UN volunteers and digital power help India cope with disasters

National UN Volunteers in India are teaming up with UN Information Technology Services (UNITeS) to help one million villages prepare for earthquakes, cyclones and other calamities that claim lives and undermine development.
The US$27 million disaster risk management programme is scaling up recovery efforts by UN Volunteers in UNDP-supported programmes after the 2001 earthquake in the western state of Gujarat and the "super cyclone" that devastated the eastern state of Orissa in 1999.

National UN Volunteers working with UNITeS set up online information booths in inaccessible villages in Orissa and trained local people, including women with little or no education, to operate them. Villagers and administrators can get data on market prices for farm produce and weather warnings, and link up with district authorities. The project was a finalist in last year's Stockholm Challenge, which honours pioneering information and communications projects worldwide.

Volunteers in Gujarat are helping government agencies use digital technology to share information widely. A volunteer working at the Gujarat State Disaster Mitigation Authority created an online information hub that provides comprehensive information on rehabilitation activities, including seismically safe construction technology.

The new programme, launched by the Ministry of Home Affairs with UNDP support, will work with communities in 125 districts across 12 states to prepare contingency plans and train more than three million people on local emergency task forces. Over 200 UN Volunteers should be in place by the end of the month, according to Saroj K. Jha, who heads UNDP activities to help poor communities, which are the most vulnerable, reduce the risks of disaster.

The programme, running through 2007, covers the remote north-eastern region, as well as states such as Bihar near that area, one of the country's poorest. Orissa and Gujarat will continue to be at the heart of the national effort to prepare communities to deal with disasters, however. The volunteers will also help communities prepare for long-term emergencies such as drought.

UNDP focuses on community-based disaster management, capacity building, early warning and advocacy, noted Brenda Gael McSweeney, UNDP Resident Representative and UN Resident Coordinator. "Partnering with UN Volunteers, we want to create people-centred systems to help communities empower themselves to take charge of their lives during difficult situations," she said.

"UNITeS has empowered people through use of digital technology as a tool for promoting transparency and good governance," said UN Volunteer and UNITeS leader Sujit Mohanty. It has also supported disaster management by tracking trends and creating an inventory of human and material resources that can be quickly deployed in emergencies, he said.

In addition to UNITeS activities, a team of 135 national UN Volunteers around the country is boosting disaster preparedness in remote areas, linking communities, local governments and civil society organizations. They include doctors, engineers, architects, planners and watershed specialists.

For further information please contact Kumar Tiku, UNDP India, or Trygve Olfarnes, UNDP Communications Office.