Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Computers Against Climate Change

Written by on . Published in Searchlight.

Bridging the digital divide is vital for empowering people in Southeast Asia against global warming.

Mr. Sudono Perkasa is a small rice farmer in Lovino, a coastal town in the north of Bali in Indonesia. Together with his income from the sale of tourist merchandise, Mr. Sudono earns about US$ 250 a month to support himself, his wife and their two sons. The family owns two prepaid cellphones, but no computer, laptop or smart-phone. Once in a while, the oldest son is treated to an hour at the local Internet cafe which charges US$ 1 per hour. This is all the access that Mr. Sudano and his family have to the world wide web. It isn’t much.

As the December 2010 issue of Asian Trends Monitoring explains, however, Mr. Sudano’s story is typical for the vast majority of households in Indonesia. 19 million of them, about 40 percent of the entire population, are without electricity, let alone Internet. In Myanmar and Cambodia, it’s over 75 percent who have no access to electricity. In other countries of the Southeast Asian region, the rates are higher, but there is often no guarantee of stability. In parts of the Philippines, for instance, even after the dry season which damaged much of the country’s hydro-power capacity, power outages of 8-12 hours aren’t uncommon.

Lack of electricity is one obstacle for many Southeast Asians to access information and communication technologies (ICTs), another is simply money. Despite the continuous fall in technology costs Internet access remains out of reach for the vast majority as they can’t afford neither the costs for hardware nor the monthly subscription charges.

Additionally, in comparison to many developed countries the ICT infrastructure in Southeast Asia is far less developed and network capacities are much lower. Thailand, for instance, doesn’t currently have a 3G network, while Indonesia only issued it in 2006, and Vietnam in March 2010. In many countries, coverage is confined to urban areas and economic centres, neglecting rural areas and thereby a great deal of the population.

For the vast bulk of the 750 million people in Southeast Asia exposure to ICTs remains, thus, limited to cellphones. Here, however, some countries in the region boost quite astonishing access rates. Vietnam, for instance, has only 27 Internet users but 100 mobile phone subscriptions per 100 inhabitants. In Thailand it’s 26 to 123, in the Philippines 6.5 to 81, and in Indonesia 8.7 to 69.

Sufficient power and financial means remain, therefore, two of the greatest challenges for usage of ICTs in Southeast Asia. In view of the opportunities that ICTs offer for addressing so many global challenges development in this area is urgent. Asian Trends Monitoring took a closer look at how ICTs could be used particularly in developing countries to empower the poor against climate change.

One application is found in disaster management. An increase in natural disasters is expected to be one of the gravest consequences of climate change. ICT-based warning systems (satellites, seismometers, sensors etc.) have proven to minimise death tolls and damages. In the Maldives, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, authorities are currently also discussing the introduction of messaging services configurable by geographic area to alert millions of people instantaneously about threats via cell broadcast or SMS.

The direction of the information flow can also be reversed. During the flooding in Pakistan in 2010, for example, people could send an SMS to 3441 to identify their location and register the area’s immediate problems such as drinking water shortages or rioting. The result was a crowd-sourced, dynamic map: the PakReport. People with web access could also submit more extensive information. These grassroots information are vital for aid workers, particularly given their often limited numbers in regions struck by disaster.

Also with respect to promoting climate change adaptations and natural resource protection in developing countries, accessing and gathering grassroots sources through ICTs is having a great impact.

For example, recent developments of tools for monitoring natural resources show the fundamental importance of local knowledge. Collaborate projects by the website Participatory Avenues (, governments and civil society organisations have thus far conducted three-dimensional, participatory mapping work and generated maps in the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Malaysia. The maps are expected to foster biodiversity and habitat protection, coastal area management, and mitigate resource-driven conflicts.

New plug-ins for Google Earth offer further tools for monitoring deforestation. As Asian Trends Monitoring points out, such applications are essential for implementing climate change instruments such as the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD).

Of course, the channels of information through ICTs can run two-ways. This fosters dialogue between experts and those on the ground whose daily life is directly affected by the changes in the global climate. In view of the limited progress in setting up a global post-Kyoto climate agreement, the efforts of civil society organisations become here even more important.

With the support of the UN and others, for instance, communities around the globe produced videos about the environmental challenges that they faced. The clips were shown at film festivals and summits of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, bringing the ‘local’ to the ‘global’

Another example is the Climate Change Media Partnership of Panos London and the International Institute for Environment and Development. It supports journalists from the Global South to report from major climate change summits. They communicate climate policy and science in ways that specifically addresses their home audiences and is, thus, more likely to mobilise action than generic broadcasts by the media of developed country.

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