How satellite made a difference in Nepal

Almost a year after a massive earthquake struck at the heart of Nepal, the country is still trying to recover. Described as the worst earthquake to hit the area in the past 80 years, with more than 3,000 reported deaths by the United Nations (UN) and thousands of injuries and displacements, we take a look at the role Satellite Technology played in the days and months following the quake.

What is the story of Thuraya’s involvement in the Nepalese earthquake? When did Thuraya step into action in Nepal? What was the process leading up to involvement?

Thuraya’s mission has always been to save and improve lives and our mobile satellite network has played a critical role in times of disaster recovery and relief operations over the years. We are often the first deployed provider of communication services for said operations that fall within our coverage area.

We were heavily involved in disaster response efforts in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in December 2013.
In 2012, The ITU presented us with a Humanitarian Award for our work in supporting communications during disaster recovery and other emergency situations in Japan, Pakistan, Uganda, Myanmar, China, Zambia and Bangladesh.

Nepal was no exception, when the news broke out about the strong and devastating quake we immediately activated our donation policy. We reached out to all of our partners and end users (NGOs, UN-ETC Emergency Telecommunication Cluster, First Responders and Search and rescue teams) to reassure them about the availability of our satellite service in covering the affected area through both data and voice.

We then deployed satellite mobile phones and Broadband terminals to aid in restoring critical communications and help coordinate relief efforts where terrestrial telecommunications infrastructure had been compromised or destroyed.

This deployment to international relief organizations who were on the ground in Nepal took place either directly or through Thuraya Service Partners. Thuraya’s local distributor in Nepal, Constellation, actively supported the deployment of Thuraya terminals.

Additionally, the ITU under its agreement with Thuraya immediately deployed Thuraya terminals to its responders on the ground.

How long was Thuraya active in the response?

Thuraya remained active during the initial few months until terrestrial telecommunications were restored.

Is Thuraya still involved in communications, or are emergency comms no longer needed? 

Thuraya is still heavily involved in Nepal by providing communications to humanitarian organizations who are working on CSR programs for rebuilding remote communities, schools and hospitals. One example of that is our donation to the Himalayanlife Humanitarian organization of a number of Thuraya handsets as well as free airtime.

The Himalayanlife Humanitarian Organization which relies on Thuraya’s donation for communications is currently working on rebuilding the infrastructure in Nepal and has already completed its work on the water canal which is the life line for the village/valley providing both water for rice fields as well as for the electric power plant. The work on schooling has also commenced although in a slightly different form. Due to the insecure paths through the mountains, instead of a central school for the whole valley the organization has now decided to start local schools in the villages themselves, one of them already being fully operational.

Another aspect of our involvement in Nepal, although not currently activated, will involve training and assisting the Nepalese first responders and municipalities on using our equipment and educating them about the importance of pre-deployment and preparedness. This will ultimately take place under the UN’s supervision and as part of the terms of the Crises Connectivity Charter that Thuraya signed in Geneva a few months ago.

Natural disasters are challenging in that they are all so different. What was a challenge that was unique to the situation in Nepal?

It is true that they are all different yet they all have one common element; access to telecommunication services is vital if a community is to get the support it needs.

A major challenge that always hinders quick response is getting equipment across borders, bureaucracy and process can slow things down, as can border controls. Fortunately, for Nepal this wasn’t an issue for us since we have a Service Partner in Katmandu that was able to deliver the equipment to the teams on the ground and helped coordinate with customs clearance.

However, a challenge we did face was the need to educate users in Nepal on how to use our handsets (i.e. handsets to be used outdoors-raise the antenna for signal and better reception – etc…). We eventually managed to overcome this challenge but we realized that SAR teams need to be well-trained, and they need to test their pre-deployed equipment frequently, for operational readiness.

In your opinion, has Nepal progressed in its preparedness for future disasters, or is this an area that needs more improvement?

Nepal is currently listed as one of the 20 areas prone to natural disasters by the UN-ETC-OCHA-ESOA Crises Connectivity Charter. As mentioned previously it is crucial to educate and train first responders, but for communications, pre-deployment is also a key factor that can save lives. 

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