News / Science & Technology

New Technologies Save Lives When Disasters Strike

FILE - A smartphone user shows the Facebook application on his phone, May 2, 2013.
FILE - A smartphone user shows the Facebook application on his phone, May 2, 2013.
Lisa Schlein
A new report claims digital innovations such as Facebook and Twitter are saving lives when natural disasters strike, but the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which has just published its World Disasters Report 2013, finds poor, disaster-prone nations are disadvantaged because they lack access to the new technologies. 
 
Red Cross Information Technology Specialist Sarmad Alsaffaj said the so-called digital divide is huge in the most disaster-prone countries, which tend to be some of the poorest in the world, and that the lack of access to modern communications increases the severity of the disasters and reduces people’s ability to cope with them.
 
“For example, social media is increasingly becoming a media for humanitarian workers to get information from disaster-affected areas.  The problem is relying on this specific technology puts us in a risk of actually isolating those who do not have access to this technology - those who are not connected,” said Alsaffaj.
 
Recent statistics from the International Telecommunications Union highlight the extent of the digital divide.  ITU finds just 31 percent of people have access to the Internet in developing countries, compared to 77 percent in developed countries.  It also found that eight percent of households in Africa have computers, compared to 76 percent in Europe.
 
New technology is already making valuable contributions to disaster relief.  Alsaffaj notes local people are responsible for saving most lives during the first critical hours after an emergency.  Yet, he told VOA, many of these first responders do not have access to basic life-saving information and technologies.
 
“We must make sure that we do not isolate and exclude those who do not have access to technology.  Those who are not connected must continue to be heard.   So, while we are promoting through this report the use of technology in humanitarian action, we still emphasize on the fact that we should not neglect all means of communication with people.  Face-to-face communication is still important.  The old form of gathering information from the field is still important,” said Alsaffaj.  
 
The report also features a summary of disaster information from 2012. Last year had the lowest number of deaths and people affected by disasters in the last 10 years, but was the fifth most costly year in terms of property damage in the last decade.
 
In all, it said 139 million people were affected by 552 disasters at a cost of nearly $158 billion. It notes the most expensive disaster was Hurricane Sandy, which cost $50 billion, and the deadliest was Typhoon Bopha in the Philippines, which killed more than 1,900 people.

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