Author(s): Elizabeth Millership

Tuning into ‘amateur’ radio airwaves in Mozambique

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Ham radio strengthens emergency telecommunications preparedness in disaster-stricken Mozambique.

“Victor Delta Foxtrot, do you copy? Weather check – over” 

The voice crackles to life over radio airwaves in the port city of Maputo in Mozambique. It’s the first radio check of its kind in a country still reeling from the double disaster of cyclones Idai and Kenneth in 2019. The two extreme weather events slammed into Mozambique just six weeks apart, becoming two of the deadliest storms on record in Africa.

Cyclone Idai caused 1,300 deaths across south-eastern Africa while cyclone Kenneth was one of the strongest to ever make landfall on the continent with extraordinary wind speeds of 220 km per hour.

Across Mozambique, severe flooding caused by Kenneth ripped homes apart, brought down power lines, and left rubble where roads and building had stood. In one of the worst moments of the Idai disaster, communities fled to rooftops and trees to escape the sudden floodwaters slamming into their homes below.

Emerging from a landscape torn apart by flooding and surge winds, the Government of Mozambique and its partners have placed disaster-risk-reduction at the core of its agenda. African nations gathered in Maputo earlier this year to hold climate talks ahead of COP27 which kicks off in Sharm el-Sheikh on Sunday. 

More than ever, resilient telecommunications capability in the face of disasters is critical.

In times of crisis, amateur radio communications – known as ham radio – plays a vital role. When internet networks are down, wires are cut, and phones lines are overloaded, ham radio provides a lifeline to assistance, information, and emergency coordination.

One of the first types of radio communications to be invented, ham radio operates on an analogue system that reaches across wide areas where users may be moving in and out of coverage – often the exact conditions faced by responders and affected communities in post-disaster situations.

The Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC), the World Food Programme's Technology division in Mozambique, and the National Institute for Disaster Risk Management and Reduction, have supported the National Institute of Communications in Mozambique (INCM) to set up a prototype ham radio station in Maputo, capable of reaching any location in the country.

More ham radio stations will follow across Pemba, Beira, Niassa, Lichinga, Tete, Zambezia and Inhambane provinces.

“Together, we assessed the needs and drafted a national action plan for telecommunications preparedness in Mozambique. Setting up a ham radio network complete with licensing and capacity building is one of 18 planned projects,” said Sudhir Kumar, ETC Preparedness Officer.

Already, 12 key responders from the INCM have been trained in using ham radio and equipped with licences to use amateur radio – a first for Mozambique. Previously, certification for Mozambicans was only possible to obtain from neighbouring South Africa, or even further afield.

Now, any responder with a license can join the disaster resilience movement via amateur radio.

“Ham operators are volunteers, so they can take their equipment and set up base in a government office or response staging area and provide communications from there. This makes amateur radio particularly useful in an emergency,” said Kumar.

Mozambique’s young people, who account for more than half the country’s population, are gearing up to join these telecommunications preparedness efforts.

In the aftermath of cyclones Idai and Kenneth, young people in Mozambique faced devastating hardships. In the districts of Chimanimani, Chipinge and Mutare, 60 percent of those impacted by the disaster were children. Across the country, thousands of classrooms were damaged or destroyed and the education of half a million children and young people was disrupted. 

Students of electronics and communications engineering at the 'Instituto Superior de Transportes e Comunicações', a college in Maputo, will join a planned workshop delivered by the ETC and WFP Mozambique on using amateur radio in the context of disaster response.

“The students of informatics and telecommunications are excited to become a part of the amateur radio culture. This workshop will be a starting point for long-term engagement,” says Elton Sixpence, Director of Graduate Programmes at the ISUTC.

WFP Mozambique hopes to create a pipeline of interns trained and ready to respond to any emergency. Preparing young people to take part in disaster response will boost capacity to create a network of radio operators who can communicate across the country, in any situation.

The climate crisis is intensifying extreme weather events across the world. The impacts on vulnerable communities across southern and east Africa is only going to increase in the years to come.

In the face of these challenges, a new and resilient network of radio communicators in Mozambique will be ready, transmitter in hand.

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