International day for disaster reduction: Three big lessons from tackling disaster and climate information issues in East Africa
Taji, a young boy in Nairobi, Kenya, sits outside his flooded classroom. School’s out, but not by choice. Cycles of floods and droughts have hit major African cities like Nairobi. And when disasters strike, students like Taji — and people all around the world — have learned that reliable information from the media and disaster preparedness saves lives.
Myth-prone subjects like disaster risk management (DRM) and climate change adaptation (CCA) highlight that the media has a distinct role to play in informing, educating and enlightening the public with credible information, particularly in this era of fake news and misinformation.
Many Africans recognize this, and East Africa is particularly doubling down on tackling climate change, disaster, and other information challenges. Recently, I had an opportunity to work with organizations partnering with public and private media, civil society, disaster management agencies and governments in the region to find solutions to these challenges.
The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) is collaborating with changemakers from the media, civil society organizations, climate and disaster management agencies, and the governments of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda. The goal is to overcome challenges and find solutions to disasters and climate change adaptation challenges in East Africa. This is especially important because knowledge and information saves lives. And could save yours.
To target the information distortions and dissemination issues challenging African media, agencies, and communities, game changers in East Africa are working together to strategically understand and utilize existing opportunities for positive impact in disaster management and climate change adaptation, which makes a difference in all areas of life. From this, I explored these questions and learned three big lessons:
With fake news and “alternative facts” circulating, how does credible information get to vulnerable people when disasters strike?
Lesson 1: Credibility brings credence. Linking people to credible information sources is key to building trust and then conviction in facts. Credible, accurate and reliable information is crucial to preparing for disaster risks, managing climate challenges and achieving overall development. East Africa, perhaps more than other regions of Africa, is plagued by fake news. To counter this, people and communities need access to the most credible disaster forecasting and climate information to make decisions when disasters strike, so IGAD set up the Climate Prediction and Applications Centre (ICPAC) and is engaging disaster and climate experts and media in the region through its Climate Outlook Forum. These forums inform relevant stakeholders such as community groups, the media, civil society, disaster management, and government agencies of disaster forecasts and climate reporting for the region. Engagements like these inform people of the implications of climate change and impending disasters, but do they actually work? The region has started seeing some successes, as country-specific disaster monitoring is on the rise, and as the public takes increasing interest in becoming resilient against disaster risks and adapting to climate change.
What makes information accessible?
Lesson 2: Accessibility is essential. Even with credible information, the lack of access to information can present a challenge. Information should be distributed through various platforms; via digital media, print, terrestrial and multimedia platforms. In East Africa, people drive effective information via the web, where citizens get to decide what trends. Social media spaces connect disaster agencies to the public, fueled by credible media sources from each country. In East Africa, progress is reflected on platforms like Twitter and WhatsApp, where the public, the media and technical experts converge to exchange information and updates that bolster resilience efforts.
How does climate and disaster information become mainstream and relevant to everyone?
Lesson 3: Relevance Rules. Disasters don’t discriminate. Disaster and climate risks affect everyone. The media must cover what people find relevant and valuable. If overwhelming public interest slants toward a particular issue — like climate change — the media will be forced to cover whatever the public finds relevant. This includes reporting on life-saving information and presenting credible details to myth-prone topics like climate and disaster risks. People should be ready to own the information space even before a disaster strikes, so that the most vulnerable people, like children, the physically challenged and the elderly can have access to relevant, credible, vital information and make critical, life-saving actions in the nick of time. To see real impact in disaster risk management and climate adaptation, people must be equipped to be heralds of DRM & CCA activities within their communities, and East Africa has the blueprint to make this happen.
This international day for disaster risk reduction, the world focuses on reducing disaster damage to infrastructure and limit the disruption of basic and essential services in education, healthcare, and in all spheres of life. This includes schools like Taj’s, so that children, and other vulnerable populations like the elderly and the physically challenged can make informed decisions, take life-saving action, and withstand extreme climate and weather conditions.
In Africa, there’s still a lot to accomplish, but the continent is strategically becoming more resilient. Particularly, East Africa is well on its way to mainstreaming disaster management and climate change adaptation. This means credible, life-saving information is more likely to get to those who need it. IGAD has set up a blog to highlight East Africa’s journey toward becoming better equipped for the future, and other regions of Africa are on the same journey. With these changes and more unfolding, Africa is gearing up for a better, stronger, more resilient future.