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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Using ICTs for disaster management

By Esther Nakkazi

Floods are on the rise. Temperatures are going up. Disasters are imminent everywhere but it has been proven that Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) are useful to avert them.
Now disaster management experts say an emergency ICT disaster Fund should be set up for the east African region. The Fund could be contributed to from the proposed African climate change Fund and used to predict, create awareness and preparedness of communities to improve response capability in disasters.
Research done with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has proven that an investment of $1 in ICTs used for disaster management through monitoring and response could save $14- $22 for rehabilitation after the disaster.
“We should incorporate all systems for instance early warning systems are critical but it is useless if you cannot disseminate information to evacuate and people can not respond in a positive manner,” said Dr. Cosmas Zavazava, the head of developed countries, ITU.
“So alerting communities should be in real time from the right source, with an ability to monitor, predict and communicate. Only ICTs can do that successfully.” This was during a meeting in Kampala on the use of ICTs in disaster management.
In the face of climate change, more disasters with higher intensity have been predicted to occur. ICTs can ensure that adequate measures are implemented before disasters strike, the meeting heard.
Common disasters in the east African region include floods, hail storms, volcanic activity, landslides, droughts and earthquakes while communication channels like mobile phones, satellite radios, emails, sirens, radios and televisions, emails, cell broadcasting and text messages could be used.
ICTs could be used for data collection, processing, analyzing and dissemination. Ms. Rose Nakabugo Bwenvu said one of the challenges to disaster management was data collection, analysis, and the lack of a database on many of these situations.
“It is a multi sectoral problem, we do not have most of the data and cannot coordinate it. We do not even have the number for the losses of both lives and property, but ICTs could be very helpful,” said Ms. Bwenvu of the emergency operation centre of the Office of the Prime minister.
If all national disaster management centres through the region used ICTs, then it would be possible to construct hazard maps and quantify the disasters as well as to coordinate the different systems. It would also be possible to establish a regional database.
ICTs such as mobile phones have been successfully used in disaster management. In 2007 during the floods in Uganda, ITU deployed telecommunications equipment to save hundreds of lives. More deaths have been averted using mobile phones on Lake Victoria.
It has been a year since Zain, one of the leading mobile network operators in Africa, teamed up with Ericsson and the GSMA development Fund to use Information Communication Technology (ICT) to save lives on Lake Victoria.
Now the project has proof that using mobile phones with the emergency maritime communication system that has been established by Zain can save the 200,000 fishers’ lives on lake Victoria.
Fred Masadde, external affairs manager Zain Uganda says they are handing over the project to the Lake Victoria Basin Commission to become a Public Private partnership. Some data suggests that 5,000 people die on the Lake every year.
The project works through a telecommunications network that captures all the data, a model rescue coordination centre where the coordinates are sent and triangulated to the search and rescue service centre to implement the rescue.
Masadde says the project was started as a social responsibility programme but since Zain is a business venture they think the governments in the region should take it up and scale it up to cover the whole lake Victoria.
Tullow Oil Company has also as part of its social responsibility been able to save lives with the rescue services it set up on Lake Albert. The community was equipped with a mobile phone and a rescue boat.
Other mobile phone operators like Safaricom, MTN and Vodacom in east Africa could join by using Zain’s base stations to share the sites and limit carbon footprint but also it makes a lot of economic sense.
But also the system could be used by such organizations as the Lake Vitoria Environment Management programme (LVEMP) to register and monitor boats on the lake, monitoring the fish catch everyday and integrated in the command and control system for the police to use.
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