Category: International

How digital media is changing the way we respond to disasters


Twitter won’t last long, I wouldn’t bother with it.

This was the advice I remember receiving a couple of years ago at a communications conference with a speaker from a respected PR company.

Pro-government supporters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and anti-government demonstrators clash in Tahrir Square

But as the current situation in Egypt demonstrates; social media is fast changing the way we engage with each other on a personal, national and global scale. Less than an hour ago I did a Twitter search to find out the latest about the Jan 25 revolution and since then there’s been almost 10,000 new tweets.

If you want to get real-time information about events going on around the corner or across the world, Twitter is where it’s at. Hmmm, I wonder how that PR woman’s career is going these days…

Where social media started off as a great new way to network in our personal lives, its value is being increasingly harnessed by businesses – and the business of humanitarian work can’t afford to be left behind.

Although it’s often the poorest countries who are worst hit by disasters, more often than not, victims of disasters have cell phones and its a resource that needs to be better tapped into, to save lives.

New innovations in social and mobile technologies are having a huge impact on how we deal with emergencies, including early warning and preparedness, as well as disaster and post-disaster environments.

In Haiti and Pakistan we are seeing an increasing number of people using social media to contact the British Red Cross directly. When the Pakistan floods set in last August one Pakistani man left a message on our Posterous blog asking how he could help.

As a result, and within 24 hours of posting his comment, he was volunteering with our logistics emergency response unit providing invaluable help with the distribution of life-saving relief goods.

After the earthquake in Haiti, a hospital ran out of supplies and a local ‘tweeter’ contacted the British Red Cross via Twitter identifying the hospital’s needs and location with GPS co-ordinates. We then contacted Rapid UK who were able to respond quickly to the situation.

Haiti's capital reduced to rubble

When Port-au-Prince was reduced to rubble, lack of information about Haiti’s capital hampered the emergency response. But a collaborative project by OpenStreetMap, two satellite firms and people on the streets in Port-au-Prince provided daily updates to aid workers and rescuers, helping them navigate their way through the city.

As climate change takes its toll and disasters around the world increase in both scale and frequency, it’s important we begin nurturing more productive partnerships between humanitarian actors and the private sector.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is currently working with Voila, a wireless subsidiary of Trilogy International Partners, who have pioneered a new messaging application to help fight cholera in Haiti. It is the first of its kind globally and allows the Red Cross to send customised text messages via SMS to phone users in defined geographic areas – unlike traditional SMS services, which require broadcast messages be delivered to every sub¬scriber on a carrier’s network.

Using the new service, the Red Cross can pro¬vide Haitians with advice and offers of aid that are relevant to their particular circumstances; that capability has driven unprecedented response rates, with life-saving consequences.

Also in partnership with Trilogy International, the Red Cross set up free-phone hotlines for people to be better informed or to register feedback on our service delivery. Our messages have reached more than 360,000 people on an issue as sensitive as sexual violence for instance, with more than 10 per cent of that number responding directly to our offer of support and help – this is a staggering suc¬cess in a 24-hour timeframe with minimal human resources, and demonstrates how mobile technologies are bringing enormous added value to humanitarian operations.

At its core, this approach is about delivering potentially life-saving information into the hands of the people who need it most. Importantly, it is also about enabling populations affected by disaster to channel critical data about their situation and needs to aid agencies, thereby increasing the speed, relevance and effectiveness of aid.

In Haiti, this initiative is being carried out in close collaboration and partnership with Trilogy International, as well as a consortium of non-governmental organisations and media development organisations including OCHA, Save the Children, Internews and BBC World Service Trust.

Pakistani survivor hugging Red Cross delegate

If we want to prevent the huge loss of lives and livelihoods that we’ve seen in the mega-disasters of the Indian Ocean tsunami, Haiti earthquake and Pakistan floods then the international response needs to get smarter with all stakeholders working ever closer together.

Ps If you’re still in doubt and wondering could a tweet really help save a life? It can, and it has. Check out this story.

