Connect, innovate, accelerate: Digital solutions for disaster risk reduction & crisis response

United Nations Development Programme - Sri Lanka

2020 and 2021 have been significant years for the world and Sri Lanka. Institutions have been confronted with complicated and unexpected difficulties as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rising vulnerability to environmental disasters and climate change. In nations where these events occur simultaneously, like Sri Lanka, institutions are required to be decisive and take swift action to minimize further losses and consequences. Without this, there will be cascading effects and impacts on health, displacement, business disruptions, disrupted government services, loss of jobs and income, and erosion of trust and social cohesion among citizens. Moreover, these unforeseen chains of events often have significant immediate and long-term consequences for the most vulnerable, which include an increase in domestic violence and victimization of women, zero to limited access to life-saving services for the elderly and people with disabilities, immediate or permanent job losses, and significant disturbance in educational activities for children and youth.

This is one of the many issues that is currently affecting Sri Lanka. As an island that is frequently affected by extreme weather events like floods, droughts, landslides, coastal erosion, high winds, and lightning, other existing socio-economic vulnerabilities of the country such as household poverty, dependence ratios, nutritional poverty, malnutrition, gender inequities, and disparities in access to key services are compounded by the added stress of the pandemic and the ever-increasing climate vulnerability. The Climate Change Secretariat (CCS), under the Ministry of Environment (MoE), has recognized nine vulnerable sectors to climate change: food security, water, coastal sector, health, human settlements, biodiversity, tourism and recreation, export development, industry, energy, and transportation—key sectors that are vital for a stable economy and the wellbeing of people. 

Specifically, in times of disasters, as with the pandemic, the 9.2% (as of 2019) that’s below the national poverty line and the 53.7% dependence rate on the economically active age group are hit the hardest diminishing household savings, reducing coping capabilities and access to key essential services, thus, further increasing vulnerability. One out of every four households is female-headed on the island, accounting for more than a quarter of all households where a majority of them work in informal jobs and are not eligible for unemployment benefits, making them even more vulnerable to climate and disaster shocks. Individuals with disabilities account for 8% of the overall population in Sri Lanka. As of  2014, those aged over 60 years with chronic diseases consisted of 51.9% of men and 57.8% of women. A further 23.5% of disabled children aged 5 to 14 are excluded from mainstream schooling and have a very high school 'drop-out' rate, thus, highlighting their vulnerabilities in times of disasters.

Innovative means of communication are seldom used to reach people with impairments or those in the poorer strata of society. These contexts only amplify existing societal inequalities and vulnerabilities.

Addressing these is within the ambit of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The International Telecommunication Union's (ITU) strategy highlights leveraging the power of information and communication technology (ICTs) as a means to accelerate progress on the SDGs.  ITU’s ICT4SDG initiative outlines building infrastructure, securing investment, promoting innovation, and ensuring inclusivity as critical steps for catalyzing development through ICT—a significant need in Sri Lanka as learnt through the last two years of COVID-19, coupled with other environmental issues and disasters. 

UNDP Disaster Risk Reduction and Recovery for Building Resilience Team based in the Bangkok Regional Hub (BRH DRR Team) seeks to bridge these digital disaster risk reduction gaps through the regional project on “Accelerating Disaster Risk Reduction and Enhancing Crisis Response through Digital Solutions (Digital Solutions for DRR)” with support from the Government of Japan, building on the achievement and partnership under the Global Centre for Disaster Statistics (GCDS).

The initiative, which is being implemented in Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, has three outcomes:

  1. Disaster data digitalized and integrated using cloud-based technologies to support disaster risk reduction and recovery in project countries; 

  2. Targeted digital solutions for increased preparedness and response of vulnerable groups developed and applied; 

  3. Strengthened capacities of national and subnational governments through partnerships for disaster risk-informed development planning.

The project focuses on the pressing and crucial need for changing the way disaster data is managed where institutions lack the ability to share, analyze, visualize and use data for policy/decision making, programme planning, budgeting and more importantly, in identifying who are most in need of these interventions. It also aims to change the way vital information is disseminated and used by duty bearers and rights holders, especially the most vulnerable.

