Life-saving connections in humanitarian work

WFP Innovation Accelerator
4 min readDec 2, 2021

Bringing digital solutions to communities on the frontline of climate change

By Brent Carbno, Global Emergency Telecommunications Cluster Coordinator at the UN World Food Programme

Few countries today can consider themselves untouched by climate change whether they are impacted by increasingly frequent storms, prolonged and unseasonal drought or unprecedented wildfires. For one group of small island nations, climate change has been a daily reality for decades.

With their low-lying atolls, blue economies and geographic isolation, the Pacific Islands are on the frontline of global warming. Innately vulnerable to multiple natural hazards including earthquakes, volcanic activity and tsunamis, many of these countries are now confronted by growing numbers of catastrophic tropical cyclones fuelled by rising temperatures.

The damage left behind in Santo Island after Cyclone Harold passed through Vanuatu in April 2020. Photo: Save the Children/Gordon Alick

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the region is firmly invested in disaster preparedness and response. Spread across an area equivalent to 15 percent of the Earth’s surface, the Pacific Islands are widely diverse in their cultures, geography and the challenges they face. Yet, united in their exposure to climate change, they are taking a collaborative approach to protecting their communities from the impacts of natural disasters.

Playing an active role in this work is the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC), a global network of humanitarian, government and private sector partners led by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) that specializes in providing life-saving connectivity in emergencies. Partnership is the guiding spirit of the cluster system and all the ETC’s work is done by and through its 30 partner organizations.

Communication saves lives

In the aftermath of any disaster, timely and accurate information is a life-saving resource. It is also often in short supply in contexts where communications and other infrastructure is damaged or destroyed.

Governments and humanitarian responders alike are increasingly looking to digital technologies to overcome critical communication challenges in emergency contexts, organizing rapid network services that not only facilitate the work of first responders but also connect those caught up in the event with their loved ones and the help and information they need.

Once activated, the ETC sets up vital security communications services and voice and internet connectivity within 48 hours of a disaster. The network has responded to more than 40 humanitarian crises since it was launched. In the Pacific Islands, however, the ETC is playing a dual role, by responding to emergencies while also getting ahead of them before they happen.

Through training, needs assessment and technical expertise, the network is supporting governments across the region in establishing their own robust response processes that can be activated at a moment’s notice, unlocking the benefits of digital technology to achieve faster and more efficient emergency communications coverage than ever before.

Applying digital solutions to humanitarian challenges

The Pacific Islands project is part of much broader work by the ETC and WFP to build local capacities to respond to crises triggered by climate change and other stressors. Taking a digital approach, WFP is developing innovative tools that address real-world challenges not only for emergency connectivity but also for information dissemination, needs assessment and the provision of Internet access to vulnerable populations.

For example, in the Central Sahel, a region beset by protracted conflict and multiple manifestations of climate change, the ETC is assessing the communication needs of refugees and internally displaced people, with plans to set up charging kiosks and internet access.

In Libya, an abundance of misinformation regarding COVID-19 led the ETC to establish a central hotline, providing people with a free, authoritative source of information on the pandemic and enabling them to give feedback to humanitarian agencies on their needs and concerns. The call centre model has since been replicated in other countries, including the Central African Republic, and has led the ETC to develop a machine-learning enriched chatbot that can make health and safety information available to people around the clock in multiple languages.

A man makes a free phone call from an ETC phone booth set up in an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Bria, Central African Republic. Access to communications technology is an ongoing challenge for people in the camp. Photo: WFP / Elizabeth Millership

Meanwhile, in emergency settings, drones are increasingly being used to carry out rapid disaster mapping in place of manual damage assessments. A machine learning application has also been developed that dramatically reduces the time taken to identify damaged buildings from high resolution satellite images — both innovations are making vital information available more quickly and at much lower cost.

Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst

As global temperatures edge upwards, the effects of climate change on our weather, ecosystems and infrastructure are set to intensify. The latest report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that “every additional 0.5°C of global warming causes clearly discernible increases in the intensity and frequency of hot extremes […] and heavy precipitation”.

The need for disaster preparedness is therefore paramount — even if the most optimistic ambitions of COP 26 are fulfilled.

Through global cooperation platforms such as the ETC, countries most exposed to dangers of global warming can create the systems they need to ensure swift access to the best possible data and communications services when it matters most.

To learn more about how the UN World Food Programme utilizes digital technology in its mission to save lives and changes lives — from the COVID-19 response to climate change, social protection, and conflict — in our new report “Digital Foundations: digital transformation and our fight against hunger.”

The WFP Innovation Accelerator sources, supports and scales high-potential solutions to end hunger worldwide. We provide WFP staff, entrepreneurs, start-ups, companies and non-governmental organizations with access to funding, mentorship, hands-on support and WFP operations.

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WFP Innovation Accelerator

Sourcing, supporting and scaling high-impact innovations to disrupt hunger.