Pps I stole that last line from a great article about social media on the American Red Cross website.

Ppps For anyone who can’t get enough of this subject, here’s a new presentation on digital disasters published on Scribd.

Pppps Please check out our latest video on Haiti by the numbers. Okay, I’m done.

Photo 1 © Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh, courtesy

Photo 2 © Red Cross/ECHO

Photo 3 © Olivier Matthys/IFRC

Pakistan floods: transcending language with first aid


Penny Sims, Red Cross communications delegate, reports back from Pakistan:

Sometimes, being so far away from home, it’s good to see some things are universal. I’m at the Pakistan Red Crescent office in Dadu with around 40 volunteers, for a first aid training session.

I only have a few words of Urdu, but first aid really does transcend any language barrier. Watching the video ‘A first aider in every home’ I see familiar situations – falls, trips, burns, cuts.

Other aspects of first aid training appear to cross boundaries as well; the video is good, with some believably gory wounds, but there’s still a comedy moment of bad ‘oh dear, I’ve just fallen down the stairs’ acting that has everyone in fits of giggles.

The video takes us through the essentials – checking if a casualty is conscious, breathing, the DRAB check list (danger, response, airways, breathing – and calling for help). Knowing basic first aid is important for everybody, but in flood-affected regions like KN Shah it is vital – the village roads have been corroded by the flood water, or are strewn with debris, so access to emergency health care could be many hours away.

The training is part of a Pakistan Red Crescent programme supported by the German and Danish Red Cross, which combines deliveries of aid items such as blankets, tarpaulins and kitchen sets, with psychological support and useful training for local villagers.

The programme is helping 35 villages and will include building six community centres. Volunteers are going out to the villages to provide psychological support, but also first aid training and demonstrations in how to purify water.

It’s important not only to address people’s physical needs, but also their emotional and psychological needs.

Visit the British Red Cross website to read Dr Solangi’s story about helping address survivors’ psychological problems.

Image 1 © IFRC

Disasters update: How the Red Cross is responding


This post was written by our writing team intern, Nayo Hunt.

In the aftermath of severe weather, health epidemics and civil unrest, Red Cross volunteers around the world are helping their communities. Here’s how their response is saving lives.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan Red Cross volunteers clean a well

Credit: IFRC

Flooding in eastern, central and northern Sri Lanka has disrupted the lives of more than 1 million people since rains began in November. Forty-three people have been killed and 30,000 homes damaged or destroyed. Up to 400, 000 people are seeking shelter in camps. Aid workers have voiced concerns over possible outbreaks of dengue fever and cholera and fears that landmines left over from the country’s civil war may have become dislodged by floodwaters. (Source: AlertNet)

Since November, the Sri Lankan Red Cross has helped 98,000 people, providing drinking water, dry rations, non-food relief items and setting up medical camps. Bob McKerrow, IFRC head of delegation in the floods zone, said: “Volunteers have worked hard to pump putrid water from soiled wells, and distributed vital food, blankets, mosquito nets, mattresses and hygiene kits to those in need. But more hard work lies ahead.”

Find out more about how the Red Cross is responding to the floods in Sri Lanka


Over 800 people have been killed and at least 300 are still missing following flash floods and mudslides in Rio de Janeiro’s mountain region.  The disaster began after the equivalent of a month’s rain fell in 24 hours, making this one of Brazil’s worst natural disasters on record. The death toll is predicted to rise.

Around 20,000 people have been displaced or made homeless. Poorer residents who lived in insecure housing bore the brunt of the disaster and hundreds are believed to remain at risk of fresh mudslides. (Source: AlertNet)

Carmen Serra, a spokeswoman for the Brazilian Red Cross, said: “It’s a mess! The mud-flow swept away houses; it moved cars – picking them up, standing them on their ends at 45-degree angles, and burying them. The ground is so saturated and unstable, it could shift at any time and the risk will remain for several weeks.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross has provided satellite phones to the Brazilian Red Cross to help families contact their loved ones, as many communities are still isolated. Volunteers have collected 250 tons of clothing, 450,000 litres of water, 35,000 litres of milk, 250 tons of food and 50,000 hygiene and cleaning products for distribution.

