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The Volunteer Network Management System (VNMS) and Lifetowers: Low cost solutions for effective last mile early warning dissemination



The project proposes piloting a series of low cost innovative technologies for improved and timely last mile early warning dissemination. Major components of innovation under the proposed project are lifetowers and Volunteer Network Management System (VNMS).

Lifetower is solar powered street light fitted with water sensors which detects inundation and alerts vulnerable communities through siren alerts and text messages. It also activates a network of lifetowers strategically located in the downward gradient of flood prone settlements thereby providing sufficient lead time for timely evacuation. 

It is widely recognised that in many socio-economically marginalised communities timely warning dissemination may not always lead to timely evacuation. To address this problem, the project also proposes to develop VNMS to strengthen a well-coordinated pre-emptive response to mitigate the impacts of a disaster.  The VNMS is a combination of software and hardware based system which aims to institutionalise the coordination mechanism between the local Government and the Village based networks for effective and timely early warning dissemination leading to positive community action. It places Community based organizations at the pivot of the system where they are engaged to support the local Government in reaching out to the most vulnerable and inaccessible communities in real time.

Project’s novelty can be attributed to the fact that the proposed technology detects settlement inundation and disseminates warnings to population at risk. This had been a persistent gap in the end to end early warning system in this region. Moreover, technologies’ simplicity, affordability and scope of integration make it a feasible solution for many developing countries where resource allocation for dedicated early warning system could be a constraint.

The early prototypes were developed in 2015-16. This project emphasizes to upscale these prototypes into products for field testing, and scale-up.   

What actions do you propose?


Climate change fragilities, risks and vulnerability is a global concern and a major hurdle to the sustainable development goals. The direct impacts of some of the climate change phenomena including sea level rise, increasing temperature, uncertain weather patterns, and intensification of natural disasters - on the life and livelihoods of the marginalised communities in many developing countries make them more vulnerable to the threats of climate change.

Globally, there has been a significant increase in the frequency, magnitude and intensity of disasters. Number of disaster events has increased from 73 in 1900-09 to 4494 in 2000-09. Approximately, 80% of all disaster events since 1900 have occurred in the last three decades. There has been a significant increase in the Hydro Meteorological disasters as well. 78.5% of all disasters in 2000-09 were Hydro meteorological disasters[1].  According to the ‘Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-6): Regional assessments,’ 40 million people in India will be at risk of rising sea levels by 2050. Imminent threats of climate change are already visible as recurrent and multiple natural disasters have overwhelmed the country's capacities to respond.

The increased frequency of disasters, although has stressed the humanitarian agencies, it is imperative to reach the worst affected communities and humanitarian actors should challenge themselves to reach the unreached by constantly innovating and improving their operations. While this is necessary, it is equally important to reduce community’s dependency on the ‘probable’ aid trickling in, and emphasize on building transformative capacities and local risk management capacities. 

Early Warning is a major element of disaster risk reduction. It prevents the loss of life and reduces the economic and material impact of disasters. The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, in which more than 200,000 people died, highlighted the immediate need for a coordinated early warning system in the Asia-Pacific region. India made substantial investments to develop a robust early warning structure in the country. This is reflected in the capacity of agencies like INCOIS, IMD and CWC to accurately forecast an impending disaster.  

However, inspite of a fairly accurate early warning and risk management structures the casualties and loss of assets has remained consistently high with an exception of few disasters like the cyclone Phailin. Floods in India, have consistently claimed many human lives inspite of an exceptionally accurate early warning system. Between 1986 and 2008 India relayed 145349 flood forecasts with 95.35 percent of accuracy. During the same period at least 34674 human casualties were reported due to floods[2]. Structures for warning dissemination remain poor in the country. On top of it, early warnings do not always instigate early action. Factors like poor structures for last mile warning dissemination, absence of risk perception, lack of trust in the warning messages and prioritization of risks (Evacuation vs protection of assets) are few critical factors that results into late/negative community actions.

In this context, the project aims to improve the last mile warning dissemination to strengthen end to end early warning system. It further explores sustainable solutions to ensure that the early warning leads to positive community actions. With the goal of zero casualties, the project emphasizes on strengthening two pillars of early warning. These are:-  

Pillar 1 - Improving Technologies for Detection, Communication and Dissemination of Warnings in the Last Mile

Under this pillar, project will invest for advances in last mile warning communication and dissemination technologies to ensure that timely warning reaches the entire population at risk including those in remote locations. These structures for Last mile dissemination will complement the existing forecasting system to establish an efficient “end to end early warning system.” 


