Technology has its limits in Third World disasters, say aid workers

Pakistan floods hit rural areas with little or no infrastructure

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DUBAI // Technology played a vital role in relief efforts in the aftermath of the floods that devastated Pakistan. But it has its limitations, aid agency officials said yesterday.

From mobile field hospitals with advanced medical equipment to a credit card-style system allowing those affected to access cash to buy food, technology was used in a host of different ways.

However, last July's disaster destroyed much of the infrastructure, and took place in rural areas where there was little or no internet or electricity to begin with.

The flood destroyed more than 5,000 schools and hospitals, cutting off 800,000 people from help. It affected 1,500km of land and brought with it malaria, cholera and diarrhoea.

"The scale of the disaster was one of the worst Pakistan and the world had faced," said Jamil Ahmed Khan, Pakistan's ambassador to the UAE.

"Could technology have played a bigger role? Maybe, but in many areas, things like Facebook and Twitter, or even access to the internet, were non-existent."

Mr Khan was chairing a panel discussion yesterday between non-governmental organisations and relief agencies at the Dubai International Humanitarian Aid and Development Conference and Exhibition.

"Our effort involved setting up 20,000 tents, vaccinating more than 8,000 children against things like polio, MMR and measles," said Saleh Mousa al Taei, deputy general secretary of the UAE Red Crescent Authority.

He said volunteers used GPS equipment as well as satellite phones to communicate and they had been invaluable during the relief effort.

"In fact the mobile clinics had a variety of devices like ECG and other diagnostic equipment," he added.

David Kaatrud, director of emergencies at the World Food Programme Rome, told delegates at the Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre that pioneering technology was used to help in the effort.

Satellite imaging with location technology pinpointed the areas that were most in need, with teams then dispatched to 11,000 displaced villages to verify what the situation was on the ground, he said.

"One of the biggest worries is malnutrition of children under the age of two," he said. "It's a race against time because the brain damage caused by a lack of nutrients becomes permanent if action isn't taken fast enough."

To address this, sachets containing key nutrients, were handed out to villagers.

The recipe was given to Pakistani factories to mass produce, while another recipe based on chickpeas was also developed, he said.

Those factories were now able to meet demand if any future need arose, he added.

A cash and card system allowed people to buy their own food, helping victims to get their daily nutritional requirements while also helping reinvigorate the local economy in these areas.

"Technology helped, but for small scale NGOs in rural villages the first two weeks were difficult because these places either had no electricity or it had been destroyed," said Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, from the UK-based charity Doctors Worldwide.

Although technology helped to collect a vast amount of data, there needed to be better communication between NGOs so that they could target areas more effectively, she said.