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Tropical Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu on March 13, 2015. Cutting a line of destruction across the eastern side of Vanuatu’s archipelago of islands, it was one of the worst natural disasters in Vanuatu’s history and the third most intense storm ever to occur in the southern hemisphere.

Since 2014, Akvo has been working with the government of Vanuatu and UNICEF Pacific to map all the Water points in Vanuatu. Vanuatu’s Department of Geology, Mines and Water Resources (DGMWR) and UNICEF have been closely involved in the response effort to Cyclone Pam. From the very early stages of this natural disaster, Akvo staff have been actively supporting our partners in Vanuatu with the recovery efforts, on the ground and from afar.

Directly supporting a disaster response has been a new and enlightening experience for the Akvo team. We learned a lot while working with our partners in Vanuatu over the last month and would like to share some of our observations from this process. Here’s a timeline of events and activities from our perspective.

Timeline

Week 1 – mapping
In the days immediately following 13 March, it became clear that there was widespread damage in Vanuatu and our first reaction as a team was “how can we help?” After discussions with our partners, we concluded that the best avenue of support in the initial stages would be to provide maps of available data relating to water points and sanitation systems in affected areas. This, we hoped, would assist in identifying the areas in most need of emergency water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) supplies. We formed a small support team consisting of people in Amsterdam, India, Indonesia and Australia and worked round-the-clock, handing over tasks across timezones as one region finished the day and another started. Within days we had a great set of maps to share with the teams in Vanuatu and those supporting them.

Above: an example of a map we produced in the first few days after Cyclone Pam struck to support our partners in Vanuatu in their relief efforts.
Below: a briefing for response team members in Port Vila. Photo by Aulia Rahman.

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Two things became obvious during these early stages. First, it quickly became clear that there were two facets of the emergency response – one on the ground in Vanuatu and one on the outside – and the limited communication between the two made it difficult to provide targeted and effective support as an outsider. This is natural, given that communication systems were initially limited and those on the ground were so busy responding to things around them that they had little time to communicate with the outside world.

Second, in the early days, the roles and responsibilities of those supporting from outside Vanuatu were quite fluid and organic. It appeared that if an organisation offered a quick fix to a problem they could be propelled to playing a critical role, only to disappear again the following day. Again, this is completely understandable given that there are limited resources available in the immediate aftermath of a disaster and any solution that presents itself is quickly adopted.

In combination, these experiences highlight how difficult it can be to coordinate and communicate during a disaster. They also show how much pressure is placed on in-country teams, who have to respond to the crisis around them while also managing a flood of external support.

Week 2 – preparing for emergency data collection
After the initial mapping exercise was complete, we started thinking about the potential to use Akvo FLOW for assessing damage in the wake of the cyclone.

Akvo formed a partnership with the Vanuatu Government and UNICEF Pacific early last year to support a nationwide water inventory project. Since our first training session in June 2014, staff from DGMWR, UNICEF and ADRA have been using Akvo FLOW and RSR on the ground in Vanuatu for data collection and information sharing.

Natural disasters are never far from people’s minds in this part of the world. Volcanic activity is common in Vanuatu, as are earthquakes and tropical cyclones. Before visiting Vanuatu early this year, Akvo’s tools were already being trialled for rapid assessments of disaster-caused damage and part of our training in February was dedicated to rapid data collection, analysis and presentation of results.

Although there was still work to be done in preparing to use Akvo FLOW in a real disaster response, we, alongside our counterparts at UNICEF and DGMWR, concluded that the most critical pieces of the puzzle were in place (i.e. experienced Akvo FLOW users and a set of mobile devices that had been used for previous data collection exercises) and the rest could be managed by sending a small Akvo team to Vanuatu to oversee the process. We also planned a variety of contingencies to reduce the chance of hiccups during such a time-critical data collection exercise. These included sending Akvo FLOW assessment teams into the field with mobile power banks to recharge phones where necessary (given that teams would be in the field for multiple days and many rural areas were still without power) and providing each assessor with a set of paper surveys for use as a last resort.

Week 3 – rapid training and rollout
Within 48 hours of receiving the final green light to proceed, Aulia Rahman and I were travelling to Port Vila. Over the following days, we prepared devices, finalised the WASH assessment survey that would be used in the field and provided training and briefing for the WASH assessors taking part in the data collection exercise. Each WASH assessor then took up a position in one of 22 multisectoral teams (including separate assessors for thematic issues like food security, health, education etc) and each team was sent to a distinct region in Vanuatu.

Below left: the logistics plan created by the central disaster management office for completing the damage assessments was, in itself, an achievement worth noting. It incorporated military forces from numerous countries and a variety of helicopters, planes and ships that were used to “insert”, “reposition” and “extract” each of the teams.
Below right: preparing smartphones for Akvo FLOW training and field use. Photo by Aulia Rahman.

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Providing training and support during the crisis was a unique experience. Arriving in Port Vila at night, it was surreal to see the spectres of military aircraft on the runway and surrounding airport grounds. Even more surreal was the disjunct between the capital, which appeared to be quickly returning to business as usual, and the rest of the country, particularly the southern and eastern parts, which were still very much in the process of recovering.

