Information aid during disaster - Huma Yusuf - Monday, March 21, 2011

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DAYS before Japan raised the alert level at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant from four to five on a seven-point scale of atomic incidents, the government had imposed a 12-mile exclusion zone around the plant.
Over 100,000 people had to be swiftly evacuated from the area; elderly patients died in transit out of the radiation risk zone.
Those who made it to temporary shelters did not have enough food, medicine, fuel, blankets or other basic necessities. The mayor of one city in the exclusion zone complained that his people were being left to die. Such tragic scenes in Japan — which has been praised in recent days for the high quality of its emergency drills, preparedness and response — should give the governments of far more disorganised disaster-prone areas pause to think. Unfortunately, Pakistan falls into that category.
Writing in these pages last week, Syed Iqbal Mohsin reminded us that various parts of Pakistan are at high risk for earthquakes. Karachi, the nation’s economic lifeline, is especially vulnerable — the US Geological Survey places it in zone four out of four on its hazard map, meaning that it is at the highest risk.
Moreover, as climate change and pollution exacerbate Himalayan glacial melt, Pakistan is expected to face more devastating floods of the sort that occurred last summer. In short, Pakistan can reasonably expect to have to evacuate thousands of citizens from a vulnerable or disaster-hit region at some point in the future. Last summer’s floods and the 2005 earthquake drove home the point that the government’s disaster preparedness is appalling. But given the terrain we inhabit, we have to act now to ensure our safety later. One area where the government can start without making too much of an economic investment is by identifying a communications infrastructure to distribute ‘information aid’ or humanitarian information.
A major component of any evacuation, rescue or relief effort is the provision of accurate, timely and relevant information to affected populations about what services are available and how they can be accessed. Ideally, the communications infrastructure should work two ways, allowing affected people to identify their needs and register complaints about the government or humanitarian assistance providers.
A recent survey conducted by Internews Europe in conjunction with Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) found that Pakistan’s mechanisms for distributing information aid are sorely lacking, as demonstrated during last summer’s floods. The survey polled 1,072 people in eight flood-affected areas in Sindh and Punjab. City dwellers inhabiting media-saturated bubbles may be surprised to learn that half of all respondents did not have access to any electronic or mass media. Those who did obtained little information of use through mainstream programming. The humanitarian aid community had privileged radio as the medium for information dissemination, but only one-fifth of respondents had access to a radio.
Cellphones were also of little help: although 27.2 per cent of respondents owned one, only 6.7 per cent had received an informative SMS from someone they knew, and only four respondents (0.4 per cent) had received relevant information from a humanitarian organisation via SMS. Two-way communication was mostly limited to conversations with assistance providers at distribution sites.
The need for better information distribution cannot be understated, however. One-third of respondents who received information say they were able to save their own lives as a result, 75.2 per cent said they obtained food and water, and 43.2 per cent found shelter. In light of these statistics, it is essential that the government identify and coordinate a better information delivery system comprising multiple mediums for use during emergencies.
The survey offers some guidance on how the government might proceed. For instance, when asked to pick the best channel of communication to deliver humanitarian information, one-third of respondents picked television broadcasts and an equal number opted for loudspeaker announcements through the local mosque. Interestingly, word of mouth remained the most effective, widespread and trusted medium of communication.
Of course, the challenge of information aid delivery is that humanitarian organisations cannot reach all affected citizens through word of mouth. Moreover, as messages are related within communities, they are adulterated with the conveyors’ own biases, agenda, opinion or misinformation. An information delivery system is all for naught if the quality of the messaging is severely degraded. Television, then, seems to be the sensible medium to prime for the delivery of humanitarian information during a crisis — especially since more than double the number of respondents who trust loudspeaker announcements (18.6 per cent) trust news broadcasts (44 per cent).
Given the current antagonistic relationship between the government and the independent media, and the fact that many Pakistanis see the media as stoking political instability, the industry’s involvement in information aid delivery could alter these perceptions. A media industry seen to work in the public interest will ultimately enjoy more credibility and freedom.
Cellphone connectivity should also be better utilised as it is becoming ubiquitous: there were 102.777 million active SIM cards in Pakistan as of June 2010. Phone calls or SMS from trusted individuals or organisations are also a wonderful evolution of word-of-mouth information dissemination.
Moreover, harnessing cellphone connectivity to build a communications infrastructure can open the way for other social development projects. Take, for example, the Unesco, Mobilink and Bunyad pilot project that promotes female literacy through informative Urdu-language SMS broadcasts.
Recipients are expected to respond to the messages and their gains in knowledge are periodically assessed. Such an initiative facilitates usage behaviours, familiarises populations with mobile technology and helps users trust the information they receive via SMS. It is well known that information is power, but imagine the possibilities when it becomes life-saving too.

The writer is the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, DC.

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