Project proposes to develop and field test Lifetowers to detect settlement inundation and disseminate warning messages in the last mile. Lifetower is solar powered street light fitted with water sensors at the danger level for inundation. As soon as the sensor detects inundation, it activates the community alarm system and disseminates warning through siren and text messages (refer fig 1). It also activates a network of lifetowers strategically located in the downward gradient of flood prone settlements thereby providing sufficient lead time to the vulnerable community for timely evacuation (refer fig 3C). We developed early prototype of lifetower in 2015 with the small individual grant from UN – OCHA for research and innovation. This prototype was tested in lab and evaluated by a team of technical experts.. While the previous study focussed on identification of potential solution and development of technology.  This project will seek to develop and test the solution by upgrading the laboratory prototype of the lifetower into a product for field implementation.

The early prototype explored the solutions to the challenge of false warning in multiple scenarios including, rainfall, water seepage, moistures and tampering. This is elaborated in the figure 2. below:- 

Under this project, we will further work to improve these solutions during lab and field tests. By integrating the technology in the existing street lights project also aims to illustrate one of the numerous possibilities of mainstreaming components of disaster risk reduction into development. This approach will not only ensure the sustainability of the project but will also generate discourses around exploring similar ways for resilient infrastructure development in disaster prone geographies. 

Due to the simplicity, affordability and scope of integration, lifetower could be the defining technology in early warning with the potential to address more complex last mile challenges.

Multiple benefits that the technology will have are listed in the table below:-

Figure 3 below, further illustrates how this technology adds value to the existing early warning structure as described in table 1.  

While answers to some questions like the life span of the lifetowers will be available only after field testing, other issues like the maintenance and awareness amongst the community will find solution in the pillar two of the project.

Pillar 2 – Improving Coordinated Response Capacities in the Last Mile in the Early Warning phase 

Under this pillar, project will invest in establishment of people centred early warning structures with active participation of local communities, civic groups and traditional structures. All people at risks, particularly those from Socio-Economic disadvantaged groups will have equal access to Information in disaster situation and people will take informed and timely actions to minimize the loss of lives and property. Coordination mechanism Between Local Govt, Network of NGOs and Village Volunteer Base will be aided by technological the Volunteer Network Management System (VNMS)

Volunteer Network Management System (VNMS)

Efficiency of an early warning system can also be attributed to the fact the how well the social factors are integrated in the system to provoke a positive community action. Not all timely warnings results into timely evacuation.  Factors such as lack of risk perception, lack of trust in the warning messages, concerns related to protection of assets or issues related to women and child protection at evacuation sites may play a critical role in adversely determining the collective behaviour of a community during disasters. Our experiences from field have shown that a well prepared community with little assistance from trained village based committee members can avert and absorb the shocks of disasters. Village based institutions developed through intensive community processes acts as the vanguards in disaster risk management and risk reduction. More structured institutions like the Local NGOs and CBOs are comparatively sustainable and have their respective volunteer base. All these last mile institutions can play important role in risk management.

The VNMS aims to institutionalise the coordination mechanism between the local Government and the Village based networks for effective and timely early warning dissemination leading to positive community action. It places local NGOs at the pivot of the system where they are engaged to support the local Government in reaching out to the most vulnerable and inaccessible communities in real time.

VNMS is software and hardware based system which enables to send critical information to the target group in real time. Warning alerts and messages can be tailored to the specific needs of those at risks.   Messages are disseminated in vernacular languages through digital display scrolls, sms, audio messages and siren alerts.  The system finds its application beyond disasters. In normal times it provides critical information on Government schemes and subsidies, public health promotion etc. Its functionality and use in normal times not only ensures the sustainability of the collaborative network but also builds the credibility and trust in the warning messages.   Figure 04, illustrates how VNMS notifies huge volunteer base in four simple steps.   

Multiple benefits of VNMS are listed in the table below:-


One of the most significant value additions of VNMS is the tool which aids the formation of network of the local communities, civic groups and the local Govt for smooth flow of information and coordinated response across the river basin. This framework is illustrated in fig 5 below:- 


Project Activities will be implemented in three stages:-

  1. Research and Development: Collaboration with technical agencies to develop the products for field testing including the lifetower, digital display and siren system and sms alerts including the required software development. 
  2. Field Testing: Collaboration with a network of local NGOs and CBOs for piloting the VNMS and the lifetowers in the targeted flood prone river basin in Odisha.
  3. Sharing for replication and scale – up: Documentation of learnings, presentation and consultation with key stakeholders at sub-national, national and regional (SARC, ASEAN) level.

Detailed activities will include the following:- 

  1. The Hazard, risks and vulnerability assessment maps will be generated for the selected area in the flood prone river basin.  The HRVA map will be digitised on a GIS platform.
  2. Volunteer network will be established and trained in the target river basin prioritising the most vulnerable and inaccessible locations first.
  3. Software tool will be developed to maintain the volunteer database, and reach them through GSM based audio, text and siren based medium for information.
  4. Prototype of Lifetower will be developed into product for field testing and use,
  5. Digital display boards and siren alerts will be installed in the selected most vulnerable villages.
  6. Centralised control room will be established.  The information dissemination system will be operated from this control room.
  7. The system will also be tailored to provide critical information targeted towards development of the community to ensure its sustainability during non –disaster period.


