World Humanitarian Day: The critical role of ICTs

A young women talks on her cell phone as she is transported through the floodwaters in the Taweewattana district on the outskirts of Bangkok. In the background is a high military vehicle which was helping to transport people out of the area. The outer regions of Bangkok endured rising floodwaters for more than a month as the huge floods which inundated large parts of the country move through Bangkok towards the sea. Thailand experiencing the worst flooding in over 50 years which has affected more than nine million people. (Photo by Gideon Mendel/In Pictures/Corbis via Getty Images)

From increasing climate disasters to the rise of global poverty and a persistent digital divide that is leaving almost half of the world’s population offline, it can often feel like the world is headed in the wrong direction.

Answering the UN Secretary-General’s call to connect the unconnected with affordable information and communication technology (ICT) services by 2030 and achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in the same period are more important than ever – especially with the COVID-19 pandemic erupting just as we entered this critical Decade of Action.

As we watch global events unfold, we could very easily fall into hopelessness and despair. I feel this way myself sometimes.

But even stronger is my conviction that we must not lose hope, even in the face of deeply troubling events. In fact, these give us more reason to redouble our efforts – as leaders and as citizens – to summon the will, invest the funds and allocate the resources to make humanitarian aid work.

One of those critical resources is the ability to be connected and to get information where it needs to go, as efficiently as possible.

This is my message to everyone today as we mark World Humanitarian Day. Each year, the United Nations and its partners across the global humanitarian system advocate for the survival, well-being and dignity of people affected by crises, as well as for the safety and security of aid workers.

Connecting to climate action

This year, more than ever before, we face the immediate human costs of the climate crisis. Floods, wildfires and the rising frequency of extreme weather events, as indicated in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment report, underscore the urgent need for meaningful climate action.

As the United Nations specialized agency for ICTs, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has long rallied its Members and partners around the importance of ICTs in combating climate change.

To reduce the increasing environmental footprint of the ICT sector, for example, our study group on environment, climate change and circular economy develops international standards that provide energy-efficiency solutions for telecommunication networks, infrastructure, and mobile devices, and offers guidance on transitioning to a circular economy and the environmental requirements of 5G. Other standards aim to define “net zero” for the ICT sector and provide an environmental impact assessment methodology for different network architectures.

ITU also plays a key role in harmonizing spectrum for early warning, prediction, detection, mitigation, and relief operations related to emergencies and disasters – as well as protecting spectrum essential for Earth observation, weather forecasting and climate research.

And because we must all take responsibility and lead by example, I am pleased to say that ITU has been climate neutral since 2015.

Meaningful connectivity is key

Leaders and decision makers – in undertaking the rapid shift to new policies and technologies – must not overlook the world’s most vulnerable people.

To be truly sustainable, any solution must be underpinned by meaningful connectivity. The estimated 3.7 billion people who currently lack Internet access must be empowered to deal with the effects and consequences climate change and to understand how it will affect their livelihoods. Despite contributing the least to the climate crisis, they will suffer its worst consequences disproportionately.

This makes vulnerable communities’ access to ICTs as imperative as the basic information itself.

Ensuring access involves reinforcing not only critical ICT infrastructure, but also investing in making devices affordable and boosting digital skills.

Everyone needs to be brought on board to prevent a looming catastrophe – and for climate mitigation and adaptation to succeed in the long run.

Advance preparations

Every region on Earth is projected to increasingly experience climate and weather-related extremes, the latest assessment report from the IPCC tells us. As we brace for the impact of our mounting emissions, we must be ready to address each incident as it arises. One of the most important steps in every rapid emergency response will be to restore the communications infrastructure that enables families and loved ones to connect in the aftermath.

At ITU, we help countries prepare for disasters through well-informed response planning and realistic emergency drills. Dedicated staff volunteers on our in-house Emergency Telecommunications Roster are trained to help deploy key communications equipment in emergency situations.

With initiatives such as Connect2Recover, ITU also strives to promote resilient digital infrastructure and digital ecosystem development and expand access to affordable and reliable connectivity to help vulnerable communities in some of the least well-connected countries build back better with broadband focusing on education, health and job creation after COVID-19 and remain resilient in times of disasters.

The COVID-19 pandemic offers key lessons – on global networks, technologies, and humanitarian cooperation – for the future disasters that are sure to arise.

Building back better now will help us all prepare.


Image credit: Gideon Mendel/In Pictures/Corbis via Getty Images