Get ready, get set…BEEP! Can mobile phones deliver community-based early warning systems in Sri Lanka?

Back in November, Dow Punpiputt  travelled to Sri Lanka with the Digital Vision team to see how Oxfam is using mobile technology in disaster risk reduction. Here she reports on the innovative project she witnessed there. 

We arrived in Colombo late at night and tired. I was thrilled to see that my hotel room overlooked the sea and decided to ignore the sign telling me, ‘Do not to open the window’. I know I shouldn’t break the rules in an unfamiliar country, but it’s hard to resist falling asleep listening to the sound of waves!

The next morning, while we were waiting to begin our journey to Kilinochchi, in the north of Sri Lanka, I started to understand the reason for the sign. The rain was pouring outside in a heavy storm. The wind was so strong the rain appeared to fall almost sideways and coconut trees were waving like they were excited to meet an old friend. I was concerned that we would not be able to make our trip, but the hotel staff reassured me that this weather was ‘normal’. 

Kilinochchi district was affected badly by civil war and has been recovering slowly since the war ended in 2009. Villagers who fled the area returned to their homes to rebuild their livelihoods, mostly planting rice, fruits and vegetables.

The community previously did not have a drill, or even a plan for how to minimise the impact of the floods and drought they face every year.

We visited Murasumooddai village to see a mock emergency drill organised by the Grama Niladhari Disaster Management Committee (GNDMC). Oxfam has supported the setting up of the committee and training its members so they can play a key role in this community-based disaster management system. 

An SMS alert kick-started the drill. Suddenly the air was filled with urgency and people in safety vests announcing the emergency on their megaphones. A few minutes later, rows of women, children and men started marching towards the ‘evacuation centre’, each of them with a pack of essential belongings. Another truck arrived, loaded with another 50 people or so. Quickly, yet calmly and in an organised fashion, they lined up to sign their names for registration. 

This is an impressive sight considering that the community previously did not have a drill, or even a plan for how to minimise the impact of the floods and drought they face every year. They were never even aware that there were ways to reduce the risks. 

Murasumooddai village in Kilinochchi district is highly disaster-prone, especially to heavy rain and floods during the peak of the monsoon season in November. I was told that the floods can be as high as 5 feet and last up to 15 days. Most people in the village are affected because their livelihood depends on agriculture. Oxfam has been working with these communities to empower them to be prepared to cope with flood and drought through training and capacity building.

Among the crowd at the mock emergency drill, I noticed a girl whose energy seemed to glow brighter than the fluorescent yellow safety vest that she was wearing. She seemed to be excited but enjoying working with her peers. Her name is Kamalini and she’s 22 years old. 

She told me she has been volunteering with GNDMC for almost a year now. I was impressed to learn that she became a committee member so that she could better represent the women in her village. Many families lost their male members to the war, leaving women to be the breadwinners and the heads of the family. Kamalini herself lost her father and she’s now living with her mother.

Thanks to intensive disaster management training from Oxfam and other aid organisations Kamalini and her 20 fellow GNDMC members are now playing a key role in building the capacity of others. They help the community to identify risks, develop hazard mapping and evacuation plans, organise mock drills and develop mitigation proposals to get assistance from the district government.  

Volunteers check their mobile phones. Credit: Dow Punpiputt/Oxfam

The lack of effective early warning systems and information dissemination is a major challenge in this community. The flood can occur overnight if sluice gates are opened and there is no opportunity to warn the community in advance, particularly those most at risk who live close to the major water tanks. 

Local radio stations broadcast updates, but this information is too general to be used as warning. The closest source of information for many villagers is their community leaders, but again, disseminating the message to everyone is a challenge. 

Previously, when the flood came, people used to wait up to four days before they could get help. This is where mobile SMS comes into play. Every family in the community now has a mobile phone, so it makes sense to use SMS messages as an early warning tool. 

Oxfam has been partnering with Opendream on ‘Digital Vision’ projects for a few years now. They are a group of social innovators who look at how technology can be used to enhance effectiveness and increase the impact of development work. You can see some of their projects here.

The early warning SMS can be sent in local languages. For this project, the team is testing out openmessenger, an open-source software that Oxfam co-created with Opendream. It speeds up early warning information dissemination by sending mass SMS messages directly to villagers’ mobile phones. The messages can also be posted on the early warning display board managed by
the community. 

Oxfam is also seeking a partnership with a leading local telecom service provider in Sri Lanka to achieve faster SMS at a lower cost, while discussing with the Ministry of Irrigation, which is responsible for flood management in the country, to ensure that they are aware of the potential of this community-based early warning system.

Everyone in our team has a smart phone. Throughout the trip, every minute that we had even a small slice of internet connection, we would immerse ourselves in the little gadgets in our hands, checking emails, weather forecasts, train schedules and currency exchanges. 

Access to information is power and access to early warning information has the potential to be life-saving. If things go according to the plan, this community-based early warning system will soon be activated by a simple beep on a simple phone. Personally, I can’t wait to come back and see that happen.

Author: Dow Punpiputt
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.