Bangladesh, water-rich and low-lying, regularly suffers from floods. To prevent casualties and damage, the Bengal government keeps a close eye on water levels. The government sends emails or Internet alerts to its inhabitants when the water rises. Unfortunately, many poor residents remain deprived of this information, because they have no access to the internet. But they often do have a mobile phone. Therefore, Cordaid and its partners have devised something new: voice messages, spoken alerts. And it works!
“Last year we held a trial in two villages in Sirajganj,” Cordaid’s Marlou Geurts says. “Sirajganj is a poor region with many rivers. Every year thousands of people fall victim to the rising water and buildings. Roads and farmland are destroyed. The FFWC, the Flood Forecasting and Warning Center of the Bengal government, warns if the water level rises in the rivers, but does so mainly through the Internet and email. And many poor inhabitants of the delta do not have access to the Internet or e-mail. However, 70% of the population has a mobile phone. Thanks to the collaboration between Cordaid, Deltares, HKV, the Dutch and Bangladeshi government and Concern Universal Bangladesh warnings are now also spread via voice messages, spoken in their own language.”
We deliberately chose voice messages instead of text messages so people that cannot read or write can also understand the message. And there were more improvements to the system. “We have built additional measuring points. Volunteers keep an eye on the water levels at these points,” says Geurts. “Moreover, those volunteers are part of a local disaster team who know what measures should be taken when the water rises.”
Abdul Khaleque is such a volunteer. “Five times a day I measure the water level in my village. I send the levels to the FFWC by SMS.” The FFWC processes data from across the country and formulates expectations based on this data. When there is risk of a flood, Khaleque receives a voice message on his cell phone and he passes the information to his fellow villagers.
In August, the trial turned into reality. The water in the rivers in Sirajganj rose to alarming levels. Khaleque and other volunteers trained by us in the two villages received voice messages. “Those warnings were really useful,” says Khaleque. “Farmers were able to bring in their harvest in time and fish farmers stretched nets over their ponds so that the fish are not washed away. Many villagers protected their homes with sandbags and brought their livestock and furniture to safer areas. Thanks to the voice messages, lives have been saved and the economic damage was limited.”
Plans for 2015
Due to its success, the pilot will be expanded in 2015. “We will serve more villages in Sirajganj and will also increase the number of messages sent in case of an emergency,” says Geurts.” At the same time, we continue to improve the technology. We want to make it so that our volunteers do not merely receive voice messages, but are also able to send them. In the case of a flood, for example, they can quickly report what the problems are and what is needed, so that the government and aid agencies know what to do. Everyone benefits from that.”
More information? Watch the video about this project.