Author: Iria Gonzalez

The role of telecommunications in disasters: A Caribbean deep-dive

Source(s): Connecting Business initiative
Photograph of a mobile phone with cyclone moving towards the coast shown. The background is yellow with warning sign.
Memories Over Mocha/Shutterstock

In the case of crises, including extreme weather events, access to connectivity provides a lifeline. For example, in the case of affected people, it allows the dissemination of early warning messages, connection with loved ones, and the search for information. The mobile industry works closely with partners, governments, and the humanitarian sector to better prepare for and respond to crises, investing in resilient networks and innovative solutions. The Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA) Humanitarian Connectivity Charter clarifies the telecommunication industry’s commitment to disaster management, focusing on coordination, scale, and partnerships with over 160 mobile network operator (MNO) signatories operating across 112 countries.

The Caribbean region is impacted by a number of hazards every year, making disaster preparedness and response essential. According to GSMA, over the last two decades, tropical cyclones, heat waves, storm surges, droughts and other extreme climate events have affected approximately 400,000 people and cost USD 137 million in damage in the region. Over 60 per cent of people in the Caribbean subscribe to a mobile service, relying on their mobile phones to access essential information and communication services which provide an important lifeline during times of crisis, including the Atlantic hurricane season.

The GSMA Workshop for the Caribbean

GSMA, in partnership with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the World Food Programme (WFP), organized a workshop in the Caribbean as a platform to bring together key stakeholders in the emergency telecommunications sector, from the mobile industry, to government and the humanitarian-development sector to discuss challenges, opportunities, best practices and innovations related to disaster preparedness and response in emergency telecommunications. It was a great space to facilitate an understanding of different perspectives and foster stronger public-private partnerships.

Sessions covered key topics on the growing role of telecommunications in disaster preparedness, response and recovery, such as Early Warning Systems, National Emergency Telecommunications Plans (NETPs), the perspective of MNOs as well as the perspective from governments.

CBi at the GSMA Workshop for the Caribbean

The Connecting Business initiative (CBi) was part of a panel discussion about Sustainable Partnerships, with Kimberly Brown, Head of Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation for GSMA and facilitated by Brent Carbno, Global Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) Coordinator for the WFP. The discussion centered around what makes a partnership successful and the centrality of trust as a key component, as well as the fact that no single stakeholder – whether governments, the UN, NGOs, or businesses – can manage crises alone. Working together, as real partners, is critical to saving more lives and livelihoods.

In addition, CBi led the interactive panel Private Sector Ecosystem’s Role in Disaster Resilience where the Cluster System and the Humanitarian Programme Cycle were introduced. The highlight of the panel was an overview of good practices and lessons learned on the use of mobile technologies from CBi Member Networks, including:

  • The Vanuatu Business Resilience Council (VBRC) - The Unblocked Cash programme is a mobile cash transfer project that used blockchain technology to help families and local businesses affected by Cyclone Harold (2020), in partnership with Oxfam.
  • The Alliance for Risk Management and Business Continuity (AGERCA) in Haiti – In partnership with Digicel, AGERCA facilitated the provision of phone credits, providing internet connectivity and call minutes for the members of National Emergency Operation Centres and the COVID-19 Emergency Call Center.
  • The Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation (PDRF) – Network operators engage in response activities and preparedness projects (early warning systems, restoration of lifelines, all-in-one emergency communications kits, among others) and runs a 24/7 business emergency operations center.

The panel also included an interactive exercise to identify the main bottlenecks and pain points of various stakeholders, who were encouraged to find the best solutions to those challenges.

The simulation exercise, or SimEX, focused on the scenario of a Category 5 Hurricane making landfall on the island of St. George and its unpredicted consequences. Participants discussed how information and communication technology solutions and digital technologies could be used for disaster management and risk reduction in the country and region, gaining a better understanding of the procedures, roles, and regulations. One of the key takeaways was the importance of the ratification and the national implementation of the Tampere Convention on the Provision of Telecommunication Resources for Disaster Mitigation and Relief Operations to pave the way for the provision and availability of communication equipment during emergencies. As well as the National Emergency Telecommunications Plans to articulate a national strategy and framework on disaster risk management.

What stood out throughout the workshop was how diverse a region the Caribbean is, the challenge around the importation of humanitarian goods if plans are not in place ahead of time, and the importance of both National Emergency Telecommunications Plans as well as The Tampere Convention. Conversations also reinforced the central role of coordination among all actors during an emergency for greater efficiency and impact, and the value of working with local partners who understand the context and dynamics which can facilitate building trust-based relationships.

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