Blog post

Emergency Telecommunications in the Pacific: Regulation as an instrument for disaster preparedness

By Ria Sen, ETC Preparedness Officer

Risk is real, and rising

While the vulnerability of Pacific Islands varies according to situational factors, they all have something in common: high exposure to a host of hydrometeorological and geological hazards like cyclones, tsunamis and earthquakes.

The facts are sobering. From 1950 to 2011, extreme weather-related events in the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) affected around 9.2 million people, caused 10,000 deaths, and damage of around USD 3.2 billion.[1]

Climate and disaster risk compound the vulnerability of highly exposed Pacific Islands. Climate change threatens the very survival of some of these countries. We know that climate change exacerbates the strength and ups the frequency of natural hazards, which can result in life-changing disasters – leaving death and destruction in their wake. We also know there is a link between climate change and socio-economic systems: sudden and longer-term progressive damage to the natural environment has an equally immutable impact on communities – especially those reliant on the natural environment for livelihoods and subsistence.

From a development standpoint, when adverse impacts are felt at the community-level, this translates into problems at the national – or macro – level. Average annual loss (AAL) is used to understand this damage, in terms of gross domestic product (GDP). In simpler terms, AAL is the expected loss per year, averaged over many years.

Tropical Cyclone Winston is a good example. This Category 5 cyclone struck Fiji in 2016, wiping out 31% of the country’s GDP, estimated at USD 1.38 billion.[2] The situation was even more dismal in the case of the Kingdom of Tonga, with Tropical Cyclone Gita (2018) decimating 37.8% of its GDP. [3]


Figure 1
Figure 1: Average Annual Loss in the South Pacific, classified by type of hazard. Source: United Nations ESCAP (2017), based on EM-DAT data.


[1] World Bank (2016). Pacific Possible: Climate and Disaster Resilience.

[2] Government of Fiji (2016). Post Disaster Needs Assessment: Tropical Cyclone Winston.

[3] Government of Tonga (2018). Post Disaster Rapid Assessment: Tropical Cyclone Gita.

Resilience put to the test

Infrastructure is built along hazard-exposed zones in the Pacific Islands, including coastal areas vulnerable to storm surge and erosion. This is a great threat to people living here. 

Damage or destruction to critical infrastructure – namely telecoms and transportation networks, imperative to the normal day-to-day functioning of society – has the power to debilitate economies. Therefore disaster-resilient critical infrastructure is imperative to prepare for, adapt to, and resume normal operations after a disaster induced by a hazard.[1]

Effective disaster response is a direct function of critical infrastructure that is already operating properly, with the support of related networks and systems.  Global development goals in general, but foremost the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, recognize that resilient infrastructure saves lives and lessens economic losses.

[1] World Bank (2012). Pacific Islands: Disaster Risk Reduction and Financing in the Pacific.

(Tele)communication breakdown

Why does telecoms infrastructure fail after a disaster? For several reasons: its components suffer mild to severe damage, supporting network infrastructure is affected, and networks become overwhelmed.[1] During an emergency response, critical information cannot flow when telecoms infrastructure damaged. And even if technological advancements reinforce disaster resilience and reliability of telecoms networks, the risk of communication failure is still high because of the vulnerabilities mentioned above.

2.	Satellite dish installed by the ETC post Cyclone Pam in Port Vila, Vanuatu. Photo: ETC
Satellite dish installed by the ETC post Cyclone Pam in Port Vila, Vanuatu. Photo: ETC

[1] Townsend, A.M. & Moss, M. L. (2005). Infrastructure in Disasters: Preparing Cities for Crisis Communications.

The wisdom of early warning

A telecoms network is an interdependent system, supported by a backbone of fibre optic components. Infrastructure, such as cell towers, is used to deliver data and cellular services.

Tropical Cyclone Pam hit the Pacific in 2015 and, in her wake, pointed to the implications of an island-wide communications blackout when communities are at their most vulnerable. Cell towers crumbled under Pam’s wrathful Category 5 wind which clocked 250 kmph, and made landlines and cell phones unusable. Satellite phones were used during the emergency operation, but the remotest islands did not have any signal access and could only be reached by VHF radio.

