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Cyclone Idai exposed failings of Mozambique’s disaster alert system

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The early warning text message alert system used by Mozambique’s disaster management agency should have prepared communities for Cyclone Idai well before the storm hit, but a lack of trained users on the ground and debt to the provider that sends out the alerts, meant the system failed thousands of people living in central Mozambique.

Today, the problems have still not been resolved, as the Instituto Nacional de Gestao de Calamidades (INGC) is looking for funds to pay for the two-way SMS text alert system it uses to warn community teams about impending disasters, and to receive information from them about the situation on the ground after disasters have hit.

The alerts system is operated through two separate, but interlinked, contracts. The first is with a local company, Sislog, which sends and receives SMSs across all three of Mozambique’s telephone networks – Vodacom, Mcel, and Movitel. The second was with a global development organization, Human Network International (HNI), to use its DataWinners platform, to collect data in emergencies.

The contract with HNI technically expired in February 2018, but HNI has been providing the DataWinners subscription for free since then. The contract with Sislog is still valid, but money to pay for the services ran out at the end of November 2018, when the funding contract with USAID drew to a close.

Sislog had frozen SMS services in the weeks leading up to Cyclone Idai, as INGC had not made any payments since November 2018, a source working closely with INGC told Zitamar. It was not until a few days before the cyclone made landfall on 14 March that INGC reactivated the account and started to send emergency alerts, they said.

Sislog provided SMS credits to INGC “regardless of their payment,” on 9 March, the day they were requested, Sislog manager, Vitor Amaral, told Zitamar.

INGC then sent out the SMS alerts on 10 or 11 March, four and three days before Idai made landfall, an INGC source said.

But it appears many of these SMS alerts did not reach their intended audience — and those that did, did not clearly explain the expected force of the cyclone or flooding, or how the community emergency response teams on the ground should prepare.

As a result, as Idai approached the coast of Sofala, many people living in the cyclone’s path were unaware of the severity of the storm or what they should do to prepare.

The issue is that those using the system have not been properly trained, one NGO source told Zitamar. Rather than using clear, simple language – and issuing specific evacuation instructions – INGC teams were forwarding alerts from Mozambique’s meteorological institute, complete with technical descriptions of expected rainfall and windspeed, which would not have been understood by non-specialists.

Given the unprecedented level of flooding, many of the safety areas were soon below water. Community teams should have communicated this back to INGC’s central office using DataWinners’ SMS surveys, but these messages were either not sent or ignored, which meant the emergency response procedures were not being properly adapted.

Lessons learnt for Kenneth

INGC was better prepared for Cyclone Kenneth, which made landfall on the coast of Cabo Delgado on 26 April.

The INGC source said “the first lesson” that the institute learnt from Idai was to immediately report warning signs to local disaster management committees, known as CLGRCs — teams of around 18 people on the ground who deal with emergencies at the community level. These early messages need to be as informative and expansive as possible, because once the storm hits and power and telecommunication lines are down, it becomes increasingly difficult to relay new information, the source said.

In Cyclone Kenneth there was little damage because we sent the messages in advance, while at Idai our efforts were frustrated because of the cutbacks to [energy and communication]services – not only because of the approach of the cyclone but also because of the bad weather that anticipated its arrival,” the source told Zitamar.

Following cyclone Kenneth, INGC also had more time to answer messages from the CLGRCs, asking for clarifications or alternative places for refuge as flood waters rose. “With Idai there was little space for this,” said the source.

Idai and Kenneth exposed other major weaknesses in INGC’s processes – principally that there are too few community teams on the ground, and those that have been formed are not properly trained or equipped.

“At the national level we have about 1000 Local Risk Management Committees that are basically equipped with first aid kits. We have held training workshops, but not as often as we would like because of financial constraints,” said the INGC source.

Zitamar understands that around 3,500 CLGRCs are needed across the country, to be able to properly respond to crises. Beyond basic first aid kits, these teams should have access to emergency food and water supplies and equipment to build emergency shelters.

They need to be properly trained, and to have practised emergency simulations – as well as to be clearly briefed about the nature of weather forecasts. Many of the communities and the community teams are sceptical of the warnings, because they have proved to be wrong in the past, so they don’t always take them seriously, said one source who has helped train the teams on the ground.

INGC is also looking to expand the number of people on its database so it can ensure everyone receives alerts in emergencies.

“We are in advanced conversations with the three national telephone operators to get permission to access their contact database whenever we need them,” said the INGC source. “This means that after we know about a certain cyclone that will affect an area X, we will access the platform of the operators and warn all those who live in the area.”

However, this system will not be effective in areas of the country where cell coverage is patchy.

No funding

However, running the system — let alone improving it — will be challenging without any money to pay for it. INGC had sought to renew funding for both DataWinners and Sislog’s services last year with funding from the UNDP, but the UN could not cover costs under the current contract structure. Talks ended with INGC needing to find alternative ways to fund the system.

INGC does not see this as a major problem. It expects the Sislog bill to be low for the remainder of the year as strong rains and winds typically only occur between January to May, the INGC source told Zitamar, adding that they are not currently in debt to Sislog.

Since INGC’s contract with HNI expired in February 2018, the global license to operate and resell DataWinners has been acquired by Ghana-based mobile tech company,  Viamo, which is now taking over discussions with INGC about the renewal of the subscription.

“We (Viamo) have not yet had the chance to meet with the INGC, although we are trying to schedule a meeting to discuss next steps,” Sonia Gwesela, Viamo’s country representative, told Zitamar in May.

© 2019, ZITAMAR NEWS. All rights reserved.

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