International Red Cross specialists are also providing specialist advice to the Brazilian Red Cross.


Australia’s biggest floods in a century struck in December, killing 20 people and leaving 53 missing. Officials have warned the threat of cyclones and fresh rains could last until March and are urging people to stay out of floodwaters, which have been washing snakes and crocodiles into homes and shops.

The Australian Red Cross has been supporting the rescue and recovery effort. In Queensland they have set up 14 evacuation centres, conducted outreach in ten areas, assisted with recovery in five areas, and are supporting with information centres in two areas.

In New South Wales, the Red Cross has been airlifting stranded people to safety and organising emergency accommodation for those displaced by the floods.

In Victoria, the Red Cross in partnership with the Victorian government, has launched the Red Cross Victorian Floods Appeal 2011 to support individuals, families and communities in areas affected by the floods. More information and donations can be made on their website.

The Australian Red Cross is also operating a national registration and inquiry system to help people affected by the floods to reconnect with family and friends countrywide.


Colombia remains in a temporary state of emergency due to heavy rain which has battered the Andean nation in one of its worst natural disasters ever. The severe weather has uprooted around 2.2 million people and killed more than 300 since April 2010.

The ICRC has distributed relief in areas where it was already providing help to people caught up in Colombia’s armed conflict. Supplies have been delivered to 15 remote communities. In Chocó one month of food rations has been handed out to 10,000 people, along with rice and corn seed. (Source: AlertNet)

In December the British Red Cross made a £60,000 Disaster Fund contribution to provide emergency relief items to the regions worst affected.

Polio in the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville)

At least 524 people have been infected and 219 have died as a result of Congo’s polio outbreak. Although the numbers of new cases have fallen, the epidemic still has a high death rate and as such, the population of the entire country has to be vaccinated.

The British Red Cross first gave £20,000 from our Disaster Fund in November, but last week we gave a further £30,000. The Congolese Red Cross will help some 4 million people for six months through an immunisation campaign. Volunteers are also helping with hygiene promotion activities.

Violence in the Ivory Coast

Violent clashes have been erupting in the Ivory Coast since the presidential election in November, leading to thousands of people being displaced or fleeing over the border to neighbouring countries. The IFRC has been helping the Red Cross National Societies in the affected countries to provide water and sanitation, hygiene promotion, health services, and relief items to thousands of displaced people and the communities they’re staying in.

The British Red Cross gave £75,000 from our Disaster Fund to support people affected by the unrest.

Be prepared for disasters
You never know when a disaster will strike. Read our tips on preparing for disasters – from floods to flu.

Pakistan six months on: water, water, everywhere…



Penny Sims, Red Cross communications delegate, reports back from Pakistan:

Six months after the floods, most people would believe the water should have drained away by now. After all, six months is a long time. Surely it’s over now?

As we drive further south through Sindh province, it becomes increasingly clear this is not the case. Once out of the cities, the only areas that really escaped the floods, we see the situation created by the flood waters – smashed walls of buildings, piles of rubble.

Flooded-field in Pakistan

And then mile upon mile of water. In some places, the water stretches out as far as the eye can see, right out to the horizon. There are occasional landmarks – the odd tree or building. The raised field boundaries and reflected sky create a strange image, as if we are looking at a patchwork of endless fields made of glass.

We pull over at the side of the road to take in the scene. The tops of submerged crops peek out from the water’s edge. Compared to some of the dry fields further north, which were a hive of activity as farmers load huge, colourful trucks with their harvest, this area is eerily still and silent.

