In January 2011, I had the opportunity to visit Pakistan to perform a study on the use of ICT in response to the devastating monsoon floods that had hit the country last summer. Having been a first responder for a number of years, attending floods in Africa, hurricanes in the U.S. and earthquakes in Haiti and Indonesia, it was an interesting experience to visit a country six months after the events started and see the progress of the relief efforts.
Pakistan is subjected to both seasonal flooding and strong earthquakes, but what was hardest for me to grasp was the enormous scale of this disaster. An area the size of the United Kingdom had been flooded, and it had affected 22 million people. Now, six months later, 318,000 people still live in camps, and large areas are still flooded.
As part of my study, I got to visit various NetHope members and local NGOs who are their implementation partners. It was interesting to discuss with them how they had leveraged ICT during the floods. Donations from our technology partners in the form of laptops and handheld video cameras had proven to be very helpful for the NGOs to do their job.
Laptops are a key tool for information collection and sharing during a disaster like the Pakistan floods. What many people don’t realize is that in most areas of Pakistan electricity is only available for certain period of the day, so many NetHope members use generators to bridge these periods. Since electricity is not always cut at the same time, it becomes difficult to work on desktop computers because they lose all data if electricity goes down, even if it is just for a few seconds.
Now, in the time of effective project monitoring and evaluation, the donated handheld video cameras provide an effective way of showing the donors the direct effects of their support. But the video cameras also become an important tool in advocacy, during the age of social media. Getting videos directly from the field increases the likelihood of individual donors supporting the work of NGOs.
One of the things that was different in this disaster than in many others, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, was that large portions of the communication infrastructure were left intact. Many of the NetHope members could, therefore, utilize Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line connections, which are widespread in Pakistan, to connect their new offices in the affected areas. For the more remote locations, the NetHope members used General Packet Radio Services, Enhanced Data for Global Evolution and 3G connections to enable connectivity.
When visiting a small fishing village in the Thatta district of the southern Sindh province, it was interesting to hear how villagers utilized mobile phones and radios to listen to warnings of the impending flood wave. It was also impressive to hear how multimedia disaster risk reduction training done early last year had caused villagers to take preventive measures before the flood arrived.
In disaster-prone countries such as Pakistan, it is important for us to focus on emergency preparedness because we know there will be flooding next year, and we also know earthquakes will strike. Through collaboration between the different NetHope members, we can help build up the ICT capacity needed to handle these future disasters in a more effective way than if we always try to do things reactively.
It is valuable that our technology partners — in this case Intel and Microsoft — had the foresight to invest in preparedness that allowed us not only to put in place support before disaster struck, but also to learn what worked and what did not.
NetHope plans to put increased emphasis on emergency preparedness in the future; preparedness that will save lives and improve the efficiency of future responses.