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Cell Phones Help Bihar Fend Off Disaster

By Annette Arceneaux

For many of us, texting is yet another cool way to communicate. In Bihar, India, people are learning how texting can save lives.

Officials use cell phones to text disaster warnings

Community leaders and local government officials use cell phones to text disaster warnings to a main database. Photo by CRS staff

During India's annual monsoon season, heavy rains and flash floods wreak havoc upon millions of Indians. Last year, families in the northeastern state of Bihar were struck the hardest—particularly in the district of Muzaffarpur. Floods washed out bridges and roads and marooned residents in some districts. Thousands of people were displaced.

But not Narendra Bhusan of the village of Budhnagar Radha. He was one of the lucky ones.

When the Buhdi Gandak River overflowed its banks and threatened to flood his village, Narendra used his cell phone to notify fellow community leaders and local officials, who quickly arrived and secured the village embankment with bricks and sand bags. These simple steps kept Narendra's district dry and virtually free of damage.

As part of a disaster preparedness project developed by Catholic Relief Services with technical assistance from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, community leaders of the five most flood-prone areas in Bihar have used cell phone communication to prevent damage from monsoon floods and save the lives of thousands of people.

Good Rain, Bad Floods

Before the program started, local government officials wouldn't learn about a river breach until after the damage began.

High flood levels would confine residents to their homes without food or clean water for days. Lack of boats made delivering aid and ferrying people to dry ground difficult to impossible.

Bihar is home to millions of the poorest people on earth. More than half of its children are malnourished. Annual flooding can set communities back for months.

"The community usually suffers from the effects of floods for one to two months. The Bihar floods of 2007 were quite severe; it took five months for residents to return to their houses," says Anurag Pratap Kumar of CRS India. "The recovery and rehabilitation program is still going on today."

Better working relationship between the community and local officials

The cell phone project has also built a better working relationship between the community and local officials. Photo by CRS staff

However, the monsoon rains are vital to the state's crops.

"The monsoons are necessary for a good crop," Anurag explains. "If there is no embankment break in the rivers and the rains are not too heavy, India will normally see a good harvest."

Armed and Ready

With the texting system, vulnerable villages in Bihar stand ready for monsoon season, which typically lasts from June to October. The system helps communities send early disaster warnings and shorten emergency response time.

The project began with community meetings. Cell phones were distributed to a task force of community leaders and government officials. Anurag says the project has built a closer bond between the community and local government.

About a dozen residents were trained to collect data, assess the damage and people's needs, and use the phone system.

"The technology has strengthened their preparedness and made them more confident," Anurag says.

Residents and task force members use text messages to relay information to a central database, which task force members and relief agencies, including CRS, can access through the web.

The cell phone pilot program began in June of 2008 in the villages of Budhnagar Radha, Dumri, Rajwara Bhgawan, Manikpur and Peerr Mohammedpur, five of Bihar's most flood-prone areas.

The project is expected to serve about 28,400 people, or approximately 5,400 households.

Annette Arceneaux was a summer intern at CRS headquarters in Baltimore.

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