A young boy runs along a field edge towards us. He has something he wants to tell me. My Urdu isn’t up to much, but the boy is mute, and tells the story of what happened here through actions, miming the huge walls of water that swept through, leaving the whole area under water. His arms are held high as he shows the height, and the force. Then he looks at me, arms spread wide, as he shows the desolation of this neighbourhood. We nod and gesticulate to show him we understand what he is telling us, and he runs back to his father, his story told.

Woman-in burkha carrying an-aid-box

As we travel further into the villages, there are moments of tragic beauty. Where the water laps at the village perimeters, it’s easy to be fooled momentarily, as you take in what looks like a tranquil lake. But of course there was no lake here before – this is dirty, stagnant flood water, covering what used to be a field. It’s a dangerous breeding  ground for disease, but when clean water could be up to 5 km away, of course people are using this to bathe in, as well as washing their clothes and cooking pots.

The ground underneath is so saturated, it is taking months and months for the water to drain away. Natural drainage has been totally overwhelmed. Where the water has gone, it has left behind a hard, sun-baked layer of earth. But this can be deceptive – stray away from the path and you can soon find that layer cracks, as you sink up to the top of your boots in gooey grey mud.

Find out what the Red Cross is doing to help people recovery from the floods

Image 1 © IFRC

Image 2 and 3 © Olivier Mathys/IFRC

Pakistan: tailoring aid six months after superflood

Men-with-piles of emergency relief

Tomorrow marks the six-month anniversary of the Pakistan superflood and along with other mega-disasters, such as the Haiti earthquake and Asian tsunami, it puts the spotlight on the way aid agencies help people recover from crises.

In Pakistan, the situation is still very serious. More than 20 million people – one in every ten people in the country – have been affected by the floods and with hundreds of thousands still dependent on food aid, the first steps to recovery have barely begun.

I can understand why people might criticise and find it strange that more progress has not been made. Even as an aid worker with some understanding of the context, I was still surprised by the situation I found when I was deployed to Pakistan in October. I was helping with the distribution of emergency relief in the southern province of Sindh and I found that our team was the first to reach some people with aid even though the monsoon rains had begun in July.

Part of the reason for this is the sheer scale of the disaster. In terms of effect, as in the devastation it caused to infrastructure and the number of people affected, it is larger than the Boxing Day tsunami and the earthquake in Haiti combined. A fifth of Pakistan has been affected, covering an area the size of the United Kingdom. The disaster also unfolded over the course of several weeks. Its effects were not as immediate as an earthquake’s are, for example the instantaneous razing to the ground of an entire city, and because the waters took so long to flow from one end of the country to the other, different areas are at different stages of the emergency.

In the areas where people can return home they are finding a level of devastation similar to the aftermath of an earthquake. Over five million acres of cropland were destroyed, almost two million homes have been damaged or destroyed and infrastructure such as roads and bridges have been damaged or washed away.

Where the waters have gone down crops and fertile land remain buried under several feet of silt. People cannot grow food for themselves and their families, let alone enough to sell at market.

In addition, hundreds of thousands of people in southern areas are still unable to return home as thousands of acres of land are still flooded. In Sindh province residents live in a squalid, watery wasteland where stagnant floodwaters covering fields are a serious health concern and make subsistence farming impossible.

The British Red Cross has learnt a lot from previous disasters and certainly our experience after the tsunami is informing a lot of our recovery work today. But at the same time it’s definitely not a case of ‘one size fits all’.

Every country and every disaster is unique and it’s vital for us to understand the context and the people before we start helping them recover. Although we assess the options available in each situation, we tend to focus on constructing shelter and sanitation facilities along with helping people re-establish ways of making a living as these are areas in which we have developed expertise and can have the best impact on people’s recovery.

Finding a job is the top priority for most people after the initial effects of a disaster pass, although how we approach this can be very different depending on the context. Primarily, however, how we work with communities to recover from disasters is based on discussions with those affected and their families to ensure the support we can provide is based on their priorities.

