With 20 years of experience, Bhawana Upadhyay, ICT Officer and ETC focal point with WFP Nepal, is a legend at the World Food Programme (WFP): she was part of the emergency response when a devastating earthquake struck the country in April 2015; she was the first female deputy cluster coordinator at the ETC Operational Exercise (now gear.UP); and more recently, she was instrumental in organizing the WFP Drone training in Kathmandu.
Katarzyna Chojnacka caught up with Bhawana to get her thoughts on how the ETC has evolved alongside new technologies in humanitarian response.
You were both facilitator and attendee at the latest WFP Drones training – can you share some of your impressions about the content, participants and outcomes?
The drone training aimed to give capacity to (…) the key stakeholders in the country to operate the UAS [unmanned aircraft systems]. We had participants from government agencies, academia, but also local drone experts. This training (…) brought all the local actors into one room to discuss legislation around operating drones, but we also had practical sessions (…): one day on operating the equipment and using an application to process data and another day of a simulation – [understanding] how exactly it works in an emergency, in a humanitarian operation, what are the roles on the ground and how we can move the response faster.
It was a total package – a workshop and a practical training! I think WFP was successful in building the capacity in the country.
In 2015, you attended the ETC Operational Exercise (OpEx Bravo, now gear.UP), a demanding emergency simulation. This drone training included an operation-inspired drill. Could you talk about similarities between the two training experiences?
OpEx Bravo was a rich experience (…) It felt like a real emergency, also in terms of compromised personal security. We focused on IT and ETC aspects to keep the operation rolling and getting the connectivity working, but also, we needed to stay in the given scenario. You do your part as a participant but then there is another team that makes it look real with acting and simulation – the facilitators from THW [German Agency for Technical Relief]. The simulation in the drone training was a similar idea. In fact, it was one of the main components of the training – it gave us a feeling of how it would be in a real emergency.
What is the added value of localized capacity building?
OpEx Bravo was held in an international context, which makes sense if I get deployed in a new place. The local context of the drone training was equally valuable to me, but even more valuable for local actors. We brought all stakeholders together in one room, around one table and we decided on the way forward.
Drones were used by many international organizations when an earthquake struck Nepal in April 2015. What has WFP Nepal done since then to better integrate this technology into emergency response? How is the policy environment and local awareness different now?
In Nepal we have recently [established] a national body – the National Innovation Centre, led by a pioneer, Mr. Mahabir Pun. He is very keen to have the whole country, especially rural Nepal, connected [to the Internet] and to have a very quick response even in the most remote parts of the country, through technology. The National Innovation Centre is also working with drone technology in rural areas. Similarly, Nepal Police has also pioneered Kathmandu traffic management through this technology; while International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) uses drones to survey the glacial lakes and monitor climate change. WFP Nepal also has some GIS [Geographic Information Systems] and mapping initiatives for preparedness. We have a project called “Trail and local resource mapping” in remote districts where it is difficult to identify them through satellite images.
[Up until the training] there was a gap in the local context in terms of the legislative environment. Though the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) and the Ministry of Home Affairs have issued a new act on operation of drones, there existed gaps in coordination and information sharing among the stakeholders. Through this training, we managed to bridge a lot of those gaps and discuss the way forward.
What are the next steps in the collaboration and national capacity building around drones?
The Government of Nepal – the Ministry of Home Affairs and CAAN in particular - have recently issued a policy for drone importation and operation in the country. This was highlighted during the event, and participants familiarized themselves [with it] during the training. Also, the next steps were clarified through a panel discussion with the authorities. After acquiring hands-on knowledge on the use of drones in humanitarian action, several key recommendations were formulated by the participants and facilitators for consideration by the Nepal Government. Some of these recommendations were: the need to promote a research environment on drones and airspace; formulate regulations under the National Emergency Operation Center for timely emergency response; establish digital platform for drone activities in the country, raising awareness on operation and importation rules as well as certification to fly drones.
It seems that for the ETC, all roads lead to Nepal: when the ETC2020 strategy was adopted in 2015, Nepal hosted the first ETC Communicating with Communities (CwC) project. Now Nepal closes a series of WFP Drones training and there is keenness to further engage with this technology. What explains such a favorable climate for innovation in Nepal?
Nepal is a very peaceful country. It is a favorable place for experts to try new technologies, because the regulatory bodies are very receptive: if we come up with proposals that make sense such as emergency preparedness for earthquakes or floods, they go for it. This is the credibility we [WFP] have developed through various initiatives collaborating with the government. I think we have done a good job to win the trust of the stakeholders, so we are regarded as an organization that can make a difference in the country.
You have over 20 years of experience in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector and drones are just one of many technological innovations that WFP is currently integrating in their operations. In your opinion, what is the most important technology adopted by humanitarian organizations in recent years, and why?
In [all] those years that I have been involved with WFP and the ETC, the organization has constantly adapted itself to be able to deliver more according to the needs of the affected populations. Donors would like to see us work more efficiently, so we bring the most value for money and best results for our beneficiaries. The ETC has really understood the essence of how we need to evolve constantly, in terms of implementing new technologies. So, I think digital transformation at large is the most important innovation (…) The ETC and WFP ICT systems now involve not just “keeping the lights on” and providing IT and Security Communications to humanitarians, but they become a part of the business to enable more people through technology, to serve more people in a shorter time through automation.