The SDGs are notable for their emphasis on ensuring that no one is left behind and reaching out to the most vulnerable people who are more likely to be affected by catastrophes. Simultaneously, digital technologies are widely acknowledged as critical instruments for catalyzing progress toward the SDGs. Digital technologies have advanced significantly, ranging from high-resolution satellite imaging to cloud computing, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, all of which can help with DRR and recovery. Furthermore, the widespread use of mobile phones and increased Internet access provides possibilities for disadvantaged populations to develop creative solutions and strengthen their resilience. Therefore, this project aims to strengthen disaster risk reduction and recovery in implementing countries, through digital transformation, and engage with the private sector through innovative partnerships and solutions to support risk-informed development.

One such example from the Sri Lankan context would be the transition of the Colombo Tea Auction to an E-Auction. According to Mr. Anil Cooke, the Chairman of the Ceylon Tea Road Map 2030 Committee of the Colombo Tea Traders Association of Sri Lanka and CEO of Asia Siyaka, “This has been a hasty, yet critical decision taken by The Colombo Tea Traders Association as going digital seemed to be the only way to keep the tea trade afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic”. In his presentation on ‘Sip to Zip’, Mr. Cooke shared that “everything was going smoothly until the government had to shut down the country. We had to come up with quick solutions. The Colombo Tea Traders Association, in collaboration with the Government of Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Plantation and Sri Lanka Tea Board, decided to get the brokers association to come up with a marketing solution. The private sector, with its dynamic approach to solutions, commissioned a company that was developing software for the brokers and the Tea Board which gave us a head start. We had to come up with a solution by the first week of April as the workers of the estates and farmers were awaiting their payments to celebrate the upcoming April holidays. This solution was launched and developed as we moved along. Ideas were discussed, they were worked on overnight, tested and released in the morning and then introduced to a panel of members of the Export Association. The synergy was built when the Government stepped in through the Tea Board and stated that they will fund this process until normal payments kicked in. 

Through this effort, we became the only tea centre in the world that was open for business in the middle of the pandemic. We have achieved tremendous progress simply by averting absolute disaster where the 4 million beneficiaries and the greater economy of the country would have been in peril if the tea auction couldn’t continue.” Mr. Cooke’s experience with digitizing the tea auction with the Government’s support is proof of many things. One is that it highlights the country’s urgent demand to digitize processes as much as possible for greater inclusivity and accessibility, another is the Government of Sri Lanka’s commitment to furthering this ongoing digital transformation for the better, and the last is that it is testament to the fact that existing systems can be digitized successfully with innovative partnerships and the right technical support. 

In this vein, UNDP’s DX4 Resilience project uses a Digital Disaster Risk Reduction Maturity Model (DDRRMM) as a guiding framework to comprehend digital solutions' current status and future potential for disaster risk reduction in the countries of project implementation. The model consists of seven steps: Shared Data Resources and Access, Digital Applications and Services, DRR Coordination and Collaboration, ICT Infrastructure, Stakeholder/User Competencies, Partnership Programs and Policies, Standards, Guidelines, and Best Practices. These steps entrench themselves in the Digital Infrastructure Ecosystem (DIE) from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA)’s Mobile Connectivity Index. Both these entities aid the understanding of digital maturity in a country.

UNDP in Sri Lanka is closely working with the, State Ministry of National Security and Disaster Management, Disaster Management Centre, National Building Research Organization, Department of Meteorology, and the National Disaster Relief Services Centre and Irrigation Department to implement this project and specifically targets the vulnerable ground around the Mi Oya basin. The benefits envisaged through this process are:

  • Improved data and information, and the effective use of information to build resilience to disaster risk and climate change; and,

  • Access to and benefit from information about the risk and can act on the information to reduce risk and adapt to climate change.

A digitalized future is not only coming sooner but also taking a different shape than many predicted. The COVID-19 pandemic has hastened digital transformation plans across all industries. It is also driving businesses and governments to reimagine procedures and experiences that they initially didn't plan to digitize. Such positive transformations for building forward better, learning through our experiences for the betterment of the people and planet, are just what Sri Lanka needs in its shift towards green development.

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