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Saving Lives through Cell Phones in Mozambique

In Mozambique, a low-cost, SMS-based early warning system is empowering community members to prepare for and respond to natural disasters.

In Mozambique, saving lives can be as simple as sending a text.

Although most of the country’s population lives in coastal cities, which are vulnerable to natural disasters like tropical storms and cyclones, residents sometimes lack access to early-warning information on approaching storms or potential flooding zones. Because of this lack of information, they are caught off guard and don’t have time to safeguard their homes or seek shelter when storms come. In addition, residents don’t always have an easy way to report real-time information to the National Institute for Disaster Management (INGC) to describe damage in their neighborhoods, confirm injuries and deaths, or request basic supplies and shelter.

Recognizing this challenge, USAID launched the Coastal City Adaptation Project (CCAP), implemented by Chemonics International, to ensure that coastal cities can effectively prepare for and respond to natural disasters. Using an early-warning system designed by Human Network International — which complements INGC’s early-warning system by adding a data-collection component — community networks share pre-disaster warning messages and collect real-time post-disaster data using DataWinners, a platform developed by Human Network International. DataWinners complements INGC's early-warning system by adding a data collection component. It is the first two-way warning system in Mozambique to use cell phones, making it a low-cost and innovative solution for community members who have access to cell phones.

Paquitequete community leader Sele Abudo tests the early-warning system after a CCAP training session.

The system is coming just in time for Pemba and Quelimane, CCAP’s two focal cities. Both have been hit hard with heavy rains and flooding in the past years.

“Last March, we experienced some of the heaviest rains we’ve seen in 40 years,” said Elizete Manuel, delegate for the INGC in Pemba. “It destroyed people’s homes. It made life very difficult. People are eager to act on early-warning information because they know the consequences if they don’t.”

Rolling out the system in May 2014, CCAP trained more than 150 focal points in Pemba and Quelimane. Participants included municipal officials, INGC’s local disaster committees, community and religious leaders, teachers, and school administrators. Nearly one-third of the participants were between 16 and 29 years of age — just one example of how CCAP is leveraging young people’s technical skills and enthusiasm to boost resilience to natural disasters.

CCAP has also begun procuring emergency kits for INGC’s local disaster committees, as well as first-aid kits for community leaders. To prepare community focal points for the rainy season, CCAP is sending them text messages with reminders of their reporting and data-collection duties. That way, if a natural disaster should occur, these focal points will be ready to act.

“Real-time information is critical for the INGC,” said Elizete. “In the past, we received information on post-disaster needs too late for us to take effective action. CCAP’s system will ensure that we receive real-time data straight from the source.”

After deploying the early-warning system in Pemba and Quelimane, CCAP will work with the INGC to ensure it is integrated into their overall disaster response system — first at the provincial level, and then at the national level. CCAP will also work with local NGOs to ensure that all community members’ voices and interests are represented in the disaster response process.

Such an inclusive approach is critical for an early-warning system that depends on local leadership to function. “No matter how technologically innovative, the system won’t work without committed people behind it,” said Carlos E. Quintela, CCAP’s chief of party.

“Community leaders, local disaster committees, schoolteachers — these people all form a network of communication for disaster management. The goal of CCAP’s early-warning system is to bring this network together and empower it to reduce communities’ vulnerability to natural disasters and save lives.”


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