SMSs could save lives in flood-prone Africa

Residents of rural African villages would receive SMS notification when severe weather conditions are expected. (Gallo)

Residents of rural African villages would receive SMS notification when severe weather conditions are expected. (Gallo)

An early warning system that aims to capitalise on the explosive growth of mobile phone penetration in Africa could soon be in place to broadcast alerts to all users at risk from natural disasters such as flooding or hurricanes.

Millions of people in Africa have limited access to televisions, radio and the internet but cellphone ownership has grown exponentially, even in poor remote villages at risk from floods.

Now Spanish cellphone company Nvia has developed the Gooard project, a technology based on geo-targeted alerts that sends SMSs to a specific geographical area.

A network of satellites and weather stations will detect the threat and send a text to villagers within 15 minutes, hopefully allowing time for evacuation.

"The technology is able to identify all the active cellphones in a certain area, such as a shopping mall, a village or a park, and send messages straight to the terminal without any previous subscription," said Nvia Africa manager Alberto Perez.

"With the same system, we can also send vital information to people about natural disasters that can save their lives and minimise damages."

The technology is already in use in other parts of the world for promotional purposes – bombarding consumers in a specific shopping mall with a special offer for example.

And even in remote Africa, cellphone communications can reach parts of the continent that other systems can't access.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) estimates that cellphone penetration has risen to around 63% on the continent and much higher in South Africa.

"In Africa, especially in poor settlements, the population has limited access to internet, radio or television, but everybody has a mobile phone. That's why the platform can be so useful in the continent," said Perez.

After years of research, the scheme is already fully operational in Europe and is expected to be rolled out in Kenya by the end of the year.

Local partnerships
​It is expected to work in partnership with local cellphone networks such as Airtel, Vodafone, Orange, MTN and Cell C.

Perez said the service would be free for citizens, but declined to comment on how much it could cost for governments or how it would be sponsored.

"It is an expensive service, but governments know that it can be vital for its population, and it can also save a lot of money in emergency relief," he said.

South Africa's environmental affairs department and the national secret services agency have shown interest in the project. Nvia is preparing to showcase it formally to the government, said Perez.

Heavy rains killed 32 people in South Africa in the first two weeks of March, in record downpours that weather experts say were the worst in more than a decade.

Natural disasters in Africa accounted for just less than a third of worldwide victims, with around 38-million people affected in 2012, according to the Catholic University of Louvain's last Annual Disaster Statistical Review.

Natural disasters in Africa caused about $803-million in damage, according to estimates by the Belgian university.
– Sapa-AFP

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