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The number of disasters worldwide has quadrupled since 1970. In 2018 alone, there were over 3,100 floods, storms and other extreme events according to the World Disasters Report. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction found that between 1998 and 2017 a staggering 91% of all major recorded events were climate-related disasters.
Climate change and global warming intensifies extreme weather events, and these events are further exacerbated by human actions. In 2004, the Tropical Storm Janine hit Haiti and killed over 800 people – the severity of the destruction caused by a combination of deforestation and flooding that happens when there is not enough vegetation to assist soil in absorbing rainwater.
Researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that recent hurricanes – such as Katrina, Irma, and Maria – rained 5 to 10 percent more water due to the warmer atmosphere. In the past year, northern California experienced wildfires with increasing intensity destroying homes and lives, fueled by high temperatures and extended periods of drought.
From 2005 to 2015, extreme weather events have caused an staggering $1.4 trillion in damages and have affected 1.7 billion people worldwide, putting global economies and communities at risk. However the damages caused and people affected by disasters are not evenly distributed across the globe.
Disasters not only disproportionately affect vulnerable communities living in areas with less infrastructure, safety networks, and access to resources, but they also widen economic inequality. Vulnerable communities with less political power and financial resources are less able to recover after disasters, often receive less federal relief, and experience more mortality and economic losses.
How can mobile apps help?
With natural disasters the “new normal” around the world, mobile technologies have become an important lifeline before, during and after catastrophic events.
A new breed of mobile disaster apps are being developed and deployed, complementing and improving the way federal and local agencies prepare for and deal with emergencies. Although having mixed user reviews, these applications demonstrate the potential of mobile technology in minimizing casualties, and improving recovery efforts during disasters. For example:
- The American Red Cross offers a suite of apps for emergencies, hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes, providing location-specific information, alerts and support during disasters
- FEMA Mobile App launched in 2016 by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides weather updates, alerts, real-time safety tips and directions to local resources like shelters
- Ready-for-Wildfire app launched in 2016 by CAL Fire, the agency charged with preparing and responding to Californian wildfires, provides checklists to prepare for and evacuate from wildfires, as well as wildfire alerts
- I-REACT app launched in 2018 and funded by the European Commission, provides a free disaster-resilience app to help citizens prepare for floods, fires and extreme weather events
Meena Palaniappan, the founder of a technology startup Atma Connect, is an environmental engineer who came to using mobile phones in disasters through a circuitous path. While working on water and climate change in India, she noticed how mobile phones were becoming ubiquitous, yet technology for social good projects were rarely reaching large scale. The first app Atma Connect launched in 2014 was a neighborhood peer-to-peer water price sharing platform.
Users immediately asked for the app to broaden its focus, and during flooding in Jakarta in 2015 people used the AtmaGo mobile app to share safe routes through the city, the location of government shelters, and to warn locals to watch out for signs of waterborne diseases in children. AtmaGo’s social network has now reached over 2.5 million people in Indonesia who are using it to prepare for, respond to and even prevent the next disaster.
After a 7.5 magnitude earthquake and tsunami hit Sulawesi, Indonesia on September 28, 2018, causing more than 1,700 deaths and displacing over 70,000 people from their homes, local residents turned to their mobile phones and AtmaGo to alert and support friends, family and neighbors. Ella Naila offered her home as a temporary command center on AtmaGo to host almost 50 humanitarian workers. Thousands saw posts about how to get food, water and healthcare.
“With climate related disasters on the rise, the time to focus on resilience is now. What is incredible is the role social media like AtmaGo is playing in reducing mortality and morbidity from disasters, and helping communities organize garbage clean-ups and tree and mangrove plantings that reduce the severity of disasters”, says Deon Nel, CEO of the Global Resilience Partnership.
Social connectedness is a surprisingly undervalued tool for resilience to disasters. Communities with robust social networks have been shown to have fewer deaths and bounce back quicker from disasters. For example, during 2011’s Tsunami in Japan communities with more ties, interaction and shared norms worked effectively to provide help to kin, family and neighbors. “Being connected to your neighbors is a powerful resilience tool that is underutilized. We are trying to change that”, says Palaniappan.
In an age of increasing disasters, weather events are affecting large numbers of people, in remote and dangerous areas, who need resources fast and efficiently. Mobile technology can connect survivors with aid, map crisis situations and send early warnings to those who are usually missed. “Technology has been playing a powerful role in preparedness and recovery from disasters,” says Peter Tavernise, Executive Director of the Cisco Foundation. “After a disaster, communication is one of the most important needs, and mobile apps and network communications are helping to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of response, ensuring people get their vital needs met in the days immediately after disasters hit.”
Although mobile apps should not replace old fashion communication, they are an increasingly important in protecting vulnerable communities during climate disasters, which are increasing in frequency and severity. Mobile apps can enhance connections among communities helping to minimize the impacts, damages and fatalities from natural disasters.
In 2019, estimates show that the number of mobile phone users worldwide will approach 5 billion. Even though differing levels of mobile access and literacy can make it difficult to coordinate efforts using mobile technology alone, mobile communication is fast proving to be an effective and efficient way to reach, inform and connect human beings when a disaster inevitably comes.
According to Daniel P. Aldrich Professor at Northeastern University, “resilience – the ability to recover from shocks, including natural disasters – comes from our connections to others, and not from physical infrastructure or disaster kits”. But it take efforts for us to make these connections, whether in-person or digitally. Ultimately the connections you create with your neighbors may just be what saves your life, or the life of others.
May 23, 2019 at 06:01AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs