Using Information and Communication Technology to Protect Citizens Against Natural Disasters

June 27, 2012


  • Changing weather patterns are impacting citizens in Africa’s coastal cities
  • Local governments are turning to technology to protect against further climate-related disasters
  • Citizen participation through technologies like SMS and GIS may be the answer to reducing disaster impacts

WASHINGTON, June 27, 2012— In February 2000, intense flooding left hundreds of thousands of people homeless in the African nation of Mozambique. The cause: a tropical cyclone and heavy rainfall which many experts attributed to the effects of climate change.

More than a decade later, February 2012 turned out to be a turbulent month for the island nation of Madagascar with Cyclones Giovanna and Irina battering the country one after the other, impacting more than 300,000 people and causing widespread flooding, landslides and severe damage to homes and businesses.

Across Africa, coastal cities are seeing the worst affects of climate change-induced hazards like flooding and drought, because of their proximity to coastlines or large bodies of water. And the urban poor are most heavily impacted.

“Poor communities often spring up in the least-desirable, highest-risk locations in flood zones along rivers or seacoasts with weak infrastructure and poor sanitation,” said Gaurav Relhan, an Information and Communication Technology (ICT) specialist in the World Bank’s Africa Region, and author of a new report on ICTs, Cities, and natural disasters in Africa: Municipal ICT Capacity and its Impact on the Climate-Change Affected Urban Poor: The Case of Mozambique.

To help people lessen and, when possible, prevent the severe effects of climate change-induced emergencies, more cities in African countries are turning to ICTs.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS), for example, are helping local governments identify flood zones on maps, measure communities’ vulnerability to flooding, and plan for new flood-prevention infrastructure like drainage systems and levees. Through mobile phones, citizens are being alerted via SMS texts to coming floods or cyclones. And Early Warning Systems are simulating weather patterns and predicting disasters in advance. These tools, according to Relhan, can play a pivotal role in ultimately saving lives and lowering recovery costs.

SMS texts alert citizens

In Madagascar, where access to up-to-the-minute weather forecasts is limited, local communities currently rely on low-tech approaches to help warn of disasters. The ‘town crier’ system, administered by the National Bureau for Risk and Disaster Management (BNGRC), currently is the main system for alerting rural communities in advance of cyclones. As part of the system, a village leader walks through the community ringing a bell and shouting warnings and instructions.

“Cultural practices, while often effective, may not always be enough to protect citizens from the impacts of disaster,” said Doekle Wielinga, head of Disaster Risk Management for the World Bank’s Africa Region.

A more high-tech approach is being tested by the Government of Madagascar. Utilizing an SMS warning system for those with mobile phones (estimated at more than 300 phones per 1000 inhabitants in the country), BNGRC sends out messages to local leaders and telecom providers to warn of impending cyclones.

“We have distributed 1600 SIM cards,” said Raonivelo Andrianianja, who manages the web for the Bureau. “Thirteen hundred of them already had a menu designed to ease the sending of information to BNGRC, and [were] adapted to the education level in the rural areas.”

According to Andrianianja, who designed the SMS system, SMS is being used to send alerts, but also to collect information about the impacts.

“Thanks to this system, we are able to monitor the impacts in less than 48 hours, and help to identify the most affected areas where the population needs immediate support.”

World Bank projects

The World Bank is working with the Government of Madagascar to scale-up the use of ICTs. Projects include Disaster Risk Reduction and Adaptation to Climate Change and Mainstreaming Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management into Economic Development. Both projects promote the use of innovative ICTs such as geo-spatial mapping and open-source technology, as well as more mainstream technology like the BNGRC SMS system.

In Mozambique, the new World Bank report is looking at the impacts of ICT systems and their effectiveness for the urban poor.

“The report aims to capture the impact of municipal-level ICT on Mozambique’s poor communities by evaluating to what extent climate resilience is being enhanced,” according to Relhan. “It also advocates the co-participation of citizens in urban governance.”

Projects in Mozambique and Madagascar join similar projects like ‘Taarifa’, a smart phone-based tool being applied in Uganda and Zimbabwe that allows citizens to alert governments of local sanitation and drainage concerns; and the ‘Map Tandale’ initiative in Tanzania, which provides local residents with GPS devices to map their communities.

As World Bank Institute Senior Governance Specialist Björn-Sören Gigler said in a recent blog post: “ICT innovations are powerful tools to help democratize development and make donor and government programs more inclusive and sustainable.”