TSF in Nepal

TSF in Nepal

Alexander James Thomas, head of communications and internal relations at Telecoms Sans Frontieres (TSF) talks to Capacity about the charity’s activities in Nepal following two devastating earthquakes.

Nepal was hit by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in April, followed by a 7.3 magnitude earthquake in May this year. The country’s telecoms infrastructure was hit hard by the natural disaster, and Alexander James Thomas, head of communications and internal relations at TSF, was one of 10 employees deployed to Nepal in the aftermath.

When were you first alerted to the earthquake and what was TSF’s initial deployment phase?

We received an SMS alert at 8.30am on April 25 and after several phone calls to our head of emergencies, who was on call that weekend, we decided to come into the office. 

We had been following various snippets of information on the news, and when we all arrived to our headquarters in Pau, France, we phoned a number of our contacts including the United Nations and the GSMA to get as much information as we could on the situation, as well as information concerning the local network. We then made the decision to deploy and we left the following morning.

As well as our France office we also have bases in Bangkok, Thailand, and Managua, Nicaragua. However, a number of our Bangkok-based staff were still deployed on the Vanuatu emergency (the South Pacific island was hit by a cyclone in March 2015) but we have volunteers in the city who deploy with us on emergency missions. 

Two of these were actually Nepalese which was a great help as it’s very important for us to have as much local knowledge as possible. That was a massive part of our added value whilst we were out there.

What was the TSF team’s first task on arrival in Nepal?

We arrived at Kathmandu on April 28. We would have liked to arrive sooner but Kathmandu has a very small airport with just one runway, meaning a lot of flights – ours included – were cancelled and delayed. We had to spend an extra day in Bangkok before moving on to Kathmandu.

We had to fly into and out of Bangkok as our satellite equipment is not allowed to pass through customs in Nepal’s neighbouring countries of India and China. Because of the airport delay, most of the international search and rescue teams, including the UK, were there when we got on the ground. Most of the other NGOs arrived on the same flight as us from Bangkok.

The idea behind all of our initial deployments is light and mobile satellite communications. We don’t take big satellite antennas with us, we take very small antennas called BGANs that enable internet connectivity anywhere in the world. They are about the size of a laptop and they allow approximately 10 computers to be connected to the internet at any one time. 

We also deployed satellite lines and satellite phones; the idea being that everything has to be easy to transport.

What was the largest challenge of deploying equipment in Nepal?

One of the biggest hindrances was the enormous lack of information when we arrived on site, which led to a lack of coordination, not just between NGOS but between the search and rescue committees. Some of them ended up in villages that had already been searched, when there were needs in other communities that hadn’t yet been reached.

Because of the scale of the disaster, we found it difficult to identify priority zones. 

So we did a lot of work at the beginning to assess the damage, particularly to the telecoms infrastructure, and what the needs were in the given areas. 

Next we decided where to deploy, what to deploy and what kind of operation was needed. The geography of the country was also extremely difficult to manoeuvre and get around, not only by road but also by foot because of the landslides.

We had one team that walked for four days to reach some isolated communities, as it was the only way to get there.

How long was the TSF team on the ground in Nepal?

There are still people there now [June 2015]. The emergency phase for TSF is over, and we are now looking to draw up more long-term projects in the affected areas. 

Nothing is set in stone, but we are hoping to provide internet to schools in two of the biggest valleys that were hit by the quake.