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Traditional communication solutions such as cellular telephony, require a lot of infrastructure and resources, due to which, rapid deployments in the time-scale of a few minutes or hours, are not possible. Hence, they are difficult to deploy when existing communication infrastructure gets destroyed / hampered (e.g. during disasters) and their deployment costs are too large to be amortized where resources are scanty (e.g. rural India). LifeNet is designed as a communication solution primarily for such scenarios, where communication infrastructure does not exist or existing infrastructure gets destroyed. LifeNet allows rapid service delivery on a Wifi-based ad hoc networking platform formed by off-the-shelf, compact, end-user hardware such as laptops, smart-phones and routers.
As a part of the on-going collaboration with Tata Institute of Social Sciences, India, a field trip was conducted in the flood affected areas of Odisha, primarily with the aim of familiarizing the developers of LifeNet with the on-field realities. The field survey was conducted on the 21 st, 22nd and 23rd of October 2011 in which, I participated from the LifeNet development team and Dr. Shibu Mani and Santosh Kumar participated from TISS.
Situation on field
Odisha is considered to be one of the most under-developed states in India. The eastern parts of Odisha are highly prone to floods and cyclones, whereas drought is a common phenomenon in its western regions. More than 90 percent of the population in rural parts of eastern Odisha engages only in agriculture. Due to its position at the mouth of rivers Brahmani, Baitarani and Mahanadi, the area under survey is blessed with highly fertile land and paddy is the main crop followed by jute and vegetables. On coastal regions, fishing is also an important occupation. Most rural folk communicate in their native language Udiya. However, one can also get along with Hindi as well.
Due to its unique multitude of problems, Odisha provides a safe haven for many NGOs. Apart from big players like UNICEF, UNDP, etc., many small NGOs are able to thrive in Odisha, particularly in the coastal belt, where floods and cyclones are commonplace.
Starting from the first week of September, the eastern coast of Odisha fell pray to severe flooding on three of its major rivers – Mahanadi, Brahmani and Baitarani. Flooding continued until the first week of October. Heavy rainfall in the neighboring state of Chhatisgarh was identitied as the root cause of the flooding.
The flood happened in three stages. The first stage consisted of fast floods in the Brahmani and Baitarani river basins. Mahanadi river basin was flooded in the second stage, whereas the third stage again consisted of severe floods again in the Brahmani and Baitarani basins. Flood-affected areas of Odisha are demarketed as shown in the Figure. Most of these areas were surveyed during the field trip. The images shown below would give you some idea about the magnitude of destruction to physical infrastructure.
Survey: Operational Description
Arrangements for our survey were made by a TISS alumni, Mr. Gobinda Ballavi Dalai, who is now a member of Youth Development Foundation, an NGO which supports emerging social movements on social equity, livelihood and youth issues leading to mass conscientisation. Two other NGOs also participated in the field trip; each with its own agenda. Mr. Suresh Kumar participated and led the team of Goonj, an NGO known for its 'Cloth for Work' program. Mr. Niranjan Sahoo from Joy Bharati Saathi Samaj, coordinated the on-field operations. JBSS is a local NGO, which works in the flood-affected Kendrapada district of Odisha.
It was decided that on day 1, we visit the flood-affected villages of Brahmani-Baitarani. On day 2, we visit the flood-affected villages of Mahanadi and on day 3, we visit Radio Namaskar, a community radio station in Konark, near Bhubaneshwar.
Day 1 - The first on-field orientation meeting was held at JBSS office in a small village called Kanipada in the Kendrapada district of Odisha. Kendrapada district, which spanned the basins of three major rivers (Mahanadi, Brahmani and Baitarani) was affected by floods the most. Mr. Niranjan Sahu, founder of JBSS, being a local resident of Kendrapada, was well-versed with the situation. As an orientation exercise, he explained the geography and demographics of the area along with the causes, coverage and impact of the floods. We then surveyed most of the villages in the Brahmani-Baitarani belt on day 1. As we visited different villages, we (LifeNet and TISS team) interacted with local residents (farmers, villagers) and tried to develop a clear understanding of the situation pertaining to communication and related issues. The villages that we visited were – Aul, Rajkanika, Rajnagar, Damodarpur, Bara Dahumunda, etc. (Red block of Figure 1) On our way back to JBSS office, at the close of our day's work, we got a chance to meet Mr. Pradeepta Kumar Patnaik, the Collector of Kendrapada district. Though the meeting was more relevant to the other NGOs involved in the field trip (YDF, Goonj, JBSS), the Collector seemed interested in trying out LifeNet, when the idea was put forth very briefly.
Day 2 – We surveyed the flood-affected villages in the Mahanadi river basin on this day. Mahakalpada, Diha Buspur, Noindipur, Talka pada, Madhupur, Jambu Dweep were the villages surveyed on this day (Green block of Figure 1). We also got a chance to meet Mr. Bipra Mohanty, Block Development Officer of Garadpur. His block was one of the worst affected blocks by the flood in the Kendrapada district and he had extensively documented the operations. He freely shared all his data with us and expressed keenness in testing something like LifeNet, which would improve communication during disasters and even otherwise. He insisted that in every disaster and normally otherwise, the poorest of the poor suffer the most and should be the primary target of interventions.
