Like most things in Nepal, the mountainous country’s transport is colourful. All along the highway that runs between Kathmandu and Rasawa (close to the border with China), elaborately-painted trucks make daily delivery routes feel like parades. Alongside pictures of flowers, landscapes or movie stars, most trucks are adorned with written quotes about love and loss.
As I travelled this road, one passing truck pronounced, ‘I spit on you, life’ in Nepali. Another mused over a lover’s betrayal: ‘She took my heart and stomped it into the ground’. Some, though, were more upbeat: ‘My heart for you always’ and ‘Forever yours’ and… ‘Facebook’.
As well as trucks sporting painted tributes to the social media giant, I also spotted a taxi whose entire back window was taken up by an artistic interpretation of the ‘Viber’ logo.
There is little wonder why. Everyone I spoke with in Nepal mentioned the role of social media in the response and recovery to the April 25 2015 earthquake which took the lives of more than 8,000 people.
“Most people have smartphones in this community,” said Surya, a young resident of Rasawa. “Well, they don’t all have one each, but they have access to one. Most of us have family abroad so we use 3G for contacting them, with Viber or WhatsApp or Facebook”.
Surya works at a community radio station, which was unable to broadcast after the quake.
“Nothing was working except Radio Nepal [the national broadcaster],” he said. The absence of local radio, which many people rely upon generally for information, was a problem for communities who felt that national broadcasts, while at times useful, were not always relevant to them. Radio was suddenly unavailable to many Nepalis who had become accustomed pre-quake to accessing it via smartphones apps.
“Of course it would have made a big difference if the phones and 3G were working faster,” Surya said, with rapid agreement from his friends. “When we couldn’t use our phones in the first days we were just communicating with people around us. People represented each village, walking between them to deliver news.”
This worked well, to an extent, but left a lot of room for errors in communication: slow transmission of messages, the spread of rumours and extremely limited reach, confined by geographical proximity. People couldn’t communicate where they were, what they had, and what they needed.
In the first days after the earthquake, when mobile phone networks were down, village representatives walked between villages to deliver and share news. Photo: WFP/ Mariko Hall
Nepal’s mobile network coverage is above 90%, with 3G coverage expanding rapidly, but millions still don’t have individual access. Depending on geographical area, much of the nation’s existing phone coverage (split primarily between two providers, Ncell and Nepal Telecom) was reportedly back up and running – if quite patchy – within a couple of weeks of the earthquake.
In Rasawa, the mobile phone network was restored before electricity was, at least for voice calls, which meant people could use their phones but only until they ran out of charge.
“In the first week after the earthquake, a few local businesses that had generators were letting people charge their phones. They were asking people for 10 rupees (approximately ten US cents) for 20 minutes.”
This was a story echoed across the country. People went to hospitals not just for medical attention, but because they knew that hospitals had to have generators, which meant that they had electricity, which meant that they might be able to charge mobile phones.
People needed their phones for different reasons. They wanted to speak to family and friends in different regions of Nepal – travelling around the country is slow, and difficult, and was near impossible after the earthquake. They wanted to ask questions about assistance (a hotline that was established after the earthquake was very soon overwhelmed). They also needed to contact family abroad; Nepal has, as a percentage of GDP, one of the highest rates of diaspora remittances in the world. Families needed their phones to work so that they could help each other and manage their own situations.
“In our village, there are only a couple of places we can get 3G,” said Surya. “Up on the hill, so when we want to use it we walk up there. After the earthquake we were going up there whenever we could, but it wasn’t working. We all remember the moment when it worked again, because we wanted to cry!”
Months after the quake, standing atop a mountain in Rasawa, I’m introduced to ‘The Facebook song’ in Nepali, some lyrics of which translate to:
I have a mobile phone but there is no electricity
Where am I going to get Internet?
It’s a question being repeated right now by Syrian refugees and displaced people setting up internet cafes and charging stations in Iraq, Kenya and South Sudan. The ability for communities to communicate effectively after disasters, whatever low or high-tech support this demands, is a basic requirement of survival and accountable humanitarian action.
The communications challenges in Nepal highlight many issues, notably the relationship between emergency communications and the availability of safe, off-grid energy solutions.
This presents challenges, but also opportunities for the local economy, humanitarian community, private sector and governments: to improve and safeguard communities’ access to communications networks and shift from delivering aid to ending need.
The Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC), a global network of organisations, is expanding its scope to include services for disaster affected populations, and is working on a preparedness project for Nepal with a focus on community access to communications. You can find out more about ETC and meet Meg Sattler at the upcoming AIDF Asia Summit on 20-21 June 2016 at the United Nations Conference Centre in Bangkok, Thailand.
Article Source: GSMA