"It has become clear that no country is immune to disasters. And when disaster strikes, keeping the lines of communications open is critical."
Dr Hamadoun Touré, ITU Secretary-General
Global climate change, rising sea levels, rapid global population growth and urbanization - these are some of the factors that have contributed to an increase in the severity and number of natural and man-made disasters in recent years.
Advanced ICTs like wireless and satellite communication systems, remote sensing systems and satellite imaging can make a real difference during those first crucial hours and days, scoping out the extent of damage, helping locate survivors, measuring danger for rescue teams, and ensuring humanitarian response crews can communicate effectively with their team members, with other agencies working onsite, with local hospitals and paramedics, and with the victims.
ITU has long been a champion of emergency telecommunications. Through each of its main sectors - Radiocommunication (ITU-R), Standardization (ITU-T) and Development (ITU-D) - ITU invests considerable resources, time and energy into the continued development and deployment of these vital services and infrastructure.
ITU has a long and successful history of developing international standards (beginning with the Morse code), providing radio-frequency spectrum and defining agreed global standards for wired and wireless networks and the applications that can play such a critical role in disaster response.
The Tampere Convention on the Provision of Telecommunication Resources for Disaster Mitigation and Relief Operations provides the legal framework for the use of telecommunications in international humanitarian assistance, reduces regulatory barriers, and protects providers of telecommunication assistance, while safeguarding the interests of the host country. ITU was a main player in drafting this Convention and supporting the negotiations that led to its finalization in 1988. It came into effect on 8 January 2005, ratified by more than 35 countries, with more countries coming on board every year.
ITU-D: ICTs to the rescue
"We have seen through first-hand experience the power and potential of telecommunications to save lives in times of disaster"
Sami Al Basheer Al Morshid, ITU Development Bureau Director
The development arm of the ITU considers emergency telecommunications an integral part of its projects integrating telecommunications and ICT in disaster predication, detection, and alerting. The ITU-D has a long history of helping countries build capacity to enhance their disaster preparedness in the pre-disaster period, including the design of appropriate national emergency telecommunications plans.
Most recent ITU assistance in emergency situations around the world::
Zimbabwe, September 2009: ITU deploys satellite terminals owing to the eminent threat of flooding, malaria and cholera epidemics during the rainy season.
Tonga, August 2009: ITU deploys satellite telephones to help with rescue operations after the sinking of the Princess Ashika.
Kyrgyz Rep., October 2008: ITU deploys satellite telephones to boost communication links following an earthquake that destroyed buildings and infrastructure.
China, May 2008: ITU deploys 100 satellite terminals to help restore vital communication links in the aftermath of the country's worst natural disaster in three decades.
Myanmar, May 2008: ITU deploys 100 satellite terminals to help reinstall communication capacity after Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar, causing widespread devastation.
Thanks to strong co-financing partnerships negotiated and forged as part of disaster preparedness, the ITU-D is able to help countries get back on their feet quickly following a disaster. ITU not only dispatches easily transportable satellite terminals to the affected country with fully financed airtime to be used by humanitarian personnel and organizations in their search and rescue efforts, but also helps in assessing the damage to telecommunications infrastructure and restoring these networks in the shortest possible time.
ITU-R: Help from above
All too often, one of the first casualties of large-scale disasters - be they natural catastrophes or man-made calamities like war - is ground-based telecommunications infrastructure. That's when radiocommunications really come into their own, providing the vital links between on-the-ground aid teams, governments and health care facilities.
Advanced satellite remote sensing and imaging systems and satellite radiocommunication systems can make a real difference during those first crucial hours and days. They assist in quickly assessing the extent of damage, help locate survivors, measure the potential danger for rescue teams and ensure that humanitarian response crews can communicate effectively with their team members, with other agencies working onsite, with local hospitals and paramedics, and with the victims.
Radiocommunications are not only vital during relief operations, but are also extremely important even before a disaster happens, enabling the prediction and detection of possible events and alerting all those who may be concerned.
As the steward of the global framework for spectrum and satellite orbits, ITU's Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R) provides for the necessary radio-frequency spectrum and orbit resources for terrestrial and space emergency radiocommunication systems. ITU-R not only helps develop and manage binding international treaties like the Radio Regulations, the sector is an active developer of international voluntary standards (ITU-R Recommendations), providing a solid regulatory and technical basis for the development and operation of emergency radiocommunication systems.
The ITU World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-07) held in Geneva in 2007 advocated the development of spectrum management guidelines for radiocommunication in emergency and disaster relief as well as the identification and maintenance of available frequencies for use in the very early stages of humanitarian assistance intervention in the aftermath of disaster. This new online database will assist administrations, national regulatory authorities, disaster relief agencies and organizations with their emergency communication preparedness activities by providing data of currently available frequencies for use in times of crisis.
"Ensuring the availability of communications at times of disaster and emergency is one of ITU-R's founding mandates"
Valery Timofeev, ITU Radiocommunication Bureau Director
ITU-T: Not just your standard stuff in emergency situations
ITU's technical standards for telecommunications play a very strategic role in ensuring global interconnection and interoperability for monitoring and management in disaster or emergency situations. Standards for call-priority schemes that ensure relief workers get access to communication lines, whether using tradition or next-generation communications networks are now available. Timely early warnings that are delivered uncorrupted from the source to the end user are now possible thanks to well-developed technical standards. Another project, the Common Alert Protocol, seeks to make the simultaneous delivery of early warnings quicker and easier through a hybrid of networks and systems.
An ongoing commitment to effective disaster response
ITU is constantly pushing forward with new Recommendations and building global consensus on a more effective disaster response through ICT. In December 2007, ITU hosted a Global Forum on the Effective Use of ICT in Disaster Management, which brought together over 300 representatives from government, international organizations, private sector partners and NGOs. The event sought to map out concrete strategies and adopt practical measures aimed at harnessing the potential of ICTs during all phases of disaster management. This event launched ITU's Framework for Cooperation in Emergencies, which is designed to expedite the availability of ICT resources for rapid disaster response.
ITU has established strategic partnerships with other UN agencies such as the WMO, IMO and ICAO, as well as specialized UN groups such as WGET, to drive global collaboration on emergency telecommunications. ITU also cooperates actively with international and national space agencies and other specialist organizations involved in emergency telecommunications.