Technology put to the test as parts of East Africa reel from effects of Asian tsunamis

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The relief effort in the wake of the Asian tsunamis has highlighted the importance of using ICT. African aid agencies have become significant ICT users and have sophisticated ICT managers. Communication is key in when disasters occur as communications links are often disrupted. Yet for disaster relief workers who arrive on the scene these links are essential as they rely heavily on telecommunications to coordinate the complicated logistics of rescue and relief operations. This week Mapara Syed looks at how different aid agencies have used ICT to tackle the impact of tsunami waves on the coasts of East Africa and its offshore islands and how ICT companies and African Governments are donating money and resources to the relief effort.

In Somalia, the worst hit along the horn of Africa coastline from the earthquake-generated tsunamis, it has been reported that nearly 300 people have now lost their lives and an estimate of approximately 54,000 people have been displaced, according to relief workers and local authorities.

There have been reports of displaced people in Bander Beyla, Baargaal and Eyl, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which is managing efforts to assist those affected. The most affected region of Somalia’s coastline though has been Puntland in the north-east, particularly the Hafun peninsula, where there has been considerable damage to buildings

El-Balla Hagona, the UN Development Programme's Director for Somalia, said that unlike other affected countries in Asia, Somalia lacked the "indigenous capacity to assess the damage" caused by the tsunami and "that has placed that responsibility on the UN and its collaborators,” who have appealed for USD13 million to be raised for the Somali reconstruction.

The area is remote and difficult to reach and the UN has been using radio communication and satellite technology as a key part of its relief operations. On the remote island of Hafun, where 3000 people have had their lives disrupted, stories have emerged of how inhabitants marooned there used VHF radios and sms text messaging to get in touch with people on the mainland.

Much of the Hafun area lacks fixed line phones and there is a general lack of communications throughout the Puntland region. Nicholas Haan, the Chief Technical Adviser with the Food Security Analysis Unit (FSAU) for Somalia explained how most of the towns in this region communicate using radios and thus humanitarian agencies are relying on high frequency radio communications to contact survivors in inaccessible areas. “Our staff on the ground have been using a combination of HF radio to communicate with villages and satellite thuraya phones, where there are no phone networks, to then provide feedback to us here in Nairobi.”

Data is being transmitted to the FSAU offices in Kenya, where Somalia’s interim government is based, through laptops, which every one of the thirty-four members of the field team is equipped with. Once a field agent reached an affected area they used “the global positioning system (GPS) installed within their sat-phones to relay longitude and latitude coordinates back to us either through their laptops or via sms,” said Haan.

Satellite technology has not only been used to provide coordinates but is also being used to produce high resolution images of the devastated parts of Somalia. “We are using IKONOS satellite imagery, which is 1m resolution, to determine the tsunami affected areas” along with aerial surveys.

As an advisory unit, the FSAU collect information and then distributes it to the relevant agencies providing the aid needed, so once the areas involved are identified relief workers know exactly where they need to concentrate their efforts. Haan went on to say that they were also monitoring the general climatic situation using the American satellite NOA and SPOT satellite imagery supplied by the Joint Research Commission in Europe. It is evident that satellite technology has been fundamental in the recovery effort, not only in Africa, but throughout the peripheral of the Indian Ocean.

Similar mapping technology is being developed for the Darfur relief effort that has been somewhat over shadowed by recent events. The agencies are being assisted by Respond, a consortium of European companies and universities that is creating up-to-date maps of the region to guide relief operations, and providing them either through the Internet or on compact disks. The maps include small-scale maps of roads, rivers and villages, and larger-scale maps for use in general planning. It is hoped that they will help speed the delivery of supplies to those most in need.

To create the maps, Respond converts satellite data from the US space agency NASA and the European Space Agency into images. Normally such analysis would take several weeks because there are a number of steps in the process. But by connecting direct to the satellites, Respond is able to complete the work in about 12 hours. By producing images so rapidly, the consortium is creating maps that allow aid agencies to find ways around flooded riverbeds – a particular problem during Sudan's rainy season.

In Asia relief agencies are using a demographic database developed at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Lanscan is a global population database that shows geographical distribution of population at one-kilometer resolution. Using population distribution maps, relief workers can easily and quickly determine the locations of potential tsunami victims who would otherwise be cut off from communication.

In light of these recent events an ITU Convention signed in Tampere on emergency telecommunications has led to an International Treaty to ease access to life-saving technology for relief workers. Victims of disasters will now be able to benefit from faster and more effective rescue operations, thanks to the Provision of Telecommunication Resources for Disaster Mitigation and Relief Operations that comes into force on Saturday, 8 January 2005, following ratification by 30 countries.

Until now, the trans-border use of telecommunication equipment by humanitarian organizations was often impeded by regulatory barriers that make it extremely difficult to import and rapidly deploy telecommunications equipment for emergencies.

ICT companies in Africa have also been contributing to the relief effort. MCI Inc, which operates under the UUNET brand in South Africa, Kenya, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia, has recognised the importance of communication and is providing several thousand pre-paid calling cards to be used by survivors, relief workers and medical personnel in the affected region. The company is also making its communications equipment available for organisations as needed. In conjunction with this, financial contributions of up to USD600,000 are being donated by the company along with up to USD500,000 of employee contributions. It is one of many firms within the ICT world supporting the international relief effort. Microsoft has donated a reported USD3.5 million while networking giants Cisco have donated USD2.5 million. Amazon.com is allowing users to donate to Red Cross via their one click payment system and have so far raised USD12 million. Other companies around the Web, wanting to pitch in, have introduced similar initiatives.

African nations and citizens have also joined the effort to raise money, so far accumulating USD5.5 million, the bulk of which has come from North Africa with Algeria and Libya both donating USD2 million to the funds. Mozambique, one of the world’s poorest countries, has generously donated USD100,000 to the aid appeal, while Kenya is to send doctors and tea to affected areas and Tunisia is sending aid to Malaysian refugees.

The Nigerian government has set up a national committee to assist the tsunami victims, like South Africa, having already contributed USD1 million to the UN relief fund and expecting more contributions to be made to the African Union Fund. As well as the establishment of an inter-ministerial committee, South Africa sent delegates to attend the summit to coordinate the global relief operation. Gift of the Givers is just one of the many charities that South Africans have supported since the catastrophe, with a Red Cross account also being set up in Cape Town. It joins other African Red Cross societies that have taken action over the Asian earthquake such as Uganda, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles and Kenya. Pretoria is also working with members of a thirteen nation Southern African Development Community to provide aid to African countries, like Somalia.

To make a donation to the relief funds for Somalia and other African countries affected by the tsunami waves specifically we suggest that readers make a donation by calling one of the following numbers:
UNICEF – 00 254 (0)20 623 862
OCHA – 00 254 (0)20 375 4150-6
WFP (World Food Programme) – 00 254 (0)20 445 1196
FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation) – 00 254 (0)20 622 930

Or in order to make a donation to those suffering in Asia:
UNICEF: http://www.unicef.org
Red Cross: http://www.redcross.org.uk/asia_appeal