Philippine Floods: The Significance of Social Media for Rescue Efforts

Whem much of Manila was submerged by flood waters forcing public and private services forced to close their doors, users of social media website Twitter  banded together in organising rescue efforts in the Philippine capital.

teady rains over recent days earlier this month have claimed at least 65 lives and forced hundreds of thousands living in the north of the country to flee their homes. Fueled by tropical storm Haikui, flood waters up to three meters high covered Manila, bringing to mind the scenes of devastation across the city in 2009, when typhoon ‘Ketsana’ led to the deaths of over 700 residents.

 As with the events of three years ago, reports of widespread power and telecommunications disruption during the initial days of flooding were rife, with many residents forced to rely on mobile internet devices as their sole source of information.  Social media sites therefore proved an invaluable resource to those on the ground, both in terms of facilitating communication between friends and families, and in organising grass roots relief efforts.

 Operating under hash tag #rescuePH, Twitter users  in Manila engaged in sharing a constant stream of information for authorities and residents to act upon, detailing locations of individuals and families in need of rescue, as well as sharing details of hospitals and other services in desperate need of supplies.

At the peak of activity, new messages were appearing at a rate of several thousand per hour.

 As phone networks begin to be be restored, users have also set up emergency phone lines which can be used both to request aid and report missing persons.

The Philippines once suffered a terrible reputation for telecommunications, or the lack thereof – Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew famously quipped that “98 percent of the population are waiting for a telephone, and the other 2 percent for a dial tone.”  Throughout the 1990s, however, the industry underwent a period of massive liberalisation leading to an explosion in phone ownership and, subsequently, internet connections.

[quote align=”center” color=”#b64736″] A 2011 survey suggested that the Philippines is now the country with the highest levels of social media penetration anywhere in the world with a astonishing 93.9% of internet users signed up to facebook, and 16.1% using Twitter. [/quote]

 This is not the first case of social media sites providing a basis to organisation of a grass roots relief effort.  After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster in the north east of the country, Twitter membership in Japan sky rocketed as the site became an invaluable life line and organisational tool to residents of affected areas.

The platform has proven its usefulness in emergency situations, but it has yet to be seen whether governments will find a way to effectively harness social media as an effective tool in a crisis or whether it will remain a distinctively grass roots phenomenon.

By Sam Jones

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