Book Review: ICT for Disaster Risk Reduction (ICTD Case Study)

Posted on July 28, 2010  /  3 Comments

ICT for Disaster Risk Reduction (ICTD Case Study)
Published by: United Nations Asian and Pacific Training Centre for Information and Communication Technology for Development (UN-APCICT/ESCAP)

Demonstrating the true impact of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in any other field has never been easy. Robert Solow’s cynical remark has certainly outlived its time. If not for ATMs, credit cards, online check-ins and unprecedented drop of snail mail we would still have been arguing whether computer age is seen in productivity statistics.

Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) is one area where ICT’s role is more evident. ICTs are important tools for lessening the risks brought on by disasters through early warning, coordinating and tracking relief activities and resources, recording and disseminating knowledge and experiences, and raising awareness, says a joint preface by the publishers, Xuan Zengpei, Director, IDD-ESCAP and Hyeun-Suk Rhee, Director, UN-APCICT/ESCAP. The challenge, according to them, is gaining commitment to incorporate ICT tools effectively DRR and providing favourable political, social and economic conditions for identifying and applying an appropriate mix of ICTs to address vulnerabilities in different contexts.

Easier said than done. Not every national government understands this role, and even if they do, not many see it as populist. And too arduous is to replicate. Perhaps convincing them of the need to learn from others is what, as a ‘trainer’, UN-APCICT intends by presenting this collection of seven case studies. Commendable the effort, no doubt, but one is not fully convinced of its efficacy.

Christine Apikul does the introductory chapter reviewing ICT for Disaster Risk Reduction efforts. She emphasizes the increased hazard risks in Asia-Pacific and provides a brief overview of ICTs used in each phase of the DRR cycle. The key focus, not surprisingly, is on Early Warning Systems. Apikul discusses the pros and cons of different modes varying from armature radio to cell broadcasting. Apart from few minor inaccuracies this is an excellent attempt to summarize a wide range of DRR efforts that generously use ICTs. There is, of course, ample room for presentational improvement. The text-only format might not keep a lay reader engaged for long.

Shantana R. Halder and Tasdiq Ahmed then elaborate the Bangladesh Comprehensive Disaster Management Program and its use of ICTs. The only complaint one can make on this informative narration is its length. The chapter would have been more useful to policy makers, who are always pressed for time, if fewer words have been used with a strong message. The budget details etc, with similar information not directly relevant to the topic, could have moved to an annex. Anyway, it is a great overview of what’s going in Bangladesh.

Given the depth of the first case study the need for augmenting it with another from the same country is unclear, especially when the latter is more on the communication infrastructure than DRR. The chapter ‘Integrated Information and Communication System for Emergency Management in Bangladesh’ by Manzul Kumar Hazarika, Dwijendra Kumar Das and Lal Samarakoon could have been easily merged with the previous one for a better result. Standing alone, it provides important information.

The case study on ‘Space Technology Application for Disaster Management in China’ by Li Jing, Shen Li and Tang Hong provides insight into little known efforts in China to predict hazards. Establishing and Institutionalizing Disaster Loss Databases: Experience from UNDP too discusses a topic that rarely draws one’s attention. In this chapter, UNDP’s Asia Pacific Regional Program on Capacity Building for Sustainable Recovery and Risk Reduction highlights its experiences in maintaining databases to assist DRR professionals involved in the recovery process, in three countries India (Tamil Nadu), Sri Lanka and Thailand.

It has two Sri Lanka case studies. ‘Reaching the Last Mile through Community-based Disaster Risk Management’ by Gabrielle Iglesias, Novil Wijesekara and Nirmala Fernando is a brief and somewhat incomplete description of community initiative that extended the early warning to the last mile. It would have been more useful if authors paid more attention to presenting the lessons learnt. Whether anyone could gain adequate information for a successful replication from this case study is doubtful. The other Sri Lanka related case study is ‘The Sahana Free and Open Source Disaster Management System in Haiti’ by Chamindra de Silva and Mark Prustalis, in spite of somewhat misleading title. This is an excellent description of the Sahana disaster management system developed in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami of Sri Lanka.

Arguably the weakest case study in this publication is the last one. Contribution of blogs in the aftermath of tsunami, not only in sharing critical information, connecting individuals etc but in fund raising as well is not insignificant. Peter Griffin’s ‘SEA-EAT Blog’ instead of summing up these developments narrates the story of a single blog. Griffin boasts about the tsunami in traffic – ‘thousands’ of hits per a hour’ – but this is not unnatural in the wake of a massive disaster. Most tsunami blogs might have experienced the waves. The success, of course, is not the hits rates but what has been achieved. The attempt was with good intentions and was successful if the blogger wanted, as he hints, “putting a candle in your window to show that I cared.”, but a publication should have made a stronger case for the use of citizen tools in DRR.

‘ICT for Disaster Risk Reduction’ is no doubt informative, but if the intended audience is policy makers and not general readers, its efficacy is uncertain. It looks as if little effort was made to make the case studies representative of Asia-Pacific. For example, there are no case studies from developed countries like Korea, which could have helped policy makers in developing Asia. Also nothing from Indonesia, the prime victim of the 2004 tsunami. The lessons are summarized at the end of the introductory chapter, where it looks rather out of place. The publication could also have been enriched by an executive summary.

Apart from these minor issues, this is a book worth reading by any DRR professional, especially those in the Asia-Pacific. We hope Asia-Pacific policy makers will take note.

NB: This publication can be downloaded from here.