Men receiving tins of ghee at aid-distribution

Although the Pakistan floods began almost six months ago, the scale is so huge the operation is still very much in the emergency relief phase. However, as plans for longer-term recovery are developed, one thing to consider is how to help people prepare better for future disasters.

Because there’s no point in doing recovery without building people’s resilience to future disasters at the same time. Without this, people will only end up in the same sort of crisis all over again.

After the destruction caused by Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh in 2007, the British Red Cross worked with several communities to relocate them from their precarious homes by the sea, where many had lost their homes and livelihoods.

As well as helping families build new, stronger homes, which would protect them more in future cyclones, we gave them fruit trees. This not only minimises the risk of soil erosion around their homes, it also gives them an additional source of income.

In Pakistan, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has helped more than two million people with emergency relief, which will still be needed in some areas for some time to come. It is also planning to help 130,000 families get back on their feet and recover their livelihoods over the next two years.

Working alongside the government of Pakistan and co-ordinating with other aid agencies, it’s about getting people in a position where they are stronger and more able to cope.

Long-term recovery may not be as sexy as emergency response but it’s just as vital when it comes to saving and improving lives.

Find out more about what the Red Cross is doing in Pakistan

Images © Sarah Oughton/BRC

Disaster Response Challenge leads Dave to Pakistan


Dave Luddington went from Red Cross first aid volunteer to fire and emergency support service (FESS) volunteer to delegate in Pakistan within three years.

Dave spent a month as a Red Cross delegate in flood-hit Pakistan, in September and October last year. His role was to manage the distribution of aid throughout a large region of the country.

Dave was already an event first aid and FESS volunteer when he took part in the Red Cross’ Disaster Response Challenge, which led to his recent delegate role. The event, in which participants respond to a hypothetical disaster under the guidance of trained delegates, was a eureka moment.

He said: “I’ve worked in warehouse logistics for over 20 years and had no idea that I could use these skills to help the Red Cross in a disaster situation. After taking part in the Disaster Response Challenge, I immediately applied to become a warehouse logistics delegate.”

Eighteen months later, Dave was fully trained and flying out to Pakistan – and now he can’t wait to go back. He said: “I’m looking forward to spending more time as a Red Cross delegate, going out to disaster areas and helping to save lives. It’s so rewarding.”

Why don’t you sign up for this year’s Disaster Response Challenge, in Hampshire, on 8-10 April or 23-25 September? Entrance costs just £50 (plus minimum sponsorship of £500). Although participation doesn’t guarantee a delegate role with the Red Cross, it’s a great introduction to our international emergency response work. And, of course, you’ll be helping us raise vital funds in the process.

Disaster updates


The past several days have seen some terrible weather around the world. Here are updates on how Red Cross societies are helping their communities.

Sri Lanka

Heavy rain and flash floods have affected more than a million people in Sri Lanka. Crops have been inundated and people displaced from their homes.

Sri Lanka Red Cross volunteers have been out in boats and other vehicles, evacuating houses and transporting stranded people to safety. Since December, they’ve helped around 6,000 families through the rainy season by distributing food parcels, hygiene kits, kitchen kits, mosquito nets, blankets and water purification tablets. The Red Cross is calling this “a major disaster”. The IFRC has launched an appeal to assist the Sri Lanka Red Cross to provide water and sanitation and distribute relief to 70,000 people – they have been working since November to provide drinking water, dry rations, non-food items, and set up medical camps for 98,000 people.

Read more on the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ website.


At least 645 people have died and over 6,000 have lost their homes due to flooding in Brazil. The Brazilian Red Cross has been providing first aid, transporting survivors away from flooded areas, managing temporary shelters, transporting food, and supporting the Civil Defence and Rio de Janeiro’s government.


Water levels seem to be receding in Queensland and some people have been able to return home.

The Australian Red Cross has more than 800 staff and volunteers working in 25 locations across Queensland, supporting evacuation centres, recovery centres and information centres. Find out more about how the Red Cross is helping in Australia.

