack of
training and limited access to information - factors that tend to leave them
deeper into poverty.

Case of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs)
The world’s 49 least developed countries are so defined by the world
community because of their fragile economies, high levels of poverty,
low levels of human resource development, and severe structural
weaknesses. All these factors have a negative bearing to these countries’
ability to prevent, prepare, and respond to disasters even mild ones that
would ordinarily not cause much destruction in developed communities.
The challenge is even greater when these countries have to reconstruct
especially when one considers that the destroyed infrastructure would
have taken decades to construct, and sucked most of the country’s hard-
earned resources.

Small Island Developing States (SIDS) including those that are more
developed than the LDCs also face this same predicament as most of
these consist of a number of small islands. This in itself tends to increase
their vulnerability due to their isolation, their small populations, their
small size, ecological fragility, topography, limited local capital for
productive investment, and narrow resource base.

Lessons From the Recent Tsunami Disaster
Tsunamis as well as other forms of disasters have existed since time
immemorial. The great 1896 Sanriku Tsunami in Meiji, Japan sent shock
waves around the world. Since then thanks to mitigation measures that
the Japanese government took, deaths have been drastically reduced. This
informs us that loss of life and economic damage can be highly curtailed
if appropriate measures are taken especially in the case of tsunamis that
have to be triggered by a primary source such as an earthquake, volcanic
eruption, landslide, and slump. There is always a gap between the cause
(those factors outlined as possible tsunami causes) and effect (the
tsunami) giving humans an opportunity to intervene. Using reliable early
warning systems, it should be possible to determine the epicenter and
magnitude of an earthquake that can make it possible to determine or
estimate the tsunami arrival time and its height. This information can then
be disseminated to the population without delay so that people can
evacuate to safe zones in elevated areas.

Unfortunately, when the recent Tsunami resulting from an earthquake
measuring 9 on the Richter scale with an epicenter off the northwest coast
of Indonesia’s Sumatra Island in the Indian Ocean struck, many people
(locals and tourists) continued swimming, relaxing at the beaches,

fishing, even video filming the coming deadly waves, and generally going
on with their daily lives without realizing that a tsunami was approaching.

Two observations need be made. First, there was no national tsunami
early warning system in place in most of the affected countries that could
have alerted the authorities of the impending danger. Second, as this
unprecedented disaster affected developing countries that generally have
low penetration levels of information and communication technologies, a
point that can of course be contested is that even if there were early
warning systems in place, dissemination of the gathered information to
the vulnerable persons would still have been a big challenge although,
broadcasts to large audiences, sirens etc. would have made a big
difference. To develop capability to reach out to the majority of the
population in times like this is in itself a development challenge! For
instance, four of the affected countries are least developed countries
(Bangladesh, Maldives, Somalia, and Tanzania). These LDCs have very
low teledensities and Internet penetration levels. True, Maldives has
managed to attain enviable ICT diffusion as well as general social and
economic development. This point is stressed by the fact that when the
tsunami struck, this country was in a transitional phase to graduate from
the least developed country status (the Maldives was first recommended
for graduation from the LDC status in 2000 and its graduation would
become effective in 2007 when the next United Nations review is due).
However, in the aftermath of the tsunami, twenty of the country’s 199
inhabited islands were described as totally destroyed mostly due to heavy
flooding. More than a hundred people died, while 12’500 were displaced.
This, no doubt reversed the social and economic strides that Maldives
made in the recent past.

Harnessing ICTs for Disaster Reduction
Losses from future disasters with the potential to disrupt national
economies and acting as impediments to sustainable development can be
reduced if risk management is integrated into               comprehensive
development planning that is built on improved knowledge base, public
awareness resulting from good training and well designed educational
programmes. In all this, a ubiquitous telecommunications network can
play an important role not only in linking networks of warning centers,
seismic and water-level reporting stations that are sources of vital
information but providing a last mile link to the population who require
timely warnings.

