Technology support for Hurricane victims

12 September 2017

OPINION PIECE - Lani Evans is Vodafone New Zealand Foundation Manager.

As Hurricane Irma does its very worst to homes throughout America, it’s easy to be left feeling powerless on the other side of the world.

Irma, one of the strongest tropical hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, has left a mark on the Caribbean and Florida. Ninety percent of the Island of Barbuda has been destroyed and up to 3 million people are expected to be affected. Tragically 40 people have lost their lives.

Just one year ago, another crisis emerged, this one much closer to home.

Cyclone Winston lashed Fiji with winds of 280kmph and flattened entire villages. As part of the relief effort Vodafone New Zealand sent our volunteer Instant Network team over to re-stablish mobile communications to help aid workers communicate during the relief effort, and enable people to contact their loved ones. The stories our team encountered were heart-breaking and sadly, these tragedies will become more frequent as we feel the effects of climate change.

So what more do we do to help?

Human beings are incredibly empathetic – our brains are biologically hardwired for it. George Monbiot said in a recent article that humans possess an astonishing degree of altruism - that we are “among mammals, the supreme co-operators.” So how do we engage that altruism, that global whanaungatanga, in the face of disasters like Irma and Winston? In the face of problems like climate change?

Industries like ours will continue to hold an important part of the puzzle.

Telecommunications allow us to connect across disparate geographies, reducing the climatic impacts of travel, and, more importantly, creating the space for the digital communities that give rise to social and political justice movements.

Our industry builds and distributes the tools that allow for radical change. Like Dr Lance O’Sullivan’s virtual medical centre, set up in Patea, a town with no doctor, giving rural whanau access to medical professionals; like the drones that deliver vaccines and blood for transfusions to isolated communities in Rwanda; like M-Pesa, the digital money transfer system that allows more than 25 million ‘unbanked’ people access financial services.

And like the Instant Network.

Right now, a group of trained Vodafone staff from Hungary, the Netherlands and Spain have touched down in Pointe-à-Pitre in Guadeloupe to provide communications support in the areas worst affected by Hurricane Irma.

Getting donated funds to emergency relief organisations is extremely important because necessities like water, medical supplies stem the flow of damage and disease and will save lives.

This is our 11th deployment, working alongside NGO Télécoms Sans Frontières. Our New Zealand team have deployed four times and we expect to be deployed again, for the next earthquake, the next cyclone, the next human tragedy.

Our primary role is to re-establish communications, giving aid workers the ability to co-ordinate their efforts and giving individuals the means to let their families know that they are safe.

According to Andrew Dunnett, the Vodafone Foundation Director “Ensuring people are able to communicate in the aftermath of a natural disaster is crucial, both for the coordination of aid and to enable those affected to reconnect with family and friends".

I couldn’t agree more. Humans, the great co-operators, the empathetic connectors – we need each other, we need to work together, and we need to see the ways in which our challenges and our lives intersect.

Our focus, at the Vodafone NZ Foundation is on youth and our bold goal is to halve the number of excluded and disadvantaged young people in New Zealand. We take a social justice lens, but I believe it is inextricably linked to climate change and to the work we do with Instant Network, by our common humanity, because those who will be most affected by events like Irma won’t be those who are doing alright – they will be the vulnerable and we are all in this together.

As Lilla Watson said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together”.

Technology support for Hurricane victims