Day 3 – We returned to Bhubaneshwar early morning. We then visited Radio Namaskar, the first and the only community radio in the state of Odisha. We had a session of detailed interaction with Mr. Ansari, the founder Young India, the NGO responsible for running Radio Namaskar. Radio Namaskar has ICT4D as its major focus area and provides related services and shows. It also plays a crucial role in providing timely cyclone updates and market rates updates to fishermen.
(I) Impact of floods on infratructure
1. Most of the villages were completely submerged in water during peak floods.
2. Power supply was cutoff for more than a week in most places. In some places, it was cutoff for more than two weeks.
3. Cellular networks were non-functional for more than two weeks in the entire flood-affected zone.
4. Power supply intermittent even after several days passed.
5. Concrete or tar roads were broken in some places rendering the flood affected areas inaccessible to vehicles.
6. In many cases embankments were completely destroyed. Embankments were the only road to many villages, destruction of which, made them completely inaccessible.
7. Many mud houses were uprooted or destroyed completely.
8. Public buildings such as schools were severely damaged or partially destroyed.
(II). Preparedness to communicate efficiently during emergency situations
The preparedness to communicate efficiently during any emergency situation can be assessed by looking at the following parameters:
Type of emergency
State of available infrastructure
Effectiveness of the early warning protocol
State of available technology
Since floods and cyclones are commonplace in Odisha, the State authorities were better prepared to respond to the situation, in terms of keeping regular contact with the respective departments of water and meteorology for early warning. Villagers and local residents were also found to be more alert.
Resources can be of the following kinds – (1) Human Resources (2) Monetary Resources (3) Backup Storage Capacity. In Odisha, human resources are abundant because of frequent disasters and presence of several NGOs. Government officials have to be on alert. Backup storage capacity is reasonable and government does have provisions of backup storage in critical zones.
Infrastructure can be classified in mainly the following categories – (1) Physical infrastructure such as buildings (2) Power supply infrastructure (3) Transport infrastructure and (4) Communications infrastructure. Physical infrastructure was partially and completely destroyed in all the flood-affected zones. Power supply infrastructure was hampered for 2-3 weeks post disaster. Transport infrastructure collapsed as roads and embankments were broken in many places. Communications infrastructure was not physically destroyed, but was rendered useless due to loss of power. Hence it can be surmised that infrastructure-wise Odisha was not prepared to handle the flooding conditions. In spite of high frequency of flood / cyclone occurrences, infrastructure-wise Odisha still remains very weak.
Early Warning Protocol in Odisha works as follows:Water Dept (for flood) or Meteorological Dept. (for cyclones) contacts State Authorities. State Authorities then contact Collectors of the respective districts under effect. Collectors then inform their District Control Officers. The District Control Officers further contact local police stations. Local police personnel then visit individual villages and broadcast the news using loud-speakers. As it can be seen here, the vital information has to percolate down many levels of hierarchy before it gets actually delivered to the intended recipient. Though the information flow did happen smoothly in the case of the latest floods, this protocol seems quite susceptible to delays in message delivery.
Cellular communication remains the most popular technology for early warning and after disasters. If it fails, as in the case of these latest floods, government authorities used VHF sets that are installed in every district control room and police station. In spite of having VHF sets, people still had difficulties in coordinating their communication in the immediate aftermath of the floods. Otherwise, no other technology such as SMS blasting is being used in Odisha.
(III). Learnings for a communication solutions designer
Assume that physical infrastructure such as buildings would be partially or completely destroyed. Hence, there would be no control over the placement of communication equipment. The equipment could be placed anywhere depending upon the availability of space and the network should self-organize accordingly.
Assume that for the first few days power supply will be cut-off. Hence the communication should not depend on the same for its electrical requirements.
Assume that existing communication will be rendered partially or completely useless either directly because of physical destruction or indirectly because of power supply failure. Hence the communication solution should be designed such that it leverages the traditional communication infrastructure wherever it exists and uses alternate communication mechanisms when traditional infrastructure fails.
Assume that transportation infrastructure such as roads / embankments would be destroyed in a few places rendering vehicle navigation extremely difficult and impossible in several situations. Hence, equipment used for communications should be light and compact and should fit easily in a suitcase or backpack, which the disaster relief volunteers can easily carry on to the field as they walk.
Conclusions and take-aways
Existing communication technologies such as cellular networks, VHF, ham radio, community radio, rely heavily on infrastructure. Out of these technologies, only cellular networks have a ubiquitous presence. Nevertheless, its coverage still remains patchy in rural areas and it often fails due to power outages in disasters such as Odisha floods. Other alternatives are extremely costly and have operational issues. Due to their lack of flexibility, their use practically remains fairly limited. Overall, technology-wise many gaps still exist, which cost a lot of resources
Coordination in the field efforts remains a huge problem due to lack of a communication paradigm that provides effective network visualization capabilities. During disaster relief, coordination is required across many levels – (1) Between employees of one NGO on field (2) Between employees of different NGOs on field (3) Between headquarters and field volunteers, etc. The network should facilitate data communication to achieve these goals.
LifeNet has the capability of bridging gaps in existing communication during disasters because - (1) It is a data solution (2) It is flexible and self-organizing (3) It uses no infrastructure and (4) It is inexpensive.
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