When no infrastructure is left standing
I frequently find myself looking at disaster and recovery management from the perspective of information and communications systems and the role they need to play. I want to step back from that orientation of focus in this posting to look at the larger picture, and in this I start with Haiti and the example it sets as to how much can go wrong and how rapidly that can happen and for so may basic systems and resources.
I would start with a basic guideline:
• You should plan as if all of the infrastructure that supports and sustains communities and society in the afflicted area are down, and that no infrastructure is left standing.
• Then any resources that remain can simply be added in as serendipitous and as making the emergency response and recovery easier and faster than the worst case planned and prepared for.
• Then you are ready to deal with any systems and resources that are significantly degraded or completely down, and hopefully without any major gaps in what you have planned to develop and provide. Surprises can kill in this so you need to be ready for as much of anything as realistic and possible.
What was brought down or at least significantly degraded in capacity and functionality in Haiti in the earthquake?
What was already significantly impaired even before the earthquake and from what? For this later question and with Haiti in mind that would include but not be limited to agricultural systems and food production due to virtually complete deforestation with resulting soil erosion problems and from recent massive hurricanes.
Putting together the laundry list of resource systems generates a long list, some of which would be:
1. Food production and distribution systems.
2. Potable water and water quality assurance testing.
3. Emergency medical supplies and their distribution.
4. Longer term medical care resources (which would include medical resources necessary for people with diabetes and high blood pressure, and other chronic conditions, and capabilities and resources like vaccination programs which can become of immediate pressing need very quickly.)
5. Housing and shelter.
6. Police and Fire, and other emergency services.
7. Schools and educational systems and resources.
8. Government infrastructure necessary for local and national governments in afflicted areas to reestablish process and order, and rule of law.
9. Social support systems.
There are, of course a lot of other possible entries for a list like this, and I explicitly note that I did not put communications systems or information and communications systems into this list. That is for a reason.
These systems are important and even crucial resources in and of themselves, but they are also key enablers for making any of the rest work. In this, information and communications services are necessary to:
• Understanding the current and changing situation and its requirements and current capabilities and ideally in real time and with a fine granularity for place.
• Knowing the key needs and priorities for setting schedules and for carrying out strategically effective operations.
• Benchmarking progress and identifying early where a plan B is needed and what it should be.
I will add that a quick review of the resource needs list above includes ones like emergency medical support that are obviously going to be needed early and with as wide and deep an implementation as possible. This list also includes points like number 7 – educational systems and resources. Establishing order and the comfort of orderliness and support is important and that does not just mean posting police with guns by the bank or pharmacy with all their windows gone. This means establishing and reestablishing livable societal systems and educational systems are an important part of that. So I add a fourth basic guideline bullet point to the three I started with, towards the top of this posting:
• Opportunistically develop and contribute to parts of the overall response and recovery that might not in and of themselves be highest priority where this can be done with resources already at hand, and where this effort would not delay or interfere with meeting the immediate, high priority tasks and goals at hand. Look for opportunities to do this and jump on them where they arise.
I will add that these efforts and initiatives, even if just gestures of more widespread immediate response can have a very positive impact of individuals, families and communities. This can help develop and maintain community support and stave off the despair, fear and anger that lead to violence and organized violence. So this can in fact significantly help get the higher immediate needs tasks and priorities moving and in the right direction from their contributions to community morale and support.
• Focus in this on the add-ons that will more effectively contribute to restoring community morale and building community support.
When I work with people at UN-GAID and when I write of this organization and my participation in it here in this blog I usually find myself thinking, speaking, writing and taking action with a distinct information and communications technology (ICT) and systems perspective. UN-GAID is not and cannot be the only organized voice or response for ICT in any disaster or recovery response, and both local and national organizations and efforts have to be taken into account, and with nonprofit and NGO (non-governmental organization) inclusion, private sector for-profit inclusion and governmental and international inclusion of many sorts. But even that cannot be enough if it would mean simply looking at ICT problems and opportunities as if in a vacuum.
This has to be done both in coordination with, and in support of every aspect of the larger, comprehensive effort and in coordination with the full range of contributing partners in all efforts. And we have to collectively work on developing ICT capabilities that facilitate, enable, and accelerate the implementation of response to everything else. This has to potential to save many, many lies and not just from the immediate impact of the disaster – from longer term and even chronic problems and deficiencies too.