Devastating rainfall followed by treacherous landslides have killed 210 people since August 8 and displaced over a million in the southern Indian state of Kerala. India's National Disaster Relief Force launched its biggest ever rescue operation in the state, evacuating over 10,000 people. The Indian army and the navy were deployed as well.
But they had some unexpected assistance.
Thousands of Indian citizens used mobile phone technology and social media platforms to mobilize relief efforts.
Some of them lent a hand to bigger players who'd stepped in. Charity organizations such as World Vision, which has been operating in India since the 1950s, used its website, to collect donations for relief kits. Many [victims of the flood] leave home with just the clothes on their back," says Cherian Thomas, national director, World Vision India. "We identify the most vulnerable communities and provide for their immediate needs. Our emergency kits prioritize items that these displaced people would find helpful — food, dry clothes, bedding, mosquito repellent, toothbrushes, paste and soap." World Vision was one of four charities asking people to donate money to pay for these relief kits through Amazon.in. Just a few days after the flooding, they had received enough funding for over 10,000 kits.
In many other cases, it was ordinary folk who harnessed social media and their own resources to play a role in relief and rescue efforts.
As the scope of the disaster became clear, the state government of Kerala reached out to software engineers from around the world. They joined hands with the state-government-run Information Technology Cell, coming together on Slack, a communications platform, to create the website www.keralarescue.in
The website allowed volunteers who were helping with disaster relief in Kerala's many flood-affected districts to share the needs of stranded people so that authorities could act.
Johann Binny Kuruvilla, a travel blogger, was one of many volunteers. He put in 14-hour shifts at the District Emergency Operations Center in Ernakulam, Kochi.
The first thing he did, he says, was to harness the power of Whatsapp, a critical platform for dispensing information in India. He joined five key Whatsapp groups with hundreds of members who were coordinating rescue and relief efforts. He sent them his number and mentioned that he would be in a position to communicate with a network of police, army and navy personnel. Soon he was receiving an average of 300 distress calls a day from people marooned at home and faced with medical emergencies.
No one trained volunteers like Karuvilla. "We improvised and devised our own systems to store data," he says. He documented the information he received on Excel spreadsheets before passing them on to authorities.
He was also the contact point for INSPIRE, a fraternity of mechanical engineering students at a government-run engineering college at Barton Hill in Kerala. The students told him they had made nearly 300 power banks for charging phones, using four 1.5 volt batteries and cables, and, he says, "asked us if we could help them airdrop it to those stranded in flood-affected areas." A power bank could boost a mobile phone's charge by 20 percent in minutes, which could be critical for people without access to electricity. Authorities agreed to distribute the power banks, wrapping them in bubble wrap and airdropping them to areas where people were marooned.
Some people took to social media to create awareness of the aftereffects of the flooding.
Anand Appukuttan, 38, is a communications designer. Working as a consultant he currently lives in Chennai, 500 miles by road from Kerala, and designs infographics, mobile apps and software for tech companies. Appukuttan was born and brought up in Kottayam, a city in South West Kerala. When he heard of the devastation caused by the floods, he longed to help. A group of experts on disaster management reached out to him over Facebook on August 18, asking if he would share his time and expertise in creating flyers for awareness; he immediately agreed.
"I hadn't even met the people who asked me to volunteer," he says. "But they struck a chord with me, because I was wondering, apart from financial help, what else could I do? And here was someone offering me a chance to share my skills through social media to make a real difference."
For the next three days, Appukuttan and a team called Kerala Designers Collaborative compiled vital information in the form of infographics. Topics ranged for how to assess your car after floods ("check for lizards, venomous snakes, mold growth in the vehicle and remove moisture content from the lights) to burying animal bodies to prevent the spread of disease (tip: dig a 4-foot-deep pit, preferably at least 24 feet away from a well and as far as possible from the house. Cover the carcass with lime powder and two and a half feet of soil). The infographics were translated into five Indian languages.
As the waters receded, ordinary citizens tweeted about where to go for free medical care and other services.
Others lobbied to raise relief material, like sanitary napkins:
As reports came in about the mounting plastic garbage in Kerala's capital city, citizens tweeted to mobilize support for clean-up efforts.
But social media campaigning wasn't without its share of controversy. Some people spread controversial messages on WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter. They claimed that Kerala's suffering was a result of divine retribution for eating beef. Eating beef is considered a taboo by many of India's Hindu population. But people pushed back on the same platforms, shaming trolls and debunking rumors.
As people across Kerala are now rebuilding their lives, aid specialists are assessing the role played in relief efforts by mobile phone technology and social media. Jayendra Prachabakesan, founder of the disaster relief charity the Bhoomika Trust, says that it's heartening that younger people are now more involved in relief efforts. During these floods, Bhoomika publicized helpline numbers using social media, which helped in the coordination of the rescue of pregnant women, dialysis patients and the elderly.
"From sourcing of relief material to transporting it to those in need, social media's reach has been considerable, especially in recent disasters," he says.
Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, India, who has written for The International New York Times, BBC Travel and Forbes India. You can follow her @kamal_t.