COMMUNICATIONs & DISASTER MANAGEMENT: The Missing Link

All
types of disasters, natural or  otherwise, leave behind a
trail of death and destruction. During such calamities, every
minute counts and instantaneous communication is key to quick
commencement of relief operations especially evacuation of
people from the affected areas. It is evident that the wireline
network (telecom and power) bears the maximum brunt during such
disasters. Communication assumes greater importance, especially
during cyclone, earthquake, and flood where predictability,
forecasting, and early warning is key to the whole disaster
preparedness.


No Contingency Planning

Most of the state governments and cash-rich NGOs like CARE India and Red Cross do not have an emergency communication infrastructure in place. It was only after the cyclone struck Orissa, that they got into act and bought satellite phones, cell phones and even approached VSAT service providers.

The super cyclone that hit
Orissa on 29 October 1999 resulting in huge loss of lives and
property exposed the chink in the country””s communication
armour. Telegraph poles were uprooted and microwave towers
destroyed. Rail, road, and air traffic were disrupted for 36
hours after the cyclone. The port city of Paradeep was totally
cut off, flooding areas up to 15 kilometres inland. All
communication links failed giving a blow to immediate
commencement of the relief operation. It would be pertinent to
note that United Nations has declared 1990-2000 as the
International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction.

Madhuri Das,
communications officer, CARE India, informs that there was only
one phone working in the whole state in the government office in
Bhubaneshwar. Incidentally CARE India is the convenor of the
National GoI-NGO Committee on Emergency Preparedness and
Response. She says, “although newspapers were able to come
up with the stories about the cyclone, we were not able to
establish contact for about 48 hours”. CARE India bought
two phones from Iridium and despatched them to Orissa. But two
were inadequate, so a need was felt for cell phones. These were
given to the field workers who in turn coordinated with the
headquarters to provide the supplies to the marooned people. The
e-mail contact was also established within a week. Red Cross
India on the other hand managed to establish contact with their
team members after 72 hours through a satellite phone present
with them.

According to Vipul
Nautiyal, the Pioneer reporter, “there were only two phones
that were working in Bhubaneshwar. We used to file reports over
phone, but finally managed to hire a generator and got the fax
machine working”.

National Informatics
Centre (NIC) under Ministry of Information Technology
established videoconferencing facility between Krishi Bhavan in
New Delhi and the Secretariat, Government of Orissa at
Bhubaneshwar. The relief operations were monitored, reviewed,
and coordinated with the State Government officials on a regular
basis. Delay in
Communication Takes Its Toll

The
most startling revelation was made by NM Prusty, director, CARE
India””s Rehabilitation division while narrating the arduous
procedure for getting across the relief supplies to the affected
people. This cumbersome procedure went like this–CARE India
gets food supplies from the US government, and as a protocol,
the government makes available the relief material on the
specific request. CARE India asked for written permission from
the Orissa government for sending supplies. Basant Mohanty,
state director, CARE India obtained the letter. The Delhi office
was informed via telephone about the permission. But CARE India
needed a written permission. The fax was not working as there
was no power. Finally, the power was restored and a fax was
sent. CARE India in return had to convey to the Orissa
government””s written permission to the US government in
Washington. The US office gave a go-ahead. CARE Delhi got into
the act and started to dispatch the first relief. The precious
time lost in the completion of the enti
re formality on
account of delayed communication can well be estimated.

Prusty talks about CARE
India””s plan to set up a VSAT network which would link all its
seven state office and four port offices. Leading networking
vendor Cisco has pledged to fund the entire project. The network
is expected to be set up by the end of the current year.

Maharashtra:
Role Model

Maharashtra
is probably the only state which believes that prevention is
better than cure. The state already has drawn up an elaborate
disaster management system known as Maharashtra Emergency
Earthquake Rehabilitation Programme (MEERP). The World Bank,
UNDP, and Department for International Development, UK, (DID)
are assisting the government in chalking out a comprehensive
multi-hazard disaster management plan. This programme lays
thrust on disaster management response, disaster awareness, and
education. It has a state plan as the core and all the district
plans of Maharashtra forming the superstructure. These disaster
management plans to identify administrative and technical
measures essential to disaster preparedness, response action,
and mitigation efforts.

The state has already set
up an Emergency Operations Centre in Mantralaya, the state
secretariat. It has also set up district control rooms in all
the districts, a communication network comprising wireless (VHF)
and satellite (VSAT) networks for the entire state, a
computerized Disaster Management Information System through the
Geographic Information System (GIS) applications, community
disaster preparedness programmes and training. The entire
project cost is about Rs 25 crore which is being reimbursed by
the World Bank. This centre and divisional
and district control rooms in all the divisions and districts of
the state serve as a nodal facility for directing all the
operations in a disaster emergency situation. The government has
also set up a GIS-based Disaster Management Information System (DMIS)
aimed at the preparation of a comprehensive information base at
the Taluka level, which would contain all the spatial and
non-spatial data. It involves digitization of these data, and
the digitized mapping of all the talukas. The DMIS will help the
district administration for the risk analysis and vulnerability
assessment, besides organizing response operations.

