Disaster Management and the role of ICTs

What is disaster management? What are the various stages that it involves? The terminology may differ depending on where you are. In New Zealand, for example, you would be talking of the 4R’s, namely Readiness, Response, Recovery and Reduction. In other places, such as India, it could be as outlined in the graphic below:
Whatever the terminology, today it is an undeniable truth that the need of the hour is effective disaster management and preparation for a growing incidence, worldwide, of different forms of natural disasters.

In a series of posts, we shall trace and examine the increasing role and impact of ICTs in the area of disaster management.

Nobel Laureate R.K. Pachauri, while addressing the 5th convocation of the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology (DA-IICT) in January 2009, highlighted the need for ICTs in dealing with natural disasters and other weather-related events that pose a threat to human life and property.

[…] Climate science has advanced at a phenomenal rate largely because powerful computers can now run very complex models that simulate climatic conditions on land as well as the oceans. Our assessment of future changes in the climate as a result both of natural as well as human factors is dependent largely on the power of models that are being used today and our ability to assess the impacts of climate change in different parts of the world. In response to future projections of these events, governments, civil society and even business organizations can take effective measures to adapt to changes that would occur.

Citing an example from 2003, Dr. Pachauri said:

“I would like to give the example of a major heat wave that took place in parts of Andhra Pradesh in 2003, as a result of which almost 4000 people lost their lives according to official records. […]

“When studying this major problem, it became apparent that ICT infrastructure could have saved perhaps all the lives that were lost if it had been put in place properly and utilized effectively. There was, for instance, no early warning provided to the victims of the heat wave. Nor was there any follow up in terms of providing medical advice to those who suffered from heat stress, such as the need for oral rehydration therapy and simple healthcare for those who were affected. Even television channels could have been used to spread proper awareness and information to protect the lives of those who were affected were not used.

“There are several examples of coastal disasters where people affected can be warned on a timely basis and evacuated before the disaster itself takes place. When a hurricane hits the coast of Florida, the infrastructure available is used to provide adequate warning and notice to those likely to be affected, and entire townships are evacuated. When a cyclone of even lower intensity hits the coasts of Bangladesh or Orissa, major damage takes place, because not only is there lack of shelters and infrastructure to house those who are affected, but there are inadequate systems for early warning and guidance.

“Today even mobile telephones could be used as an effective medium to provide early warning and thus save lives and property”.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, speaking at the Telecom World 2009 in Geneva, also highlighted the role of ICTs in addressing key issues, including natural disaster reduction.

“Through good climate science and information sharing, ICTs can help reduce the risk and impact of natural disasters… when an earthquake hits, a coordinated ICT system can monitor developments, send out emergency messages and help people to cope.”

The UN Secretary-General’s statement echoes the paradigm shift in Disaster Management mentioned in the 2005 presentation by Sujit Mohanty, namely:

  • From relief and recovery to Risk & Vulnerability management
  • Introducing culture of preparedness at all levels
  • Strengthen decentralized response capacity in the country
  • Empowerment of vulnerable groups and ensuring livelihoods
  • Learning from past disasters.

In the aftermaths of large-scale natural calamities such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the world was forced to wake up to the need for coordinated and collaborative harnessing of the power of ICT systems in managing natural disasters.

Paul Currion in humanitarian.info stated that:

“In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there has been an astonishing amount of activity in web-based initiatives responding to the consequences of the disaster. Examining the characteristics of the response of the technology community to Hurricane Katrina tells us much about the way the web has shaped social responses to disaster, raises some interesting issues about the impact of ICT in disaster response, and points towards what might happen in future.[…]

“It was clear following the Indian Ocean tsunami that the information revolution was in the process of changing the way in which we respond to disasters. This was demonstrated by the rise of web-based fund-raising; Christian Aid raised over $700,000 online in nine days, amounting to nearly four times as much as it raised through donations over the phone. The spread of broadband, improvements in satellite telecommunications and the availability of imagery has made possible GIS and cartographic projects that would not have been possible five years ago. The rise of the open source movement has led to initiatives such as the Sahana project, an attempt to develop a suite of web-enabled applications for disaster response organisations.

Currion goes on to talk about the “first responders of the wired world”, netizens who spring to action to fill in information gaps that the governments of the respective countries and even the traditional media often struggle to fill. However, given the high influx of information post-Katrina, it was soon apparent that multiple data streams would be more effective if they were collated, consolidated and served from a more centralized platform. Thus we saw initiatives such as the Katrina PeopleFinder Project and the Katrina Help Wiki come into play.

In this context, it would not be unfair to say that the South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami (SEA-EAT) blog, set up during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, was a trendsetter of sorts–the first project of its kind that demonstrated the power of engaging ordinary people effectively to channel information in order to bridge the gap between those who needed help and those who had help to offer. According to Dina Mehta, one of the key people behind the SEA-EAT blog,

“I think what we managed to do was demonstrate perhaps the largest ‘people's’ coordinated effort on the web during disasters, that it was possible and that too without any formal organizational structure. There’s also something in the ability for these efforts to bring in ordinary citizens from all walks of life – people who aren’t necessarily dedicated or working in this space – most of us have different professions and regular jobs too – but just a human need to help.”

