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Indigenous knowledge should be harnessed to new technologies to help break the cycle of natural calamities in Africa, according to Juliana Rotich, executive director of Ushahidi, a Nairobi-based online open source software developer.

A great deal of indigenous knowledge existed on natural disasters, she told SciDev.Net at the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi today (14 December). It needed only to be collected, analysed by experts, put in usable format, and made available to people.

"Whether it is for tsunamis, drought, hunger, floods,” she said, "there is need for early warnings to prepare people, something only possible with sound information and environmental policies."

In parts of Sub Saharan African famine occurred almost annually, "yet we seem to be stuck in a perpetual state of lack of preparedness, with grave consequences such as loss of lives".

That was why disaster preparedness and building people’s resilience to cope with natural calamities should be prioritised in environmental policymaking. 

Helena Molin Valdes, director of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Preparedness, agreed that improving access to information was key in dealing with disasters.

"There is a communication gap that leaves people, especially the poor, vulnerable to natural disasters," she said.

In urban centres, she said, one of the biggest problems was that city managers did not have systems that worked with the people in the case, for example, of flash floods in poor neighbourhoods: managers should base their actions on the information provided by local people.

"We need to study environmental cycles, listen to historical information and then put that information into mapping for disaster preparedness and management," she said. 

It was also important to invest in capacity building, continuing acquisition of data, and the maintenance and management of information, according to Milen Dyoulgerov, a World Bank expert in adaptation and disaster risk management. 

In addition, he said, "from satellite stations you need sensors on the ground, but even more crucial is the acquisition of the right technologies and their maintenance for management of disasters."

For example, he said, it was ridiculous to see US$5 million worth of equipment lying idle because of lack of electricity in a developing country while disasters wrought havoc and people were suffering. 

Such technologies needed to be location-specific, user-appropriate and meeting the objectives of the people among whom they were to be deployed.

"Solutions must come from local communities, local and national governments then to global partnerships," he said.

Peter Gilruth, director of UNEP’s early warning and assessment division, said developing systems for warning people of pending disasters and providing information on how to cope should be a priority for governments and other stakeholders.

He pointed out that the task would be made easier by the speed with which information and communication technologies such as cell phones were spreading in Africa and other developing countries.  

Gilruth emphasised the importance of flexible, varied responses to disasters: "Create options, not just one."