Unlike most other disaster mitigation measures, ICTs have an upper hand
in that their role in disaster reduction is broad and multi-hazard in nature
equipped to deal with all kinds of natural and man-made disasters.
Developing strategies that seek to make these technologies universally
accessible to the majority of the people goes a long way towards disaster
mitigation and relief especially now when technological convergence has
become topical and dominates the global communications agenda. Not
only is telecommunications converging with broadcasting but these two
have also developed a seamless intercourse with information technology
at network, device and regulatory levels ushering a world of new
opportunities and choices.

At national level, ICT policies should favor the setting up of Community
Access Points for people in public places, setting up of Universal Service
Funds to promote wider, easy and affordable national access to ICTs at
local level, and most regulatory authorities should put in place a
regulatory regime that favors disaster relief and response features.

Public telecommunication networks should have features that permit the
prioritization of calls for disaster mitigation. Also, while some
frequencies at national level should be reserved for disaster
communications purposes, telecommunications operators and other
providers of telecommunications related services and applications should
be compelled to provide emergency access numbers that can be called in
case of disasters. The lines should of course not be directly connected to
the disaster site, but should bypass the communication logjam and
provide safety-related information. In due course, a global single
emergency access number common in all countries could be a possibility.

In understanding how these technologies provide last mile solutions and
reinforce systems set up to monitor and predict the natural phenomena
such as weather events, tsunamis and other disasters a recent case can be
quoted. In September 2004, authorities in Jamaica raised an alarm and
broadcasted messages informing citizens of the impending Hurricane
Ivan and in some cases asking vulnerable people to evacuate even days
before the just below 155 mph mark giant waves and winds were due to
hit the Island. This warning enabled Cuba and Jamaica, to name just a
few, to prepare themselves for this category 5 storm, the most powerful
on the Saffir-Simpson scale. Even the international community was kept
well informed by the world media prompting sympathetic governments to
pledge assistance in the event of destruction even before the disaster
struck. Other governments in the region such as Barbados, St. Lucia and
St. Vincent, also used telecommunications and broadcasting to coordinate
pre-hurricane Ivan disaster activities.

In disaster management, one of the critical elements is early warning.
However, for any early warning system to be meaningful it must be fully
supported by the many existing information and communications
networks such as broadcasting, cable, satellite, and telephony (fixed and
mobile) - each capable of providing all sorts of different services i.e.
radio, television, data and voice with the aim of ensuring timely, reliable,
and universal dissemination of information. Whilst there are government-
designated authorities responsible for managing this information before it
is released to the public, debate should now focus on what else could be
done to ensure that this human intervention does not delay warnings
especially when the intensity of the detected danger is categorized as
grossly fatal and destructive. Perhaps, the point of departure in this
debate lies in the possibility of establishing a communications system that
is fully integrated into early warning systems with the capability of
generating automatic warnings to the public. This is in no way a criticism
of how governments currently handle information in the course of
disaster management but a proposal to improve the process.

For each region or country, the measurement and intensity of a given
earthquake on the Richter scale as detected by seismometers and seismic
meters should inform authorities of the probable loss of life and damage
to infrastructure. In the case of a volcanic disaster, volcanic alert,
volcanic advisory and volcanic observation reports can be sent out based
on Volcanic Intensity Levels. Armed with this information, authorities
could stipulate in advance from what point on that scale advisory or
warning messages should be automatically dispatched to citizens without
human intervention. Messages can be broadcast automatically to interrupt
all radio and television transmissions thus interrupting regular programs
to provide disaster related information on its occurrence and evacuation.

The same messages will also be routed into the cellular networks, public
telephone systems, radio amateur radio networks and automatically
broadcast to any individuals with access to these modes of
communication. Because of the smartness of modern technology, even
switched off television sets, radios, and mobile phones can be
automatically switched on to deliver the desired messages. The messages
or warnings can even be targeted only at those persons in threatened
regions. For instance, in the case of tsunamis, the obvious target group is
those at beaches, at sea and those living in coastline regions.

