ECOSOC Humanitarian Segment, July 2000,
1. During the recent floods in Mozambique, it became vividly clear that the response to natural disasters can and must make better use of technology. This is not only a matter of convenience, it is a matter of saving lives when we are all called upon to do so during times of crises. Natural disasters, like the floods in Mozambique, truly put a human face on technology. We are, in the end, protecting human lives, which is why one may consider the linkage between technology and natural disasters such an important topic for the Council to consider today.
2. Technology in the present context is clearly a broad-based subject, ranging from the most simple and inexpensive radio frequency receiver that can fulfill critical functions in terms of early warning, to the more prohibitive satellite imagery and helicopters with night vision, that can be utilised in search-and-rescue operations. The UN's direct contribution was primarily of the former type, but even this managed to place a considerable strain on resources available for this purpose. Attention is drawn here to UNDP's equipping of the National Institute for Disaster Management with office equipment, including computers, scanners, printers, and cellular telephones; technical assistance for the introduction of appropriate GIS and software; and not least the establishment of Government and United Nations System websites (www.unsystemmoz.org), at one stage visited by 64,193 users in a single month.
3. Below are highlighted six practical implications of technology utilization, and the extent to which these can be absorbed by both the United Nations and National Governments.
4. One of the important aspects of Disaster Management is access to technology knowledge: what is available, how to use it, and the approaches needed to build such technologies into national capacity structures. We require knowledge and a conscious understanding of how to integrate disaster management technologies into national development plans and strategies. Here we are speaking of disaster management technologies in terms of a) knowledge of risk - its spatial manifestation and the technology to understand its impact; b) the warning system - to detect, forecast, and warn; & c) the institutional conscious choice to respond. While we may speak about GIS, GPS, NDVI, and other information systems, how these systems can help us prepare for and respond to disasters is not always knowledge that we in the field obtain. Thus, access to such information to be shared with our member states is vital if we are to begin to bring the 21st century technologies into the field where technology often gets separated from our overarching goals of poverty reduction. The role of the UN field offices is vital in this regard, as we work together with our national governments to design and implement disaster mitigation and response strategies. We therefore need to build strong linkages within the UN System, especially with WMO and WFP, to build on the knowledge base within the UN, as well as with our partners.
5. In Mozambique, we experienced first hand how GIS, GPS, NDVI, meteorological capacity, and mapping are essential parts of any disaster preparedness and response strategy. While we depended on our donor partners in many cases to supply us with such technological information for decision making purposes, these systems must be embraced not as luxuries but as needed tools in order to protect the most vulnerable. Satellite imagery and infra-red photos allow us to better prepare our responses based on actual on-site developments while deep field communication allows people on the ground to fully communicate for accurate planning and response. WFP has been most successful in this area, and its VAM unit was able to provide previous population figures and accurately predict the numbers of those affected and those that would require emergency assistance.
6. An up-to-date and well-maintained meteorological asset network must be established so that all areas can have access to early warning. The lack of such stations makes weather forecasting extremely difficult especially in those isolated rural areas where access is typically the most difficult.
7. Finally, accurate mapping is essential if relief efforts are to reach those in need. The establishment of coordinates for all areas nationwide is salient to locate those remote villages and areas that may tend to have a variety of names and only community knowledge of locations and populations. Systems such as the WFP VAM could be utilised for such purposes so pre-disaster mapping is comprehensive and up-to-date.
8. All of the above requires a substantial financial commitment, and an outward-looking approach to the cost-benefit relationship of these assets. The recommendation to solicit the private sector is strongly supported. In Mozambique, with the minimal technology on hand, the use of cellular and satellite telephones alone, essential to our operation, was extremely expensive for the UN system. This has major implications for disaster support costs while the Government is burdened with a huge debt for its own operations.
9. Of utmost importance is the realisation that without adequate training and the human resources capable of managing such devices (including operating skills, maintenance and repair, and accountable asset management), technology serves little purpose. We often forget during our discussions of technological needs that people are really our primary target since without the necessary capacity and knowledge, Governments remain vulnerable no matter how much equipment they possess. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges we face is how to capacitate those in provinces, districts and towns to be able to use and understand technology, as they are the ones who are faced with the devastation and responsibility for finding immediate solutions.
Flow of Information
10. Related to the above, is the need to derive maximum value from the application of costly resources, by exploiting these to their maximum capacity. Priority channels for information dissemination have to be formally established, without neglecting the need for the wider dispersion of relevant information to the population in general. Account has to be taken of the standard of living of the latter audiences, and jargon translated into meaningful sources of information.
11. In Mozambique, the aforementioned need was recognized, and special attention was given to assisting national radio with special broadcasts, repeated twice daily, for flood victims in the worst affected areas. The assistance further provided for the strategic deployment of FM transmitters to improve reception, as well as for the need for reporters to spend a sufficient amount of time in the field. As a result of this, populations' access to news and current affairs, as well as to essential educational programs, was greatly facilitated.
12. The above initiative was complemented by the wide distribution of "Freeplay" radios, which incorporate simplified technology at a low cost. The wind-up radios, consist of a spring mechanism that allows them to work day and night without the need for batteries. A simple solar panel supports the wind mechanism during daylight hours. The latter is given as an example of how the dependence on technology need not necessarily always imply prohibitive costs. These particular radios are manufactured at an estimated cost of $30, by the Freeplay Group and the South African Association for the disabled, in collaboration with the Liberty Life Foundation and the Worker's Trust. In Mozambique, the radios have been distributed at no cost to some 7,500 beneficiaries in the flood-affected areas, with the support of the British government, the United Methodist Church, and the UK-based Freeplay foundation.
Opportunities for the 21st century
13. Not only must national institutions such as universities and national statistics centres be involved in this process but all sectors which can provide improved services in times of disaster such as unblocking radio frequencies, relaxing import taxation on equipment, facilitating customs and storage, and ensuring prepared and quick responses. Nothing sets back a country like Mozambique, which is well along the development path, like a devastating catastrophe which burdens its needed resources, especially in social sectors, pushes back the development process by years, and costs lives. This must be avoided at all costs if people are to live a secure life, which the member states have agreed is one of our basic human rights embodied in the principles of the United Nations.
As a first-hand witness to the importance of saving lives through appropriate use of technology, I strongly support the recommendations made to the ECOSOC on the role of technology in natural disasters.
Emmanuel Dierckx de Casterlé
UN Resident Coordinator - Mozambique