Prof. Vinod Sharma of the
National Centre for Disaster Management (under ministry of
agriculture; NCDM) says “Maharashtra is the only state in
India today which has a world-class disaster management strategy
in place followed closely by Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. The
rest is nowhere near to them.” Incidentally, Sharma is also
the consultant to the Government of Andhra Pradesh for preparing
a disaster management plan. He also informed that a blue print
has been prepared by NCDM, which calls for a complete revamping
of the control room infrastructure in the country. It should be
noted that Andhra Pradesh government had immediately supplied
the state of Orissa with 10 Hertz, Armstrong, and Marconi (HAM)
radio operators, which proved very helpful.

The
Initiatives: Is It Enough?

National
Telecom Policy 1999:
All
the policy says is “International co-operation in the use
of terrestrial and satellite telecommunications technologies in
the prediction, monitoring, and early warning of disasters,
especially in the early dissemination of information would be
encouraged. Financial commitment to disaster management
telephony and the development of appropriate regulatory
framework for unhindered use of trans-boundary
telecommunications would be put in place.” Just a cursory
mention, and that too without any time frame for the
implementation speaks about the seriousness of the government.

Ram Vilas Paswan,
communication minister, announced some sops for the affected
people in the form of waiving bills up to Rs 1,000 besides
offering free telephone connection. In addition to this, the
minister informed that the ministry has decided to prepare and
execute an action plan for the coastal area of the eastern
state. The proposal is aimed at installing Wireless in Local
Loop (WILL) facility and connectivity to all exchanges by
reliable transmission system to the district headquarters to
meet any emergency situation. Tampere Convention on the
Provision of Telecommunication Resources for Disaster Mitigation
and Relief Operations (18 June 1998):
The
convention provides the framework for the use of telecom in
international humanitarian assistance, removes regulatory
barriers, and protects providers of telecom assistance while
safeguarding the interests of the host country. The ITU 1998
Minneapolis Plenipotentiary Conference unanimously adopted
Resolution COM/3 on telecom in the service of humanitarian
assistance and urged member states to work towards the earliest
possible ratification, acceptance, approval or final signature
of the Convention and to take all practical steps for the
application of the convention. The United Nations Secretary
General is its depository. The United Nations Emergency Relief
Co-ordinator under the convention, is working closely with
International Telecommunication Union. As of now, the convention
has not come into force. India is one of the 47 signatories to
the convention having signed it on 29 November 1999.

The International
Conference on Disaster Management: Cooperative Networking in
South Asia:
Experts from different
fields deliberated at the conference held in New Delhi from
28-30 November 1999. Organized by IGNOU, the conference called
for utilizing the modern communication technology for warning
systems, for information, and for relief operations and
mobilization of mass media for information and for relief
operations.

Communication
During Disaster: GMPCS Holds the Key

When
virtually all the communication links failed during the Orissa
cyclone, satellite phones emerged as the invincible tool in the
hand of the relief agencies. The hand-held satellite phones
based on Global Mobile Personal Communication System (GMPCS) has
the distinct advantage of overcoming problems of geographical
coverage. This has the potential of revolutionizing the relief
operations. Prohibitive cost of using a GMPCS service is a
limiting factor for most of the developing countries like India.
Competition among satellite phone service providers will
certainly lead to a substantial reduction in the tariff for such
service.


Big Setback

The shutting down of Iridium services world-wide, including India, is a big blow to the disaster management managers who relied on the satellite phones as an important means of communication. Inmarsat remains the only other satellite phone service provider in India, but according to information, there are several government restrictions on its usage due to security implications. 

It is worth noting that
Inmarsat terminals were airlifted into the cyclone-hit region of
Orissa by the Indian Army to help in the disaster relief
operation. To restore communications quickly, two army signal
detachments carrying Inmarsat-M and mini-M phones were flown
into the area to re-establish communications with the rest of
the country at Bhubaneshwar and Balasore. More than a dozen
mini-Ms were pressed into service in the disaster zone, and the
DoT placed urgent orders for 10 more with manufacturer, Nera.
Cellular phones also proved to be a handy tool for the relief
managers during the current cyclone. Of course, this depends to
a large extent on the capacity of the relay stations (cells) to
withstand the fury of the nature. Radio communication by amateur
radio operators, called HAM is another low-cost and very
powerful means of ad-hoc communication. They have the potential
to provide the much-needed succour in areas where there is poor
telephone infrastructure. VSAT satellite links which allow long
distance voice and broadband communication with remote locations
can be used very effeciently as a tool for emergency
communications.

What Should Be
Done?

  • The state
    governments should leverage on the emerging technologies to
    reduce the response time during the disaster.

  • The examples
    of the government of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh should
    be replicated.

  • Level of
    co-operation between the state government, central
    government, and NGOs should be increased.

  • Attempts
    should be made to create alternative channel of
    communication by giving licence to professional HAM radio
    operators and encouraging their usage.

  • Telecom and
    IT equipment manufacturers should make systems that can
    weather natural calamities of any magnitude.

  • There should
    be advance express permission from the central and state
    government to all the aid agencies so that valuable time is
    not lost in getting the sanction in the event of a disaster.

  • Controlling a
    natural disaster is not on anybody””s hands, but the damage
    done can be minimized and keeping communication network in
    place is the key to this.

There is a need to have a
communication network, which remains fully intact and
operational in the event of any catastrophe.

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