As the Disaster Response programme held its workshop in Dhaka, Bangladesh, flooding was affecting large swaths of the country. With an estimated 800,000 people displaced from their homes, and flood waters building around the capital city, participants gathered from the mobile industry, disaster management agencies, UN organisations and international and local NGOs to discuss the role of communications in disaster preparation and response activities.
The country is one of the most vulnerable to the impact of disasters in the world, ranking 5th in the 2013 World Risk Index. On average 5% (7.5 million people) of the population in Bangladesh are affected by a natural disaster each year, a figure which is among the highest in the world. Flooding is not a new challenge to Bangladesh, and whilst the impacts can still be serious, it is being suggested that broadly Disaster Response is showing signs of improving. Earthquakes are also a risk in Bangladesh, and it is estimated that a catastrophic earthquake could bring down 70,000 buildings in heavily populated Dhaka alone. A recent article from the World Bank Understanding Risk event asks ‘Is Dhaka ready?’
Within this context, it is increasingly important that both the mobile industry and other stakeholders, be they government agencies, NGOs or service providers, work together to address resilience and create predictable partnerships. The workshop provided an opportunity to present some of these promising partnership being development in the country, with many organisations working to integrate appropriate communication models into their work, and many MNOs focusing both on increased resiliency and customer facing disaster services. However, it also served to highlight the vast range of differing and sometimes conflicting priorities among organisations. It also highlighted that there may be a need for attending and interested organisations to develop a means of regularly updating each other on activities and developments that are of value and interest to the wider group, as there may not be adequate awareness of new or planned initiatives.
The need for relevant, audience specific communications
BBC Media Action and UN OCHA highlighted the importance of well-designed, appropriate, communications content, developed ahead of disaster. Combining this style of content with the information collated by Disaster Management Agencies and the scientific community, will allow for more useful and effective communication to populations ahead of, and during disaster. Opportunities also exist to pre-load content on to new mobile phones, be this disaster preparedness advice or simply relevant emergency contacts for information in times of disaster.
Flowminder and Grameenphone
The Flowminder Foundation and Grameenphone have been working together to monitor the impact of cyclones in the country. Flowminder is an organisation which is able to use analyse anonymised, aggregated Call Data Records (CDR) to monitor patterns of mobility. Its past work has involved monitoring the spread of Cholera in the wake of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, and the Foundation is currently exploring the potential input they could have on monitoring the Ebola Crisis in West Africa. In Bangladesh, when cyclone Mahasen struck Bangladesh in 2013, about 1.3 million people were affected. Grameenphone and Telenor Group provided analysts and researchers at UNU-EHS and Flowminder with secure access to the anonymous mobile data of 5 million users. By mapping population flows before and after a disaster, a great understanding of its impact can be gained, with potential to feed this into future preparation and response activities.
Early warning information
The ‘10941’ call line for emergency alerts and information, highlighted one of the current ways in which mobile is being used to share vital information with the population. Launched in 2013 this project was implemented by the CDMP in partnership between the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, the Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre and the Bangladesh Meteorological Department. The low-cost call line allows users to access information through an Interactive Voice Response system (IVR) and select information for Sea going fishermen, on River Port Warnings, Daily Weather Bulletins, Cyclone Warnings and Flood Forecasts, accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
From the ensuing discussions it was clear that whilst initial partnerships have been formed, priorities for responding agencies remain broad. Attendees highlighted two main areas for focus; Clearer identification of Single Points of Contact (SPOC) at relevant agencies, and a greater sharing of information ahead of and during disaster.
It is clear that participating organisations each have their own internal processes and guidelines to be followed in disaster preparation and response. However, these frameworks may not currently be fully recognizing and leveraging the work and relationships of other agencies working in this space. They may also not take into account similar or conflicting parallel activities of other organisations. In order to address this and the aforementioned challenges, a series of next steps have been suggested.
- The formalization of a multi-stakeholder, coordination group, with revolving leadership from participating organisations
- The development of a country-wide SPOC matrix which will feed into a wider, global database under construction by the GSMA Disaster Response programme
- Engagement with the GSMA in the design of an ‘Information Sharing’ template for use ahead of and during disaster response
- Relevant requests to be made for the inclusion of the mobile community in future multi-lateral disaster response exercises in the country
- Creation of a multi-agency, cross cutting framework for disaster preparedness and response to be led by the GSMA Disaster Response programme with input
The GSMA Disaster Response programme welcome the continued engagement and support of organisations within Bangladesh in striving towards these next steps. The SPOC matrix, Information Sharing template and cross-cutting framework are currently under development and we welcome input and feedback from all interested bodies.
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Image credit: Faisal Akram