On Saturday, Nepal was struck by a massive earthquake that scored 7.8 on the Richter scale and caused widespread devastation in densely populated areasand to prevent aid workers from reaching more isolated villages in the mountain regions. From TuesdayAt least 5,000 people were dead and at least 10,000 were injured. Hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless.
In any natural disaster, communication can often become a matter of life and death. When phone lines are broken and cell towers collapse, it becomes much more difficult to relay messages to the outside world and coordinate rescue efforts. On top of that, The Nepalese government is completely unprepared dealing with such a humanitarian crisis and there is chaos.
Still, some volunteers try to impose order on the chaos. After the quake that struck cities in India as well as Nepal, volunteer amateur radio operators from India traveled to the region to relay messages from areas whose communications infrastructure is broken or overloaded. Amateur radio, also called amateur radiois a means of sending and receiving messages over a specific radio frequency and is often used in disaster situations because it works well isolated from the mains. Transceivers can be powered by generators and placed almost anywhere.
Ham radio has faded into the background with hobbyists in the past few decades as other wireless means of communication have become cheaper and easier for people to use (you don’t need a special license from the FCC to operate a cellphone, although sometimes it seems we’d be better off if that were the rule). The decline in participation rates in the US is unlikely to change significantly Times of India listed Ham radio awareness is still low in and around India. Nevertheless, it has proven to be an effective means of communication in Nepal over the past few days.
Ars spoke to Jim Linton (whose callsign is VK3PC), the chairman of the Region 3 Disaster Communications Committee of the International Amateur Radio Union (IRAU)to get a feel for what kind of information amateur radio operators are getting (Region 3 spans the vast Asia-Pacific region; Linton is based in Australia). Later in the day, Linton received updates from Jayu Bhide (callsign VU2JAU), the National Disaster Communications Coordinator for the Amateur Radio Society of India. Bhide had frequent contact with local people in the mountainous regions of Nepal, which were hardest hit.
To this day, Bhide told Linton, rescue teams are still struggling to find missing people in the ruins. In one case, a hotel with four doctors was demolished during the quake. Only one of the doctors survived and he stationed himself in a Red Cross facility across from the destroyed hotel. “The flights from Kathmandu Airport were delayed and people were stranded [in] several places, ”added Bhide. “More than 17 Red Cross camps have been set up.”
“The situation is still chaotic,” Linton wrote to Ars this morning. “The Nepalese government has asked all people to stay out of buildings because they are unsafe.”
By Tuesday morning, four amateur radio operators from the Indian region of Gujarat and four others from North Delhi have left to set up stations in critical locations in Nepal. Three operators, including Bhide, said they are setting up radio frequency and radio frequency stations on the border between India and Nepal.
In the midst of the chaos, many Nepalis have difficulty sending messages to family members in other countries. The Los Angeles Times noted that the disaster exacerbated the economic problems of an already poor country that has long depended on foreign aid and remittances from family members working outside of Nepal. Bhide told Linton Tuesday that much of his job had been forwarding inquiries from family members overseas looking for news about their families. “A lot of messages are piling up to be forwarded to Nepal to find missing people,” said Bhide.
“Many other HAMs were busy relaying messages and relaying them to relatives,” Linton wrote to Ars.
According to a January 2015 report from the Nepal Telecommunications Authority (PDF), only three percent of the Nepalese population trusted landline telephone services such as Public Switched Telephone Network (PTSN) or Wireless Local Loop (WLL) Lines. In contrast, 86 percent of the population said they rely on cellphone services to communicate. 39 percent of the population said they had Internet access. It is unclear how much of this communication infrastructure will remain intact.
Bhide noted, “The Nepalese Ministry has also been asked to make mobile roaming free so that both Indian and other cell phones can be used. This will reduce the burden on wireless communication. “He added on Tuesday,” Cellular networks and some phone lines have been restored in some places along with power. “
New technology, same problems
In areas where the internet is still accessible, some solutions for determining the safety of family members have emerged. The The International Red Cross quickly set up a website Which family members outside the disaster area can report people they are still looking for. People who are safe in Nepal can report their safety on the website.Restoring family links,” also.
Facebook has also dusted off its “Safety Check” function. announced in October 2014This prompts people who are alleged to be in an affected area to confirm that they will be safe in the event of a natural disaster, so friends and family around the world will not worry.
While this feature is well-intentioned, it is not a perfect solution for distributing information other than Internet access issues.
Personally, I noticed the feature on Sunday when I received a message in my feed that Sonia Paul, a former colleague of mine who has been working in India for a number of years, was classified as “safe”. She had listed Lucknow, India – a city that was destroyed by the quake – as the locationBut when I wrote to her a day later, she said that she worked in Mumbai and was never in danger.
Even so, she received messages from concerned friends who assumed the warning was that she was in the midst of disaster. Her concern, she said, was sweet but unnecessary – she just clicked on Facebook’s automatic notification and didn’t realize that it was causing such confusion. “It wasn’t bad, just confusing,” said Paul. “ONAnd that is the nature of our life, that people move around a lot and are not always up to date [Facebook]. “
In contrast, a friend from Mumbai hiked in the mountains where the earthquake was felt. But because he listed his hometown as Mumbai, Paul said, “I didn’t know if he was okay until I got WhatsApped him.”
While the new feature of Facebook is neat in theory, in practice it is difficult and not always possible to reduce an active confirmation of a person’s wellbeing after a disaster to an algorithm. Sometimes it takes a handful of volunteers using decades of technology.