Thuraya and ITU provide powerful partnership in disaster relief

In the first minutes and hours following a natural disaster, the terror of what has just occurred is tinged with chaos. Power, water and communications networks are often knocked out, citizens scramble to save themselves, their family and friends, while governments struggle to maintain order and provide assistance.

But as relief groups and government agencies begin to put together their response, they have a powerful alliance on their side, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and Thuraya Telecommunications.

Thuraya has a longstanding relationship with the ITU, through which it provides free  satellite terminals including both handheld satphones and broadband terminals to support communications during disaster recovery. And as the ITU’s Chief of Department, Project Support and Knowledge Management, Dr Cosmas Zavazava points out, the relationship provides a vital first link in supporting governments, NGOs and victims.

“I have been there myself in the immediate aftermath of a disaster and in the first hours you find that people are totally disorientated at every level, right up to the government,” he explains. “Usually the power has failed and communications are non-existent. The Thuraya equipment gives us some connectivity which we can share with governments so that they can co-ordinate their functions. At the same time we also provide the units to as many humanitarian agencies as possible.”

The aid agencies will use the equipment themselves and also make them available to survivors. “There are often queues of people who desperately want to call their loved ones. It may seem a small thing but in practice we have found it reduces anxiety and it really touches the core of the family.”

Satellite communications is the ideal channel for connectivity when terrestrial networks are disrupted. The agreement between Thuraya and  ITU sees the Dubai-based company donate the hardware and the ITU contribute towards the costs of airtime as well as maintaining the units and shipping them to and from affected areas.

“When a disaster happens, we react immediately, dispatching the equipment wherever it is needed and training users on the spot. They normally keep the equipment up to three months but it depends to some extent on the magnitude of the disaster,” he explains.

Once on the ground, the phones are deployed in initial search and rescue, co-ordination of humanitarian and refugee logistics, managing the delivery of food and shelter and the delivery of medication. The phones are capable of both voice and data communications and Dr Zavazava says the quality of the Thuraya network is crucial in giving confidence that key agencies will stay online in the first days after the disaster.

“The quality and reliability of the satellite signal makes a huge difference. We are pleased to note that we have not experienced any congestion problems with Thuraya equipment and network,  even during a major disaster when a lot of people are using it,” he says.

Applications vary from regular voice calls to data and videoconferencing in support of the relief effort. Aid agencies can call colleagues and request particular medicines or equipment and he has no doubt that having reliable communications in place can be the difference between life and death.

“Having such equipment in place can absolutely make a difference between saving and losing lives. People who might have died of infection can get the right medicines on time. It is also vital for search and rescue efforts as the GPS functionality helps rescue teams find and help survivors as quickly as possible.”

The ITU is also committed to the concept that prevention is better than cure, working with developing countries and earthquake-prone nations to make preparations that might save lives when disaster strikes. Studies carried out by the ITU suggest that preparedness can be a critical element of disaster management and that every dollar invested in planned response can save up to $20 in losses when disaster strikes.

Increasingly, authorities are  putting more emphasis on disaster risk reduction and preparedness which includes designing better National Emergency Telecommunications Plans, Business Continuity Plans and stocking of satellite phones in disaster response kits.

“Just like paying insurance, some  policy makers see this as money going down the drain but when a disaster actually strikes, they wake up and realise that the cost goes beyond the amount required for building resilience and better preparedness,” he observes. “It is very difficult to be prepared or even to predict with  certainty when some natural disasters might occur and their magnitude. But I believe that information and communication technologies can go a long way in mitigating these disasters.”

The ITU works with government agencies, the private sector, and NGOs to protect human life when disasters strike. A lot of emphasis is put on developing concise and clear standard operating procedures that define who does what, when and how. Human and institutional capacity building is an integral part of the disaster management effort.

“In a catastrophe, investments and infrastructure that took years for governments and businesses to build can disappear in a matter of moments.  Reliable uninterrupted communications is vital before, during and in the immediate aftermath of disasters.

To deliver this safety net requires a strong relationship between governments, the private sector, United Nations Agencies, NGOs, and communities.  “The relationship we have with Thuraya and other private sector partners is there for others to emulate. A true relationship is like the ripening of a fruit, it takes many years to build and it needs patience and nurturing.”

So much so in fact that the ITU last year awarded Thuraya the first ITU Humanitarian Award in recognition of the company’s generous contributions to saving lives during emergencies.

The ITU’s position as a leading UN Specialized Agency in telecommunications/information and communication technologies recently saw it support UN aid agencies providing humanitarian assistance to victims of civil strife in Mali particularly internally displaced persons and refugees in camps in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.

The agency maintains a firmly non-political stance. Dr Zavazava says operationally, the ITU’s main role is intervention in natural disasters, but it also assists other UN Agencies as they fulfil their mandate helping support disaster victims. “Our primary concern is to save lives using all means of communications. The ITU founding fathers put in our Constitution that telecommunications must save life in the air, on land and at sea. We take this calling very seriously.”

Neville Smith
Mariner Communications
Industry Ambassador at Sailor's Society

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