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Dealing with disasters in a connected world

By Sarah Bachman - posted Tuesday, 18 May 2010


Natural disasters have struck since the earth’s beginning, but one dramatic change is underway: A global telecommunication network and the internet’s social media have shrunk the world, speeding news about any disaster as well as speeding delivery of succour for victims.

News of recent massive earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and China first arrived on other shores not as television video or professional news bulletins, but as amateur reports and images sent by cell phone and internet. Further expansion of the global electronic network, keeping it censorship-free, would contribute to improved worldwide response to future calamities.

Response to the deadliest 20th century earthquake, which killed at least 240,000 people in Tangshan, northern China, reveals how much has changed. News of the July 1976 earthquake reached China’s central government after a coal miner named Li Yulin drove an ambulance six hours to Beijing. Although seismologists around the world knew that something big had happened in China, the secretive Chinese government, then in the throes of political succession, did not formally acknowledge the quake’s massive destruction until three years later.

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This year, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated the Port-au-Prince region of Haiti on January 12 - killing an estimated 222,570, injuring 300,000, and displacing 1.3 million, according to the US Geological Survey. On February 27, an 8.8-magnitude earthquake striking near Concepcion, Chile, killed nearly 1,000. And on April 13, a 6.9-magnitude quake in remote Quinghai, China, killed at least 2,183 people.

News moved as fast as electronics and telecommunications could carry it. Social media replaced pornography as a preferred destination for internet users in 2008 and now serves as the earliest news source for any major event, from political upheavals to natural disasters.

Rapid response to the quakes, including targeted fundraising and more effective relief, boosted the status of social-media sites. Ordinary people use electronic media’s global reach to spread news and raise money for rescue and relief; rescue and relief workers communicate with one another; the displaced connect with family and friends; and onlookers deliver messages of comfort. Even scientists at the US Geological Survey examine social-media volume and topics for extra data on shaking, surface movement and damage.

Governments tempted to censor social media for any opposition would do well to ponder the overall benefits of free information flow.

As recently as two decades ago, natural-disaster assistance could take days to arrive, as news traveled by messengers on foot or vehicle, and later by telegram, telephone calls, fax, and rolls of film packed in lead-lined pouches transported by plane. For this year’s quakes, UNICEF, the Red Cross and other NGOs launched relief campaigns in less than 24 hours.

As government and non-governmental agencies converged on the devastated regions, relief workers used email, texting and social media websites to communicate. Social media technicians in the US and Europe worked around the clock to adapt websites and messaging applications to the needs of each community on three continents.

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"Telecom is not a luxury in emergency response,” said Paul Margie, US representative of Telecommunications Without Borders, based in France, in an interview aired on The World radio program. “It’s core to the mission.”

Survivors, relatives and friends, both inside Haiti and outside, searched for one another using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube - all free services. Devastated electric grids or smashed computers are not obstacles so long as mobile devices still work.

Emergency-relief organisations raised millions of dollars using social-media networks. Responding to social network appeals, cell phone users raised $25 million for the Red Cross in two weeks by texting “Haiti” to 90999 and adding $10 to telephone bills.

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First published by Yale Global on May 10, 2010.



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About the Author

S.L. Bachman is the author of "Globalization in the San Francisco Bay Area, published by the Pacific Council on International Policy (www.pcip.org). She can be reached at sarahbach@aol.com.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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