First responders need digital support in crises like Tropical Cyclone Idai

In this photo taken Saturday, April 6, 2019 a boy watches a demonstration of water filters in the remote village of Bopira, Mozambique. Crops across the region were destroyed by Cyclone Idai just before the harvest, raising concerns about hunger in the months ahead. (AP Photo/Cara Anna)

Tropical Cyclone Idai wrecked destruction and havoc on Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe with winds of up to 200 km/h. The miles and miles of water rendered road access impassable forcing desperate people to scramble onto roof and tree tops. Even dogs and snakes, unlikely mates, were forced to share high ground where they clung until fatigue overcame them, and they tragically drowned. To compound matters the first responders were also cut off from the victims. It was only a few helicopters deployed by our very own SANDF, which enabled initial the emergency service.  We, South African citizens, murmured prayers of gratitude because Idai missed us. How we can help?

Firstly, who is helping these countries? Apart from our SANDF, the Gift of the Givers has once again, swung into action taking equipment and setting medical tents to curb post-flooding opportunistic diseases such as cholera and malaria. The Motsepe Foundation donated R15m; the SA government donated R60m; while the UN donated USD 20m.

Facebook Safety Check is a feature that is activated by the company during natural , man-made disasters or terror-related incidents to quickly determine whether people in the affected geographical area are safe. This was done for the three countries. The 2015 earthquake that rocked Nepal, galvanised the world into support mode with the irrepressible “Give of the Givers” leading Africa’s response to help this beautiful nation.  Viper, Nepal’s leading telco provider turned off its Viper out billing on its Nepalise network enabling Nepal users could call any destination for free as a humanitarian gesture.

Hah! A simple productive proactive functional meaningful gesture that will really help everybody – the victims, families, rescuers, donors, government and the media to call in and out of Nepal without stressing on roaming charges etc. I wrote praising Viper and suggesting that our telcos do self-same when confronted with a disaster. Several Nepalese citizens living in South Africa found and complimented me for thinking about their nation and for praising Viper. Two South African telco’s executives called and suggested that whenever I had similar ideas they will gladly listen to me. It seems they either forgot what they said or forgot how to read!

If I were a telco, I will set a week or two and make free all outbound and inbound calls with the three countries to countries all over the world. There is a huge, caring and frantic dysphoria. This is so our foreign friends can call home or someone in their neighbourhood to check the status of their family.  I cannot begin to imagine the anguish of the economic refugees or local experts working in foreign lands. Even in good times these divided families hardly have any contact with their loved ones.

If I were a South African or SADC telco who I remind are Telkom, MTN, Neotel, Vodacom, CellC and Safaricom I would make all calls to and from Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe to anyway in Africa free for the next few weeks. Further Facebook and Twitter along with telocs should reduce the data charges on their platforms to zero. Microblogging platforms helped Japan in 2011 when they endured a combo of an earthquake followed by a tsunami collapsing the communication infrastructure but for Twitter and Facebook.

Telcos, your seeming silence of is baffling and deafening. Emergency workers used to communicate predominately through push-to-talk radio.  Now that you usurped the communication infrastructure, you also have the moral responsibility to provide communication. Although one accepts that your infrastructure has probable been severely damaged by the floods we urge please render what is useable free. As I write this MTN decided to make 500,000 available to the victims which is not what I am asking for!

We see huge headlines where companies provide Internet communication through geostationary mini-satellites in the form of balloons. Google for example has Project Loon. This disaster is a fit-for-purpose perfect storm awaiting deployment of these communication balloons. These also have other local uses at the Kruger National Park for instance.

A combination of these options will be a wondrous gesture. Further, given that companies like MTN are under pressure as South African brands, this exercise will go a long way to mitigate reputational damage and even help rebuild these company and brand South Africa. I am happy to transfer some of my airtime to such a cause if the economics don’t allow for such humanitarian gestures. However, if Viper could do it, surely our companies can as well?

You can (and should) help by going to the following websites Gift of the Givers (; BackaBuddy (; Penny Appeal ( We researchers, volunteer together with agencies such as State Information Technology Agency (SITA) to set a response, pragmatic communication research centre that can be ready to deploy short-term communication measures and create what is termed digital responders. 

We have no choice because climate change is going to ensure that this happens again and again. Technology supports and optimises the coordination and distribution of food and medical resources. Technology can go where people cannot and where rescue efforts puts the lives of responders at risk.


Dr Colin Thakur is a digital activist who is committed to the dream of “one person, one connected device.” He is the KZN e-Skills CoLab Director, located at the Durban University of Technology. His areas of research include e-democracy, Social media, and unstructured big data.