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After disaster: information for life

Imogen Wall
26 October 2008

In the days after Burma was hit by cyclone Nargis in May 2008, Kyaw Kyaw  was desperate. His house had survived the cyclone - just. But what if more was coming? Kyaw needed to know. He and two other families scraped together $5 - enough to purchase something they saw as vital after the disaster: a small transistor-radio. "We don't spend a single day without listening to the weather report", he says.

Imogen Wall is project-manager Africa at the BBC World Service Trust. She is the author (with Lisa Robinson) of a policy briefing for the trust, "Left in the dark: The unmet need for information in emergency response" (October 2008); the full report in pdf format is hereWhen a major disaster - hurricane, famine, flood or epidemic, for example - hits a region of the global south, the brief period of saturation media coverage that follows tends to confirm outsiders' view that the devastated population's overriding needs are food, water, tarpaulins, medical supplies and technical expertise. All these things are indeed essential. This list, however, has one critical omission: information.

It may sound irrelevant, even trivial. But anyone who has been caught in an emergency knows that decisions to protect lives and well-being in that moment depend on having the right information. What just happened? Where is the nearest hospital? Is anyone coming to help, and what do I do in the meantime? How can I find out about my family? Is it safe to stay indoors after an earthquake? How can I purify water safely, or spot the early symptoms of diseases like cholera? For survivors of disaster in remote areas of developing countries who may be cut off from help (for up to two weeks, as was notoriously the case in Burma), reliable answers to such questions can be vital.

A vital shift

But who is to deliver what may prove to be life-saving information? The use of radio or mobile-phones (especially text-messaging) in the early hours and days of an emergency can make a key difference. Basic radio messages can be a vehicle of crucial information when nothing else is getting through. Kyaw was not alone in Burma: after the cyclone, thousands in the Irrawaddy delta were desperate for information: on basic healthcare, what was happening with the aid effort, where - if anywhere - they could get help. In this emergency, one of the post-disaster resources providing such vital information was a dedicated five-minute daily Burmese-language broadcast by the BBC World Service Trust. In future disasters, such services need to be at the heart of the response.

This is not just an issue of one-way delivery, important though that is. In recent years, aid agencies have come to recognise the need to listen much more to local populations and increase their involvement in planning, organising and delivering aid. A part of this shift towards more collaborative aid work is that the spread of information too becomes shared as survivors become active in post-disaster efforts.
Also in openDemocracy on disaster-relief, aid and information:

Jean Seaton, "The numbers game: death, media, and the public" (6 October 2005)

Maruf Khwaja, " Pakistan's mountain tsunami" (11 October 2005)

Beena Sarwar, " Kashmir's earthquake: don't care or don't know?" (14 November 2005)

Jan McGirk, " Western NGOs and the tsunami test" (21 December 2005)

Aung Zaw, " Burma: the cyclone and the referendum" (6 May 2008)

Wylie Bradford, " Burma: cyclone, aid and sanctions" (27 May 2008)

Li Datong, " China and the earthquake" (2 June 2008)
New technology means that disaster-affected populations are far more able to communicate with aid organisations to make their needs known. In the days after the Yogyakarta earthquake in Indonesia in May 2006, for example, communities gathered lists of affected people and posted their names and needs onto websites. In Darfur, displaced people in camps use mobile-phones to stay in touch with their home villages, using information received this way to make decisions about how and where they and their families move. As new technologies become cheaper and more accessible, their potential for connecting aid organisations and populations affected by disasters grows ever greater.

A new recognition

The importance of information lasts long after the immediate disaster has passed, and the response moves from emergency into longer-term recovery.  It is easy in principle to establish a project to help people find work (a job centre, say) and forget that if people don't know about it, they simply can't use the service. This also applies to decisions made by local governments, which may not have the skills to communicate effectively with local populations about (say) compensation packages or shoreline construction plans (as in Sri Lanka after the tsunami in December 2004). Local people need to know what is being done and decided by the institutions charged with governing their area and planning its recovery if they are to rebuild their lives.

The good news for aid agencies is that better communication with local populations almost always results in improved working relationships, more effective projects and ultimately better results. The idea that populations are capable through new technology of gathering their own data and of analysing their own needs represents a huge opportunity for all those seeking to alleviate suffering.

The confusion, competition for scarce resources and political intrigue that can surround post-disaster situations make accurate and relevant information all the more essential. Good partnerships between aid agencies, local people, reliable media, and responsible authorities are crucial in this respect. 

The developed world's humanitarian agencies are learning that disaster-affected communities are and should be the architects of their own recovery, not merely passive recipients of international goodwill and money. Information is at the heart of this process: at its best, an instrument of solace, trust and even empowerment to people like Kyaw Kyaw at the hardest time of their lives.

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