African officials urge use of IT for disaster management

LUSAKA, ZAMBIA – African countries need to make better use of ICT to do a better job of managing both natural and man-made disasters, according to a cross section of political and technology officials at an International Telecommunications Union forum in Lusaka last week.

The forum, “ITU Southern and Eastern Africa Workshop on the Use of Telecommunications/ICT for Disaster Management: Saving Lives,” gathered government and ITU officials as well as IT vendors, who spoke about technology that could help mitigate the impact of disasters.

ICT can help prevent problems from turning into disasters that impede sustainable development, said Mbika Mbika, deputy minister of communications in Zambia. In a speech to open up the workshop, Mbika pointed out that Zambia has had its share of disasters, and that earlier this year the country was hit by serious floods that resulted in the displacement of many people.

ICT equipment in the form of satellite phones was made available to the Zambian government by the ITU, enabling communication with areas that were cut off, Mbika said.

In Africa, a flood usually means that electricity shuts down, technicians cannot work properly and there is generally a ripple effect on all social activities, noted Richard Mwanza, acting CEO of the Communications Authority of Zambia (CAZ). He said the ITU deployed 25 satellite terminals to help restore communication links in the aftermath of the severe floods in Zambia, which inundated low-lying areas where more than 400,000 people in 19 districts were affected.

ITU officials advised African governments to ask for assistance in acquiring geographical information system (GIS) technology, which they said can be a powerful technological tool for assessing potential emergencies.

The ITU’s Development Bureau head, Cosmas Zavazava, noted that Rwanda has worked with Geographic Information Management System (GIMS), the distributor of the ESRI GIS system, to receive free software as part of a program to digitalize information about the country.

GIMS senior trainer Liezel Botha said GIS technology can be a powerful tool for assessing potential emergencies, analyzing where they are likely to occur and their potential impact, as well as to identify at-risk populations that require priority mitigation actions.

Visualization and data consolidation capabilities allow GIS to convey large amounts of information to a large number of people in a brief period of time, exactly what is needed in the immediate aftermath of disaster, Botha said. Satellite technology can also be a powerful tool for communications within hours of a crisis, helping to coordinate relief efforts and give reassurance to family and friends, noted Nihat Oktay, vice president of sales and marketing for Turksat. He explained that one satellite beam could cover Europe and Africa to provide emergency communications when land-based infrastructure is lost.

“When a disaster strikes, usually there is communications in crisis, seeing that terrestrial and cellular networks are vulnerable to catastrophic events. Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and fires can damage ground infrastructures within minutes, and yet it is in times of crisis that communications are needed most,” Oktay said.

A satellite dish can be installed anywhere, even in rubble. The only requirement is a direct line of sight to the satellite, Oktay said.

Meanwhile, Sahana, a disaster management system based on free and open-source software (FOSS) that grew out of events during the 2004 Asian tsunami disaster, is playing a key role in managing available resources, according to Jacob Munodawafa, the executive director of the Southern African Telecommunications Association (SATA).

“The system was developed by a team of ICT volunteers to help track families and coordinate work among relief organizations during and after the tsunami disaster,” Munodawafa said.

Munodawafa explained that Sahana had been deployed to manage the earthquake disaster in Northern Pakistan in 2005, the Guinsaugon landslide in the Philippines in 2006 and the earthquake in Yogjakarta, Indonesia, in 2006.

Sahana features include a Missing Person Registry, which is an online bulletin board of missing and found people. Information about people who are seeking other people is also captured, which increases the chances of people finding each other.

Among other features, it also has an Organization Registry, which can keep track of all the relief organizations and civil society groups working in the disaster region. It captures not only the places where they are active, but also information on the range of services they are providing in each area.

Various criticisms also were voiced at the workshop. For example, some participants expressed concern about the tendency for some governments to restrict access to sensitive data.

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