Fortunately, the rapid advancement of technology has given us the opportunity to use some powerful tools in the way we respond to disasters. Advanced technology today has far-reaching and deep consequences for many sectors including Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). If properly integrated into our disaster response strategy, it can save lives, give us the ability for quick response, manage scarce resources, and much more.
The advantages of integrating smart technology are vast. It can give us the capacity for rapid response. It also provides us the ability for crucial and critical risk assessment of the disaster situation in real time. Aerial robotics, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and drones are powerful and effective tools for disaster zone terrain-mapping. It can provide us real-time feedback of the extent of damage and loss of lives, providing the first responders the ability to look where they were unable to see before and plan rapid response. The use of drones in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake was the only available way to understand the extent of damage and loss of lives in remote and unreachable parts of the country. Robots and other remote gadgets are critically important to reach places which are risky for human responders. Remote-sensing equipment today provides us the vital capacity in case of earthquake disaster management.
Communication is key for disaster management, but it is also most vulnerable to disasters. However, today technology gives us the ability to overcome this inherent weakness of structured communication. For example, Cisco’s Tactical Operations (TacOps) can take advantage of the latest mobile networking technology including cloud-control and Meraki technology to establish connectivity in disaster-hit areas at a speed which was unknown to us before. Even in the worst hit disaster areas, highly skilled internet infrastructure specialists can establish communication within hours. This speed of communication saved lives in Nepal’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake, Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria and in the disaster in Philippines. Social media and the digital communities provide us new ways of organising disaster response. It is not necessarily a one-way traffic anymore where disaster responders assess and provide relief. Social media has now brought the affected communities in disaster-hit areas into the loop. Disaster response designs can now be based on interactive feedback from the victims themselves. This provides the responders vital information on the actual needs of the people on the ground. This makes disaster-mapping and assistance analysis more realistic and real-time based.
New technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) are coming into play into all spheres of HADR. AI will be a revolutionary breakthrough in HADR. AI makes it possible for machineries and robotics to have crucial decision-making skills which are vital in HADR. There is a lot more that technology has to offer that will help HADR operations. With the Internet of Things (IOT)—the internal network of devices—people can communicate with one another, access the internet and control other devices, one becoming primary and others becoming secondary.
Some gadgets can also boost human strength. For example, an exoskeleton could enhance human strength to lift heavy objects, which will aid in clearing rubble. Picking up objects is more natural by hand than lifting it with a crane, therefore rescue work will become faster and more efficient and also much safer as the exoskeleton might also protect the wearer from debris. Technology-like advanced sensors and Nano play a crucial role in HADR operations in complex conditions like an earthquake, chemical disaster, etc.
Big Data and Deep Data and its analytics today can create a new era of intelligence for disaster response. Vast amounts of data are created during disasters which can include the location of bridges and roads, personal and medical data, casualty figures and survivor details, and more. Managing this vast volume of data can be a big challenge but if it can be effectively utilised, it can provide crucial information for prioritising and optimising disaster response efforts. If this Big Data is combined with crowdsourced information, then it can effectively enhance situational awareness.
Technology can be very tedious to work with. Most of the current technologies are constantly evolving, and with the age gap amongst HADR workers, it can get troublesome for general adoption. Although it can be very efficient to manage disasters with technology, some delicate work still cannot be done with the existing technology. Rescue work like human extraction still needs human involvement. When possible, human involvement is needed to manage these technologies.
The technology gap that exists between countries and regions can create difficulty in international HADR operations. The “digital haves” and “digital have-nots” are not operationally compatible in HADR situations. The cost of many of these cutting-edge technologies is beyond the financial means of many nations. Without access to technology transfer, these nations are also unable to build capacity and be technology-ready operators in HADR situations. Developing human skills in technology-driven operations is another big challenge for most nations. In these modern operations, not only the operators but also the affected population will need to have some basic knowledge of the technology to make the most of the advancements.
The potential of integrating technology must be comprehensively studied by all involved in the planning and operations of HADR. This will allow for a more inclusive technology regime to be realised. Technology must be embedded into all HADR planning and strategies. For that to happen, the cost of technology must become affordable for all countries. A technology platform must be user-friendly and portable for all groups of HADR workers. Above all, it will require a change of attitude to adopt and harness the power of technology in HADR operations with the overall aim of benefitting the disaster-hit population anywhere in the world.
The advent of technology is a blessing for mankind. Although some might take a different view of it, others embrace it. The benefits of technology outweigh its drawbacks. We need to embed technology in HADR operations and use its capacity in all types of situations.
Bangladesh is a disaster-prone country and the impacts of climate change will further aggravate the situation in the coming years. Although we have developed skills and efficiency in disaster management, it has remained mostly limited to traditional methods of operations. We therefore need to upgrade our disaster management system to smart management. Technology offers us the opportunity to graduate to the next level and we must harness the digital strength of this age. However, this requires a new outlook and strategy with adoption of new methods and techniques. Our first responders and other disaster-related manpower will also need to be trained and skilled in this new HADR environment. This is a must for us to meet the new challenges that we are likely to meet in the future.
Major General ANM Muniruzzaman ndc, psc (Retd) is the president of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS). This article is based on his work and the lecture series he conducted as a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) Programme of the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.