Direct impact on climate change and/or social actions:-

Vulnerable Communities in selected flood prone river basin will have access to timely early warning information and hence improved lead time to minimise losses in disasters induced by climate change phenomenon. Proposed technology will allow specific rather than generic warnings (for eg. which settlement is at risk of flooding, what is the lead time.) This is a pertinent gap in the existing system and could be attributed as one of the factors for heavy human casualties inspite of an accurate forecasting system. Refer to figure 06 which illustrates the theory of change, detailing the strategies, outputs and outcomes of the project. 

Who will take these actions?

Project aims to put the local NGOs, CBOs and Village committees at the heart of all activities. Disasters can best be dealt locally and therefore local capacities for risk management are essential to absorb the shocks of disasters. NGOs and CBOs capacities in managing Volunteer network base will be enhanced through the proposed VNMS. This will help in supporting the Local Government structures with the trained volunteers along with a system to coordinate and manage the volunteer base. The VNMS is targeted to instigate well-coordinated actions in the last mile to minimise disaster losses. A network of 3 to 5 NGOs will be engaged alongwith a base of 3000 volunteers in the selected river basin. Lifetowers will be developed in collaboration with technical agencies and other stakeholders from the humanitarian field.


Where will these actions be taken?

Subarnarekha River Basin in Odisha which is notorious for devastating floods will be adopted for piloting the VNMS. Vulnerable pockets in the river basin will be selected, based on the Hazard, risks and vulnerabilities assessment. NGOs and CBOs in these vulnerable pockets will be identified and their network will be established. This alliance will form/strengthen the volunteer base in their respective areas. 10-15 such pockets will be selected for community capacity building in early warning dissemination and risk management. Prototype of lifetowers will be developed and filed tested in selected geography in consultation with the Government and other stakeholders.  The findings from the pilot will be documented and shared at the sub-national, national and regional level. At regional level the key target area will be SAARC and ASEAN region. 

What are other key benefits?

  1. Network and alliances of NGOs and CBOs will be brought on a common platform through VNMS to support together the local Government in effective risk management.
  2. VNMS will be tailored to improve access to other critical information such as the subsidies, entitlements, market information etc to benefit the marginalised group with an aim to improve their earnings and thus enhance their capacities to adapt better to disaster risks.
  3. Lifetowers will replace the manual monitoring and dissemination in the last mile. Alert system is expected to be most effective during odd hours where the existing system loses its practicality.   Loss of lives and assets will be significantly reduced through extended lead time for evacuation.
  4. Loss reduction will also result into less dependency on disaster relief and will bring down the overall response costs. 

What are the proposal’s costs?

The product cost estimate of a single lifetower is expected to be around 33,000/- INR (Approx 550 US $).  Single lifetower will cater to the needs of a small settlement of around 100 - 200 families. Alternative designs, without pole, can be even cheaper. Mass production or integration in the existing street lights can further bring down the overall cost.  The technology will be suitable for many developing countries where resource allocation for dedicated early warning system could be a constraint. The cost benefit is the reduction in disaster induced losses vs the product cost.

Overall project costs are listed as under. This is computed based on the area, number of villages and number of implementing partners the project will invovle in the selected river basin. With the change in outreach the project costs are also subject to change.   

Time line

Proposed actions will be spread over 3 years. While the focus of year one will be on research and development, year two and three will emphasise on field testing. Sharing of learning for replication and scale up will follow the field testing in the year three. 

In 5 to 15 years, the project aims to develop and successfully substantiate the merit of low cost technologies for early warning dissemination in India. End to end early warning structures with exceptionally strong dissemination systems will be set up with an outreach capacity of all population at risk. 

In 15 to 50 years, all disaster prone countries will have access to both high end and low cost technologies for early warning. Due to the economic implication of cheaper technologies, more number of countries will be better placed to extend right to safe life as the fundamental human right. All infrastructure development will have integrated components of disaster risk reduction. Zero casualties in extreme emergencies will be actualised. 

In 50 to 100 years, Governments and communities will have the technological capacity to deal with new forms of emergencies of any catastrophical levels.  

Related proposals

Prevac Integral System of preventive action and Climate Information Mobile App which emphasizes on information dissemination is related to one of the components on the VNMS. The Coastal Hazard Wheel System suggests innovative approach of hazard risk and vulnerability analysis Risk assessments is the foundation of setting up the VNMS and Lifetowers as well.  


[1] EM-DAT: International Disaster Database as cited in Government of India [2011]. Disaster Management in India. Ministry of Home Affairs p7-8.

[2] FMP Directorate, as cited in  Hydrological Data Directorate, Central Water Commission [2009]. Integrated Hydrological Data Book.