Biggest challenges
The biggest challenge was managing the lack of time that people had available. As expected, everyone involved in the disaster response was already juggling a myriad of other tasks and, to ensure we weren’t a burden, it was important that we operated as independently as possible. We spent a lot of time working out of our hotel room and quickly revised our proposed training schedule and turned it into a “briefing” to reduce the time imposition on those involved.


Speaking with various people about their experiences in Vanuatu after Tropical Cyclone Pam (and with others who have worked in disaster response efforts elsewhere), I got the sense that being part of a response effort in the place you live and work is a very difficult task. As was the case immediately after Tropical Cyclone Pam, there are waves of new people appearing on a daily basis and disappearing soon after. First it was the media, who showed up very quickly after the storm to take photos and videos of the damage and interview local communities and NGO workers, and then they disappeared. Then a number of regional political figures and donors landed to pledge support, and then they disappeared. Next it was international military forces, global disaster response teams and volunteers. In fact, by the time we landed in Port Vila, the people we were meeting had already coordinated, welcomed, liaised with and briefed hundreds of new arrivals, all of whom brought great energy and intention and then left again. While I wouldn’t say that we were completely self-sufficient during our trip, I took comfort in the fact that we had already set things up prior to the disaster and had the relationships and experience in place to begin working with the WASH assessment teams as soon as we landed. This ensured that we could focus on preparations without causing too much disruption to our partners.

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Above: we revised our proposed training schedule and turned it into a “briefing” to reduce the time imposition on those involved. Photos by Aulia Rahman.

Week 4 – finalising assessments and creation of Vanuatu WASH scorecards
Due to the number and spread of Vanuatu’s many islands, the logistical arrangements for the 22 assessment teams had to be split into two rounds. Aulia and I stayed in Vanuatu long enough to ensure that the first round of data collection was completed smoothly before returning home to support the second round remotely.

Given that the WASH assessors were the only sector collecting data via mobile phone (where assessors for all other sectors were using paper), the logistics plan required that all teams be brought back to Port Vila, along with their valuable data, as quickly as possible. In a perfect world, all data would have been collected via smart phone and uploaded directly from the field, reducing the need for such complex logistics. Nevertheless, the plan allowed us to simplify our process significantly and I was very satisfied with how smoothly it all went. There were a few cases where responses needed to be completed or revised after assessors returned from the field and a few gps points that needed to be added manually but the data was generally of high quality and assessors were very positive about their experience in using the Akvo FLOW system in this setting.

As soon as the WASH assessment teams were back from the field we started working on the data and within days of the final assessor returning to Port Vila we had an analysed dataset and a set of slides with a dashboard-style scorecard system for each island. The data provides valuable insights into the relative state of water, sanitation and hygiene systems across cyclone-damaged parts of Vanuatu and will help guide efforts to support longer-term recovery. It is also a massive leap forward compared to the all-too-familiar stories of similar paper-based damage assessments taking years to be transcribed and analysed.

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Above: we developed a dashboard-style scorecard in Akvo FLOW for each island in Vanuatu. (Clicking on this image takes you to a map of all the data collected in Vanuatu via Akvo FLOW to date. Click on the orange circle points to open the data clusters.)
Below: this map overlays the original waterpoint data collected in 2014 with the damage assessment points. Clicking each of the red points brings up key information from each site (which was then aggregated for the island scorecards.)

Although Akvo’s tools were not initially conceived to assist during disasters, mobile-based tools are perfectly suited to improve emergency responsiveness. As a colleague from UNICEF commented during our recent time in Vanuatu, mobile infrastructure is resilient, quick to repair and often the first priority after a disaster. In a time critical situation such as natural disaster response, the added speed and accuracy of mobile data collection is highly valuable.

Groundwork
The recent success in Vanuatu is a strong test case. It provides compelling evidence that mobile-based data collection systems hold significant value during disaster response activities, particularly if a coordinated approach is adopted across a country’s disaster management ecosystem. However, these systems are not a quick fix and preparation is key. This exercise would not have been possible without the prior existence of trained, experienced Akvo FLOW users and systems to support them.

The Vanuatu emergency response has also highlighted the importance of mobile-based infrastructure-mapping projects, such as the electronic water inventory that DGMWR has been working on. The Vanuatu water point data collected over the last year using Akvo FLOW was an incredibly valuable resource when overlayed with other data related to the disaster. By understanding the types of water source available to each community and the nature of damage, response teams can quickly prioritise their activities towards, for example, those communities that are heavily reliant on rainwater harvesting but have sustained damage to roof structures.

The credit for making this happen goes to our partners in Vanuatu, in particular DGMWR, UNICEF Pacific and ADRA. We would like to thank them for their hard work and ongoing support.

Here are Aulia’s and my flickr sets from our trip. 

Stefan Kraus is a programme manager at Akvo, based in Canberra, Australia. You can follow him on Twitter @StefanGK