Social Media for Disaster Management

A Comparison

The recent flooding in Sri Lanka and the manner in which it was dealt with, pushed us to analyse the manners in which other countries, especially Asian countries, had dealt with similar situations before, along with how social media was used for the process. So here’s what we found out.

Nepal Earthquake 2015

Let’s take a quick look at some of the biggest disasters that were experienced by other countries. A good example to start off with would be the unprecedented earthquake that hit Nepal on the 25th April 2015. Immediately a flurry of social media alerts followed and as per records, on the 26th April 2015 a collective force of people united through various social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to help identify, contact, rescue and locate those affected and to warn others who were unaware. The same surge carried on to the next few days where NGOs, brands, politicians and citizens acted together through social media and then came to the assistance of Nepal. On the 29th April 2015, social media industry experts came together via India’s first ever social media panel for disaster management. This panel acted to help create awareness about how people can help during a time of natural disaster and the results were surprising. In comparison, on a positive note, when Sri Lanka was hit by the floods recently,  rescue, donation and awareness efforts were launched on Facebook. These did help to a great extent but it was not strong enough to bring together the relevant authorities, especially the politicians who should be available. The fact that India has established a social media panel for disaster management with panellists representing leading brands, software giants, NGOs and the like says that they recognise how integral social media is in an emergency, Sri Lanka, on the other hand, is some time away from establishing this. The DMC of Sri Lanka only posted images and posts with regard to the disaster and did not take a proactive stance.

Chennai Floods 2015

Another good example would be the Chennai floods that happened during the months of November and December in 2015. The monsoons came in hard on Tamil Nadu that year and by the 01st of December 2015, the city of Chennai was under water, had no electricity and everything from shops to banks were closed down. With no TV and weak radio signals, social media activated on smartphones came to the rescue. It gave out real-time updates and allowed people stay in touch, therefore a charged mobile along with dry rations and water, power banks were distributed among people. The Whatsapp calls persisted even though normal calls would not work and the Facebook Chennai Flood safety check allowed people to mark themselves safe. Twitter helped a lot with #chennairains, #chennaivolunteer, #chennairescue and #chennairainshelp trending fiercely. Facebook became the staple to check anything from rescues to donations. Social media also helped in coordinating volunteer efforts between the NDRF, Army and civilians at a time where normal calls and TV or radio was obsolete. Chennai Rain Relief page created on Facebook gave out important pointers to volunteers and; a Google spreadsheet listed important numbers, requests, medical camps, details of volunteers and everything else needed. Groups like The Pound, The Chennai Adoption Drive, Blue Cross Chennai and others on Facebook helped rescue many stranded animals. In comparison, even though Sri Lanka did come together on social media, the efforts were nowhere near as coordinated. The majority of homes in Sri Lanka use social media only if there are young children, young adults or members who interact on social media. In homes where these categories are missing, the use of social media is quite possibly not much. Sri Lanka struggled to distribute flood relief effectively, owing to the oversight of relevant authorities. What we lack is collaboration, direction and coordination. We also overlook the role of social media and rely too heavily on word of mouth.

Kashmir floods – 2014

Kashmir faced a blackout in all means of communication during the 2014 floods. Twitter and Facebook played a vast role in tracing the people who were stranded in the area. With over 400 people killed, tens of thousands were awaiting rescue efforts. With phones and power lines down, people who were lucky enough to have enough battery and social media on their mobiles reached out to tell their situations and call for help. A good example is a Facebook exchange between the army and a lady whose sister was 09 months pregnant. The soldiers responded immediately and rescued the expecting woman. All distress messages sent into the army were directed to a group that includes senior commanders. The army also posted a list of people rescued on its Facebook accounts to ensure that relatives were informed and would not panic. #Kashmirfloods trended on Twitter bringing in help while Google allied with the National Disaster Response Force to put together a database of missing/stranded individuals. In Sri Lanka, the military forces showed exemplary service by helping out the people who were the toughest to get to. The social media side of it was lacking, however, as there was no database as such maintained to stay updated on missing individuals. However, this could possibly be because of the lack of support from the government and other authorities as the officers of the army, navy and air force seemed to operate out much out of compassion for the people than upon orders. If these rescue groups are given better support and communicated with regularly we too can come up with a real-time social media database to keep civilians informed. If social media was implemented correctly and effectively, especially with the forces, it would ensure the correct distribution of donations to those in need as people can be informed via live updates, the military could reach out to civilians if some areas need more help than others etc. This did not happen in 2016 or 2017.

Social media for disaster management

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A few other examples

  • Tasmanian bushfire – 2013: victims used mobiles to alert others and get updates on social media. The government used social media to send out accurate information in a timely manner.
  • Kenya’s post-election crisis – 2008: Ushahidi was a “map app” created in Kenya to deal with the economic, political and humanitarian crisis that it was going through. The app permitted users to find info on acts of violence and peace efforts. The app has been put to use since in, Malawi, Uganda, Zambia and Congo.
  • Great East Japan Earthquake – 2011: the gigantic earthquake was followed by a tsunami that led to a nuclear outbreak. With traditional means of communication redundant, social media powered through. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Youtube raised awareness. Funds were raised through these sites. Operation Yashima and Operation Ueshima were created through social media and were successful. built on Ushahidi and with the help of Google maps created a crisis map with useful resources and locations stated.

When considering all of the above examples among numerous others that we came across, it is clear that Sri Lanka does undermine the role of social media in disaster management. Social media is used in almost every home but it may not be used effectively.

The first step would be ideally, to educate and create awareness among the general public of Sri Lanka on how to use social media in a time of crisis and how to reach out for help or to others. The next has to be from the government and especially the Ministry of Disaster Management. The authorities need to be hands-on and use social media to get any help they can as well as to communicate to people with reliable facts and information.

People in the very remote areas of Sri Lanka could be protected if we too, create a social media panel for disaster management that can keep them aware of any impending natural disasters, or help them prepare and face one safely.

Information shared by the general public during a time of crisis needs to be correct, reliable and verified. The details shared should help those affected positively and not be income generators for parties. For this, the correct and ethical use of social media during a time of crisis needs to be told and established among people.

There is no island-wide coordinated support plan or network that will assist victims in unforeseen disasters. There needs to be one. Two years of flooding back to back with hundreds of thousands of people displaced should indicate this. And, what better way to implement an island-wide response and support network, if not for social media?


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