Dealing with the Challenges
As already discussed above, a well-planned ICT-based strategy for
disaster management can save many lives. However, the effective use of
telecommunications technologies confronts three major challenges. First,
most national authorities want to manage information i.e. once they have
received information from an early warning system alerting them of an
impending danger, they would like to be able to decide what, when, and
how to disseminate this information. This human intervention can be
costly as delays can be experienced in clearing the information before
sending it out to the various media that informs the public. Although this
argument holds water, governments are justified to some extend to argue
that this procedure is necessary because we all know that badly managed
information can result in mayhem and chaos. Second, there is also the
challenge arising from the specter of false alarms. By nature, if people
continuously receive what turns out to be false alarms, they tend to
disregard future calls for evacuation, this is worse if people know that
these are automatically generated. Education is therefore important so
that the population is aware that false alarms can happen even in cases
where government-designated authorities send them out. The public must

be warned never to be complacent as this could be a recipe for disaster.
There is an old military maxim: It is better to fill a thousand drums with
sweat during training than to lose a drop of blood in battle! Third, in
order to put in place a sound multi-hazard, multiple-communication
mode, all-time – anywhere ICT global system, a big investment must be
made. As most countries and their governments lack such resources, it is
important to embrace a multi-stakeholder approach where at national
level actors (government, private sector, providers of telecommunications
and other ICT related services, NGOs, local communities, academia, etc)
pool human and financial resources. At sub-regional, regional, and
international levels, actors such as economic groupings, disaster
management institutions, United Nations Agencies, development
agencies, development banks, etc, must work together so as to avoid
duplication of effort and resources, learn from each other’s experiences
and build on successful models.

In conclusion, recent experiences have demonstrated that ICTs are
important at every stage of disaster (earthquakes, droughts, tsunamis,
floods, landslides, etc.) mitigation and relief starting from preparedness,
to early warning, and then to response. The international regulatory
framework is now in place since the Tampere Convention came into
effect on 8 January 2005 following its ratification by 30 States. Since
then, Venezuela has also ratified this convention increasing the total
number of these states to 31 and giving the hope that more countries will
jump on the bandwagon in months to come. The Convention paves way
for the movement of telecommunications equipment for disaster relief
across borders, which is a very positive development for those countries
where there are areas without or with limited access to ICTs. Of course,
this is also of interest to any other country whose telecommunications

networks are disrupted by disaster. These communication links are crucial
in the coordination of relief operations (among government agencies, and
among humanitarian agencies), in the provision of information related to
the disaster to the public, and making available access points to citizens
who may wish to initiate or receive calls to and from relatives as well as
friends worried about their well being.

There remains a big challenge in LDCs where access to ICTs remains
relatively low compared to other countries. Populations are widely
dispersed, and the people are poor thus unable to afford the various
means of communications including radios and televisions. Perhaps with
the ongoing implementation of the Geneva first phase of the World
Summit on the Information Society’s (WSIS) Plan of Action and the
ongoing preparatory work leading to the Tunis second WSIS phase later
this year, more funding will be provided by the international community
for ICT related projects in LDCs. This, no doubt, will go beyond
enhancing these countries’ disaster reduction capabilities but will fast
track them towards the attainment of the set 2015 Millennium
Development Goals.

Finally, to facilitate efforts to make ICTs a lynchpin to disaster
mitigation,   relevant   international    organizations   especially   the
International Telecommunications Union could lead the way building on
its ongoing work in standardization (seeking to ensure inter-operability of
telecommunication network, prioritization of calls when disasters strike,
etc) spectrum management (ensuring that specific frequencies are
reserved for use in times of disasters e.g. by radio amateurs who through
their network of HF-radios can help the world communicate without the
problem of network congestions) and telecommunications development

(ensuring that telecommunications networks are developed with disaster
resilient features, low-cost appropriate technology is developed and
deployed for increasing connectivity, an appropriate legal and regulatory
framework is put in place to facilitate the movement and use of
telecommunications and any other ICT equipment).