The Australian Red Cross has launched an appeal for donations in partnership with the Victorian government.

How you can help

Right now, the British Red Cross isn’t asking for donations for these specific disasters, but we do have a Disaster Fund that helps us respond quickly to disasters in the UK and around the world.

We don’t send donated goods overseas (find out why not on our website), but items that are donated to our charity shops help fund our full range of life-saving work in the UK and overseas.

Donate to the British Red Cross Disaster Fund.

Haiti one year on: a long journey to a healthy recovery


This is the fourth post in a week-long series about different aspects of the Red Cross’ work in Haiti.

Seeing a distraught baby wrapped head to toe in bandages and being comforted by a Red Cross doctor is something I will never forget.

I’ve worked in the aftermath of several disasters, but I’d never seen anything like the scenes of utter destruction that I found in Port-au-Prince, even though I didn’t visit till three months after the earthquake.

I went to Haiti to make a short video showing the impact of the quake and to give survivors a chance to tell their stories.

Haiti- Red Cross hospital

Although I got the opportunity to see aid being distributed, from food and household goods to tents and tarpaulins, as well as seeing vital water and sanitation facilities being built, it was visiting the Red Cross field hospital and clinics that had the biggest impact on me.

So many of the city’s health facilities and staff were affected by the quake and I can’t imagine how frightening it must have been for those with injuries needing urgent treatment in the first few days.

In the aftermath of the quake, Red Cross healthcare clinics were seeing an estimated 600 patients a day – about 2,800 a week. One year on, the Red Cross continues to provide vital primary and secondary healthcare services to the affected population and more than 216,900 people have been treated.

For all stakeholders – the affected population, the Haitian government, the UN, aid agencies – the sheer scale of needs and responding in this urban context remains a challenge. Normally after a major disaster you would expect to be able to draw on resources from the capital city.

But this is not the case and in addition it’s not only those in the capital who need help, as the earthquake also increased the burden of healthcare in many rural communities which people fled to when they lost their homes and livelihoods.

And this last year in Haiti the hits have not stopped coming with the hurricane season and flooding and then the cholera outbreak all exacerbating the situation.

Following a request from the Haitian government, the Red Cross set up cholera treatment centres, as well as an observation centre in La Piste camp in Port-au-Prince, home to 50,000 people.

Thousands of Red Cross hygiene promotion volunteers trained in cholera preparedness and prevention are going door-to-door across camps to make sure people know how to keep themselves and their families safe. And we’ve reached more than 2.5 million people by sending SMS messages about how they could limit their chances of becoming sick.

Health education is crucial to help people maintain their own health and the Red Cross uses its weekly radio programme, radio adverts, and sound trucks to spread cholera prevention and other health messages. We’ve also used innovative tactics, such as clowns, drama and music to get the message across.

We’ve basically integrated cholera treatment and prevention into every single area that we work in, an indication of the severity of the problem. But encouragingly, a doctor in La Piste thinks the hygiene promotion is really working as the admissions for treatment seem to be slowing down.

As the Haitian Ministry of Health strives to build basic health services and address ongoing and future challenges it is supported by the World Health Organisation and many national and international aid organisations including the Red Cross.

However, the challenge is not just about the struggle to cope with new vulnerable groups, such as more people with disabilities, there is also a huge psychological and social impact within the population resulting from loss of loved ones as well as the dislocation and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people who lost their homes, moved to new areas and lost contact with family members.

More than 100 Haitian Red Cross volunteers have been trained in basic

Haiti-children doing art

psychosocial support for children and adults.

At the field hospital, I got to see this work in action with children getting to sing, dance, paint and express their feelings and emotions in a safe environment. Seeing the resilience of these children and their smiling faces was the best thing I saw during my trip.

But the image of the baby being comforted by the doctor remains strong for me. I know that child, like thousands of others, faces a long, long road to recovery and, twelve months on, it is just the beginning of that journey.

Find out more about how we’re helping people recover

Images © Sarah Oughton/BRC