Managing disaster response through mobile in Latin America

March 28, 2017 | Disaster Response | Latin America & the Caribbean | Chile | Colombia | Guatemala | Dulip Tillekeratne

The region of Latin America comprises of 50 countries spread across Southern and Central America as well as the islands of the Caribbean. Latin America is considered a developing region, with an average GDP per capita of $8,363. As a result, the region has found that resources for disaster relief efforts are limited and often insufficient for the scale of the natural disasters they face.

As Latin America is located in an area of significant seismological activity, earthquakes are a common occurrence. For instance, in 2016 earthquakes in Ecuador killed over 600 people, with damages estimated at three billion USD. Earthquakes also bring the risk of tsunamis and further damage. In 2010, an 8.3 magnitude earthquake in Chile generated powerful waves along the coast, forcing more than one million people out of their homes. The warm tropical waters of the Caribbean Sea generate powerful cyclones that often develop into hurricanes. In 2016 Hurricane Mathew hit Haiti, causing 480 people to lose their lives.

Despite the challenges faced across the region, damage from natural disasters can be mitigated through diligent disaster response planning. Chile provides a great example of the effectiveness of such planning. Following the 2010 earthquake that caused more than 500 casualties, the government instigated a series of policies to safeguard the country from future disasters. The country’s earthquake response protocols went through a thorough overhaul, with regular evacuation drills introduced and stricter building codes implemented. In 2015, when an 8.4 magnitude earthquake triggered a 4.5-metre-high tsunami, the successful and timely evacuation of more than one million people from the coastal region saved lives, demonstrating the impacts of effective country-wide disaster response protocols.

In addition to natural disasters, the region has experienced significant political instability, leading to situations of humanitarian concern in many countries. These are most prominent in Colombia where, according to the UNHCR, there are more internally displaced people than any other country in the world. Furthermore, years of instability and under-investment have left many countries in the region with inadequate infrastructure. This can exacerbate the effects of natural disasters while hampering response efforts.

Mobile connectivity is considered a lifeline for communities facing risks and realities of humanitarian impacts brought about by natural and manmade disasters. In 2015, 3G coverage in Latin America reached 89% of the population and 4G coverage reached 50%, with a forecast of reaching 93% and 89% respectively in the next five years. By 2020, 70% of customers are expected to adopt smartphones, increasing from 46% today.

GSMAi’s latest report ‘Managing disaster response through mobile – Latin America’ provides interesting insights on the current situation and future potential of the industry within the region to support disaster response efforts. The report focuses on Colombia and Guatemala, two of the most disaster prone countries in the region, providing recent examples of natural disasters, the mobile industry landscape and also the prevalence of mobile money as one of the potential modes of humanitarian support. It is also important to highlight that in both countries, mobile operators have jointly signed the Humanitarian Connectivity Charter endorsing the charter principles.

Moreover, earlier this month in Canada political leaders, humanitarian representatives and other key stakeholders completed the Fifth Regional Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in the Americas region. A key goal of the conference was to endorse the three-year plan aligning America’s efforts with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. This plan will also feed into the 2017 Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction, in Mexico in May. Africa, Asia and Europe have already laid out similar plans. The three-year plan for the region is in line with the Sendai Framework’s seven targets and will focus mainly on reducing lives lost, numbers of people affected, and economic losses. It also seeks to curb damage to critical infrastructure and disruption to basic services such as health and educational facilities.

These regional targets are both timely and encouraging. As in the example of Chile, the correct policy set-up, infrastructure, safety and rigour, as well as having the preparedness mind-set, has proven to be the ideal formula for increasing resilience. With its growing presence and connectivity, the mobile industry is demonstrating its central role in dealing with disasters and crises, across the disaster lifecycle- from mitigation, to preparedness, response and recovery.

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