In June 2019, rain started pouring in South Sudan. Over the course of two days, three counties were underwater. Mud homes collapsed, roads were washed away and livelihoods destroyed. By the end of 2019, recurring floods had devastated the lives and livelihoods of nearly one million people.
Three years on, this land-locked country is in the midst of a climate change-linked emergency, facing its third consecutive year of floods. Homes are submerged, villages abandoned; lands cannot be cultivated, cattle that wasn’t lost in 2019 have slowly succumbed to various water-borne diseases, and people have turned to eating water lilies because they have no food and few places to escape encroaching waters. According to the UN, more than 780,000 people have been affected by flooding so far this year, and this number is expected to rise in the coming months; meanwhile 8 million people out of a total population of 11 million are in need of humanitarian assistance due to ongoing conflict, chronic food insecurity and floods.
When the floods first hit, humanitarian organisations kicked into action their traditional response process: they performed a rapid assessment to understand initial levels of damage, estimated the number of people affected and produced an initial funding appeal identifying the most critical needs facing those affected by the floods. As with most traditional humanitarian responses, only then did emergency aid start flowing to affected communities. It wasn’t until mid-February 2020, eight months after the flooding started, that the UN reached all affected people with food assistance.
This post ante approach has been the way humanitarian response efforts have worked for the past several decades. Yet, the technological advances of the 21st century have provided us with some truly revolutionary tools that can help predict climate events before they become crises and transform when, how and where humanitarian aid is delivered. From AI to earth observation to cloud computing to a better-connected world, these tools can help us foresee crises and prepare and respond better and faster based on data-driven, risk-informed information, saving lives and livelihoods.
These technologies enable an approach to humanitarian aid that upends the traditional reactive manner of waiting for a disaster to unfold before funding is released and aid delivered. Early warning and early action is underpinned by data collection and analysis that pulls from technologies like satellites, drones, the Internet of Things and mobile phones and that is used to inform pre-determined standard operating procedures and triggers for more effective funding and action decisions. It ultimately enables vulnerable communities, like those in South Sudan, to be forewarned and receive appropriate life and livelihood-saving assistance before a disaster hits.
We know that responding early is more cost-effective and saves more lives and livelihoods. For example, on average, an investment of £1 in preparedness activities will save £2.84 and an average of 35.4 days response time. There are a number of inspiring humanitarian organisations that have made some really important strides and efforts towards this end, but the tools that underpin early warning and early action are still wildly underutilised and there is a mismatch between the availability of these technologies and knowledge about them. This is particularly true for governments, which face a number of competing priorities, including responding to escalating humanitarian crises, and therefore have limited time and capacity to explore how and when technology can be used to support more effective disaster preparedness and response efforts. We believe that leaders and organisations who can harness the power of technology will be able to save lives, livelihoods, and money right now – not just several years down the road. This is why we have developed a roadmap and a detailed paper that outlines how governments can use the right technologies at the right time to transform their disaster-preparedness and response efforts.
Of course technological interventions cannot solve the immediate crisis facing South Sudan nor relieve the already overstretched humanitarian response efforts taking place on the ground, but they can help reduce the impact of the next flood or drought, not just in South Sudan but in Sierra Leonne, Mozambique, Indonesia, just to name a few. If we therefore want to truly reduce the impacts of climate change, tech providers, humanitarian actors and national governments must collectively leverage and embrace the 21st century technological tools at our disposal.