27) Escaping disasters through community preparedness (11 January 2005)

The tremors emanating from the massive earthquake off Sumatra coast was felt in South India at 6.30 am on Sunday, 26 December. The first wave of the tsunami reached the coasts of Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry states only at 8.30 am. Even while official warnings did not come, community systems of information connectivity in the villages close to Pondicherry managed to save many lives.

As reported in the Indian media, the rural information centers established by the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), and community preparedness in a four of the coastal villages ensured that not more than 15 lives were lost. These centers were established between three to five years ago with the local community as a contributing partner. While the village information centers offered connectivity to the Internet, a variety of local means were used to make information available to the local public. In the coastal villages, public address systems have been used to give information on weather or wave heights. Each center has up to six trained volunteers who conduct the daily operations.

At Nallavadu, a village with more than 3,500 people, a phone call from Singapore about the tsunami from a former volunteer at the information center was broadcast over public address system. People moved away from the coast, and thereby saved their lives. At Veerampattinam a fisherman alerted the villagers through the information centers public address system. As reported in a TV channel, the lead volunteer literally “broke the Internet down” looking for information on waves.

According to Dr MS Swaminathan, Chairman of MSSRF, the process of establishing these information centers enabled the villagers to use the most appropriate means of communication to save lives on that fateful Sunday.

The VASAT initiative

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) initiated its project on the Virtual Academy for the Semi-Arid Tropics (VASAT) on the hub-and-spoke model of communication of MSSRF's information centers. Dr Swaminathan was one of the founding fathers for this initiative. Launched on 5 June 2003, VASAT uses a combination of internet and conventional communication technologies to take the right message to the right people at the right time.

Though located in the semi-arid tropics, and focusing primarily on drought awareness, VASAT rural information centers can be as effective early warning systems in times of natural disasters as the ones in Pondicherry.

Dr William Dar, Director General of ICRISAT, said that the process of creating a network of rural information centers is the process of developing human capacity to deal with disaster situation. It is not the infrastructure alone, but also the timeliness of response by the rural community, using the most appropriate means, that matters.

According to Dr V Balaji, Head of Knowledge Management and Sharing at ICRISAT, the thrust is on preparedness and anticipation. The fact that the project communities in the villages of Pondicherry have been using a combination of communication tools helped them during the time of crisis. They survived because they could link the common public address system with satellite technology that made the telephone call possible.

VASAT has made strides in its anticipation and preparedness strategy by networking with nearly 6,000 internet-linked village information centers in India and more than 300 community radio centers in West and Central Africa. Working in the water-scarce regions of India and Africa, these information centers help rural communities anticipate and be prepared for drought, which is a frequently occurring natural phenomenon in these parts of the world.

However, the infrastructure established for communicating, and the preparedness that the community gains can also be used to survive natural and man-made disasters. “The important point is to develop a team of trained representatives from the rural communities who can use any broadcast tool effectively to face any situation,” said Dr Balaji.

Linking with other CGIAR centers

The VASAT initiative is spreading to link with other international agricultural research institutes of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). ICRISAT is collaborating with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the rural information centers to improve fodder production under water scarce situations. Under the aegis of VASAT and in collaboration with the rural information centers ICRISAT and ILRI are also working on extension education for improved management of livestock. The Department for International Development (DFID) of the UK Government supports this project in South Asia.

With the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), ICRISAT is collaborating on monitoring drought in western India, southern Pakistan and the whole of Afghanistan. The project will be linked to the villagers through the rural information centers. This collaboration provides an opportunity to use fairly simple inputs to collect meteorological data and arrive at indices on local drought.

VASAT is also strongly linked with Commonwealth of Learning, a premier inter-governmental organization providing non-formal learning opportunities. A trial course has been initiated involving more than 6,000 learners in collaboration with the Maharashtra Knowledge Corporation, a consortium of universities in Maharashtra state of India. Through the VASAT initiative, these learners will participate in a course on drought preparedness.

Whether escaping tsunami or drought, the means are the same - anticipation and preparedness.

For further information, contact Dr V Balaji at v(dot)balaji(at)cgiar(dot)org or Dr Rex Navarro at rex(dot)Navarro(at)cgiar(dot)org

by ICRISAT. All rights reserved.