While the SEA-EAT blog focused on “keeping the information flowing”, the Sahana FOSS Disaster Management System in Sri Lanka functioned as a more structured, holistic system that helped manage the large scale of the disaster of 2004. The project was deployed by the Sri Lankan government's Center of National Operations (CNO) which included the Center of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA). Generalized later for global use, Sahana has now grown to become a globally recognized project with deployments in many other disasters such as the South Asian earthquake in Pakistan (2005), Southern Leyte Mudslide Disaster in Phillipines (2006), the Jogjarkata Earthquake in Indonesia (2006), the Peru Earthquake (2007), the Myanmar Cyclone (2008), etc.

In 2005, Michael Gurstein of the New Jersey Institute of Technology wrote his reflections on the web-based initiatives and what he perceived as the need gaps in these situations:

“Scanning the Net for information and for stories I was struck by a couple of things concerning the role (and lack of role) of the Net in these events. The Net appeared to be playing a very significant part in responding to the needs of those at a distance–the on-lookers for information, stories, ways of contributing and so on; families and friends of those possibly impacted with attempts at creating listings of the found and the lost and for those on the ground to manage the concerns and queries of those farther away; and one expects that behind the scenes much of the co-ordination and planning that is being done by aid organizations is being done in ways that are pushing the boundaries of Computer Mediated Communication and managing at a distance.

“But I guess I'm a bit surprised that the Net wasn't able (yet?) to bridge the information divides between those who had some idea about what might be coming (the scientists and those immediately impacted) and those who might have been able to make some use of that information in the places where the impact took appreciable time to be realized.

“The problem here was not, I think a “the Digital Divide” that is, it wasn’t because of a lack of “access” to information, although apparently that too was a problem overall; rather, it seemed to me to be another example of what I've referred to elsewhere as the gap between “access” and “effective use”…From what I can gather many if not most of the communities impacted had Internet “access” in one form or another. What they (and here I would include those with the knowledge who couldn't use it as well as those without knowledge) lacked rather, was the social infrastructure which could have turned Internet access into an “effectively usable” early warning system.

“Some had the information—the scientists who detected the earthquake and could understand how that could result in a Tsunami and those who felt the early impact either of the earthquake or the Tsunami—but couldn't use it. Others needed the information—the coastal villages around the Indian Ocean—but couldn't or weren’t able to “get it” at least in a timely and usable form. The “degrees of separation” imposed by nationality, language and perhaps most important, domains of knowledge and profession (and the related lack of social linkages, network based trust relationships, communication pathways and so on) impeded the communication between the two groups and one wonders whether this was simply a matter of it still being early days in our Internetted world or something more profound and permanent. (Michael Gurstein, The Journal of Community Informatics, (2005) Vol. 1, Issue 2, pp. 14-17)”

Observing the loss of lives in typhoon Ketsana that hit Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia in October 2009, Paul Conneally posted the following on his blog Head Down, Eyes Open:

“In many poverty stricken areas there is no access to TV or radio (or Internet for that matter) to help communicate warning messages. Aid agencies must work with communities to find out which methods of communication work for them at the time of an emergency and run simulation exercises to put this into practice. Often mobile phone text messages or even sending people out into the streets with megaphones, as was the case in these emergencies, prove to be most successful.

“[…]Early warning, early action in high disaster risk countries needs to be seen as a mindset, not a mechanism or technology, and works best when it spans timescales, anticipating disaster by days, hours, months, years and even decades. It must also be firmly linked to early action by decision-makers, and must cover ‘the last mile’ -linking early warning mechanisms not just to the most ‘at risk’ communities, but to the most vulnerable people within those communities.

“Strengthening community capacity to prevent and/or cope with the impact of disasters and crises is a concrete way to save lives and better protect livelihoods, and prevent such shocks from crippling development within the poorest countries. Early warning and early action is also more cost effective than traditional disaster response and saves more lives per pound spent: public money buys four times as much humanitarian ‘impact’ if spent on preparation and risk reduction, rather than on relief items.”

In India, the 2004 tsunami was a clarion call for the government, NGOs and the civil society to effect a paradigm shift and realise that preparedness was the key to minimising the impact of natural disasters.

To enable better planning and preparedness, the India Disaster Resource Network [idrn.gov.in] was set up as a National initiative under the Govt. of India-UNDP DRM programme in collaboration with National Informatics Center, Government of India. The task of this Network was to create an online database for capturing the countrywide inventory of equipment and skilled human resources available for emergency response. The role of this ambitious, yet comprehensive database would be to help minimize emergency response time through effective decision-making on mobilization of human & material resources. The project was to ensure systematic data collection & collation from government line departments, public sector units, the corporate sector, etc at the district level. Other initiatives launched were:

  • The Disaster Inventory Database (implemented in Orissa) that would allow vulnerability analysis through longitudinal study of geo-referenced inventories of local level data of past disasters (small, medium and large-scale).
  • Community Contingency plans based on GIS technology that enable the visual presentation of critical data by location that can be used for coordination and implementation of relief efforts
  • Development of communications infrastructure to ensure 100% coverage of disaster prone areas through satellite and ISDN linkages
  • Community based ICT systems and
  • Disaster/ incident surveillance system that will allow for quick, smooth, seamless data capturing and disseminating facilities.

Here is an example of implementation of this strategy/philosophy of preparedness by an NGO in Tamil Nadu following the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004:

In the next post in the series, we shall explore disaster warning systems and the various ICT-based tools and applications that have been, are being, and can be put to use as an early warning system to help reduce and or mitigate the severe damage to life and property in the wake of natural disasters across the globe.


Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.