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What ICT’s Role in the Pakistan Floods Means for Emergency Preparedness

The 2010 Pakistan floods were one of the 21st century’s largest disasters.

September 12, 2011

The 2010 Pakistan floods were one of the 21st century’s largest disasters. The tragic aftermath includes close to 2,000 deaths, an affected population of 20 million and countless number of destroyed or badly damaged households and businesses. According to the Inter‐Agency Standing Committee, the response was the largest relief operations ever launched by the international community. It involved the United Nations, international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) and the Pakistani government. When the floods reached a critical stage in late July 2010, NetHope activated the Global Emergency Response Working Group to aid in response efforts. The working group discovered that, despite all of the damage, Pakistan’s communications infrastructure was largely operational, enabling information flow to shape the humanitarian response.

Our Global Program Directors Gisli Olafsson and Frank Schott recently released a new case study on this very topic, titled “ICT Usage in the Pakistan Floods 2010.” Read their full findings here 

In a much abridged fashion, let’s look at some of the ways various groups implemented information and communication technologies during the relief effort, where there is room for improvement and what I believe is pivotal to successful emergency response going forward.

ICT in Action

During the flood response, ICT powered communication between NetHope’s 15 aid agencies working in the field, enabling information sharing among affected populations and serving as a tool to engage volunteers from around the world. . Mobile technology was one-way tour member agencies collected information. PakReport created a SMS short-code that humanitarian and relief workers used to submit data. That data was then verified by group of volunteers and organized into various reports including water and sanitation, camps, shelter, vital lines and more. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority also embraced mobile technology in its response by collaborating with all Pakistani mobile operators and launching a fundraising campaign that raised money each time people sent the SMS text “FUND” to 1234.. Beyond data and donation collection, member agencies used mobile technology to give beneficiaries a voice. NetHope member organization Save the Children is one such example. It piloted a hotline in early August 2010 that allowed individuals to submit recommendations or complaints by phone call or SMS about Save the Children’s work. The service was so successful — bringing to light reported fraud, lack of drinking water and staff behavior — that Save the Children eventually implemented it in all the areas in which it works worldwide.

Water Without Warning

Because there is no existing system in Pakistan to warn citizens about impending floods, people relied on their own ad-doc solutions to prepare for the floodwaters. This generally involves listening to radio updates and then using mobile phones to call friends and relatives further upstream to hear more about the floods’ severity.

In our new study, one local NGO explained that there were some efforts to train communities in disaster preparedness. For instance, within the Sindh province, remote areas received disaster risk reduction training by watching instructional videos on laptops that field workers brought into the village. In this example, we see how simple technology can play a small but important role in educating people on disaster preparedness, but it’s an isolated example.

With broader collaboration within the humanitarian community – and by engaging the private sector - we can create better ICT solutions in preparedness and disaster relief.

Tweaking Our Focus

The humanitarian community needs to re-think emergency response and remember that everything done before a disaster makes us better prepared to deal with the emergency itself.  We should focus on building local capacity in preparedness including ICT and information management strategies that will enable greater scale.

The Pakistan floods also taught us that humanitarian organizations should consider a wider array of connectivity solutions beyond VSAT to ensure information flow can resume as quickly, as effectively and as cost-efficiently as possible during an emergency. Mobile data networks like 3G are becoming more common in countries and establishing the necessary relationships and agreements with mobile operators now will help quickly return connectivity when disasters strike.

As we build local capacity in preparedness, we should also extend that focus to building local NGOs’ ICT capacity during emergencies. It is common during an international relief effort that INGOs work with local NGOs as implementation partners. Often, these NGOs have limited ICT capacity and need equipment, like laptops. The donor community should begin to look at laptops as tools instead of as material assets, and the international humanitarian community should consider local NGOs’ needs when shaping their appeals for support.

(photo: Save the Children)
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