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Jane Standley works in Communications for WFP’s Emergency Preparedness and Response Branch.
Good emergency responses depend on decision-makers understanding the situation on the ground. That’s why getting sophisticated data and quickly turning it into maps is a precious skill. WFP and Turin-based research centre ITHACA has been helping the government and NGO partners in Myanmar to use the latest technology in the field to map situations such as the cyclone devastation caused by Nargis in 2008.
YANGON -- Cloud extractions, raster calculations, data vectorisation….. Not words which trip off your tongue when you’re in the business of getting help to hungry people who’ve been hit by a disaster. But, while monsoon rains pounded the windows in Myanmar recently, people who had themselves survived the worst natural disaster in the country’s history learned how advances in technology can help the right decisions to be taken in the key moments when a disaster has struck – or is about to.
Training in Myanmar
The WFP Country Office asked for Lara Prades – an expert GIS mapper from the Emergency Preparedness and Response Branch – to travel to Myanmar to train national government and NGO partners in how to use some new technologies. Lara brought with her the cutting-edge skills of WFP’s partner, the Turin-based applied research centre ITHACA. ITHACA - Information Technology for Humanitarian Assistance Cooperation and Action – works with WFP on a pro-bono basis to make sure the best-tailored technology is ready for use at the start of humanitarian crises. Three of its specialists gave three two-day training sessions – first in the new capital, Naypyidaw and then in the old one, Yangon.
The language may sound complicated, but the thinking behind it and behind the Early Impact Analysis technique isn’t. It’s common sense. The idea is to bring all the information together in one easy to use map – to paint a picture of a disaster so as to identify the best way to tackle it. WFP and ITHACA’s experts showed how by using real-time satellite imagery, data could be extracted and overlaid to create highly-specific pictures which combined natural shocks, aggravating factors and people’s vulnerability.
The people taking part in the training were shown how it is possible to highlight whatever information is most needed - areas at risk of fire in the dry season, or of flooding during the monsoon season – by extracting the relevant technical information and craft it into a consolidated map.
Nwet Yin Aye, the Assistant Director of the government’s Relief and Resettlement Department, pronounced herself very pleased with what had been learned. “After this, we are able to do rapid mapping for decision makers both before and after a disaster,” she said. Her colleague Htay Aung Tint, an assistant engineer in the Irrigation Department said he was glad to know how useful remote sensing systems like radar and satellites are because of “the very real threat of disasters in Myanmar.”
Many people in the training sessions were affected by Cyclone Nargis in May 2008. Early on that Saturday the storm made landfall at the mouth of the Irrawaddy River, its battering winds of 120 mph pushing a 12 feet high wall of water 25 miles inland. It laid waste to the low-lying countryside below, killing 138,000 people and dramatically affecting the lives and livelihoods of another 1.5 million people. It was one of the most deadly cyclones ever in the region and the world. Nargis – the Urdu word for daffodil – was also Myanmar’s most expensive natural disaster, costing the already poor country an estimated $10 billion.
Technology to increase preparedness
Carlos Veloso, WFP’s Country Director for Myanmar, is a strong advocate for the importance of using technology to increase preparedness and of helping build this capacity at a local level with partners. “Preparedness is being increasingly recognised as a discipline,“ he said, “and it’s not just about having stockpiled supplies. It’s about planning ahead and investing in building skills. Small initiatives, like this training, can make a big difference. By introducing new mapping techniques which use specialised data and tools – cloud extractions, raster calculations, data vectorisation – the ability of a government like that of Myanmar to prepare for and respond to a disaster can be greatly increased.”
U Myint Aung, Assistant Director of the Planning Department agreed. “Now I can apply the early warning information which I receive into something practical for my country. We can use this to be more ready to respond if another Cyclone Nargis comes to Myanmar.”