Page last updated at 08:12 GMT, Tuesday, 1 July 2008 09:12 UK

Building Burma's digital front line

Two months after Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma aid is slowly continuing to reach the affected people.

Helping coordinate the relief effort are a small team of emergency telecoms specialists.

John Bursa of the UN's World Food Programme is one of the few who have worked in the affected region.

 woman holds her boy in  Myasein Kan in the Ayeyarwaddy delta
Much of the infrastructure has been washed away

It is difficult to appreciate the scale of the disaster in Burma until you see it with your own eyes.

Whole villages had been washed away, rice paddies were inundated with salt water and the entire infrastructure of the Delta region had either been damaged or destroyed.

In total, more than 90,000 people were killed, while more than 56,000 are still missing.

Of the 1.5 million survivors who are in need of aid, many have been left with nothing; in some cases they barely even have clothes on their back.

When confronted by situations like this it is difficult to see a way forward for the affected population.

This was the scene that met us when we arrived to begin the relief effort, some weeks after the cyclone struck.

It is our role to build and coordinate the emergency telecommunications infrastructure.

Although this may not sound like a priority - perhaps compared to food, water and medicine - it is vital.

Without communication it is nearly impossible to co-ordinate the relief effort over such a large and logistically complex area.

Charities, NGOs and government need to be able to talk in order to plan, avoid duplication and ensure that life-saving activities and distribution of aid are as effective as possible.

Network failure

But in the case of the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, just getting to the affected region proved to be a challenge.

It took time for us to be granted visas and clearance to enter the delta, holding up the response.

And, even when we did get the necessary permissions, we found even moving around was difficult.

John Bursa
The Monsoon rains were unrelenting, soaking staff and equipment
John Bursa
World Food Programme

Damage to the roads meant a usual 2 to 3 hour vehicle trip had doubled, with some routes impassable. Even within towns, roads were either flooded or simply washed away.

The lack of bridges and the poor state of others meant that larger equipment had to be dispatched over a number of days in separate vehicles, rather than by one truck.

And when we finally reached the region we found the wrath of Nargis had also struck at the heart of the telecommunications infrastructure.

Cellular towers had been toppled, while the public telephone network was either damaged or totally destroyed, rendering post-disaster communications defunct.

But within the first week of aid workers arriving, we had the beginnings of a network with voice and data facilities in the main co-ordination hubs of Laputta and Bogale.

These relied on small, portable satellite links called "BGans", a key part of our rapid deployment kits. These bags of equipment are kept on permanent standby, ready to be deployed within 24 hours of an emergency.

Although the satellite units provide a much-needed link when nothing else will do, they are expensive to use.

So, within days the team had started to put in place larger, more permanent and cost- effective satellite dishes.

This turned out to be no easy task.

'Vital links'

The Monsoon rains were unrelenting, soaking staff and equipment. Any break, no matter how brief, had to be capitalised upon.

Children with ration packs
Telecommunications are vital for distributing aid

A short dry spell would be followed by bursts of frenetic activity, whether during the day or at 4 o'clock in the morning. In between, tired staff would retreat to cramped offices to snatch an hour or two of sleep.

But the work paid off. In the end we were able to install large capacity satellite dishes in five humanitarian centres across the Delta: Laputta, Bogale, Pyapon, Mawlamgyun and Pathein.

These VSAT units provided a critical boost to the bandwidth, allowing the increasing numbers of humanitarian workers reaching the area to transmit key data and statistics on the needs of the struggling villagers who survived the disaster.

Indeed, the World Food Programme's Director in Burma believes these vital links helped facilitate the delivery of thousands of tons of food aid to the worst affected areas.

Statistics like this show the importance of a fast and reliable emergency telecom response.

Along with partners from the United Nations Foundation and Vodafone Group Foundation, we had already in place a programme to train IT specialists. (Coincidentally, the second such training course was underway soon after the Burma cyclone.)

The intensive two-week course is designed to improve cooperation between different aid groups and ensure that telecoms specialists are ready to be deployed as fast and effectively as possible.

We can't prevent natural disasters from happening, but training means that when one does occur, the humanitarian community can deliver life-saving assistance as fast as possible.

John Bursa is the World Food Programme's Regional Telecommunications Officer, with responsibility for Emergency Telecommunications in the Asia/Pacific region.

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