Lessons learned from Pam were applied during Tropical Cyclone Donna, a Category 5 storm that struck the South Pacific in 2017. Donna tore through Vanuatu, devastating infrastructure, but remarkably did not result in fatalities. With a close eye on the storm, the National Disaster Management Office of Vanuatu speedily disseminated advance alerts that warned of Donna and issued mass messages via radio broadcasts and mobile texts to the public. Pam caused 24 deaths, while Donna caused none. The lesson? Early warning systems save lives.

Research attributes the increasing severity and frequency of tropical cyclones to climate change. Early warning systems are a powerful climate change adaptation technique. There is wisdom in making early warnings systems responsive to multiple types of hazard. Cascading or simultaneous occurrences of hazards come to mind; including storm surges, flash floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis.[1]

Figure 2
Figure 2 / Source: International Telecommunication Union (2017). *Note that BCP is business continuity plan and DCP is disaster continuity plan.


[1] World Meteorological Organization (2019). Hazard warnings must reach the last mile, metre and bucket.

Running the last mile

The potential gains in efficiency that come from competition remain unrealized, when certain parts of telecoms infrastructure are not competitive. [1] There is a powerful case to be made for regulating telecoms markets: it introduces and encourage competition, which is widely acknowledged to increase efficiency and benefit consumers. Telecom regulation can also lead to increased investment, lower prices, greater economic growth, improved service quality and accessibility and more rapid technological innovation.[2]

Like the final leg of a race, the so-called “last mile” in the telecoms industry refers to the delivery of services to the customer. Telecom regulators are vital for tackling connectivity challenges in this last mile (see figure 2).

[1] Friederiszick, H., Grajek, M., & Röller L.H. (2008) Analyzing the Relationship between Regulation and Investment in the Telecom Sector.

[2] InfoDev, International Telecommunication Union, and the World Bank (not dated). ICT Regulation Toolkit.

A simulation geared to saving lives

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and Government of Vanuatu co-hosted the Global Symposium for Regulators 2019 (GSR) which saw the global regulatory community descend on Port Vila. Collaborative and innovative approaches to regulation were emphasized at this meeting, as a way of  unlocking the full potential of digital technologies. The GSR-19 adopted the Best Practice Guidelines on fast-forwarding digital connectivity for all.

As part of the practical hands-on component of GSR-19, the World Food Programme-led Emergency Telecommunication Cluster (ETC) ran a simulation exercise to demonstrate that in an emergency (a simulated tropical cyclone), regulatory provisions and guidance (including equipment and frequencies) means time-saving assistance can be delivered to affected communities.

Participants were able to use a real-time polling application to respond to projected regulatory scenarios in a simulated cyclone. “The simulation demonstrated how disaster preparedness is most critical, and is the domain of regulators. Regulators should collaborate cross-sector ally. My country, Vanuatu, is most at-risk from disasters in the world, and we need to be ready for every contingency,” says George Hapsai of the regulatory body in Vanuatu.

“The GSR-19 simulation exercise emphasized the need for better preparedness on proper actions that must be taken when disasters hit,” says Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of the Telecommunication Development Bureau of the ITU. “The simulation illustrated the potential of technology to save lives and showcased the importance of coordination and cooperation, as well as standard operating procedures for disaster response. A key lesson learnt from the exercise is that countries must also put in place regulation and develop national emergency telecommunication plans, for the effective and efficient use of technologies in all phases of disaster management.”

Ria Sen is ETC Preparedness Officer, Technology Division, World Food Programme. Her video reflections on the simulation are here.

Additional References:

Commonwealth Marine Economies Programme, Government of the United Kingdom (2018). Effects of Climate Change Relevant to the Pacific Islands.

Handmer, J. & Nalau, J. (2018). Understanding Loss and Damage in Pacific Small Island Developing States.

Pacific Community (SPC), Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) and University of the South Pacific (USP) (2016). Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific 2017-2030.

Pacific Earthquake Engineering Centre, University of Berkeley (2016). Resilience of Critical Structures, Infrastructure, and Communities.