Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides.
So wrote Lao-tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher, and perhaps no sentiment better expresses the relationship the modern-day people of India have with the annual monsoons that bring equal parts havoc and harmony.
The deluge is essential to the agriculture that sustains millions and accounts for almost a fifth of the nation’s GDP. However, the great rains can also cause widespread flooding that threatens lives, livelihoods, and the very pastures they are supposed to nourish.
This year the disaster relief centers that must bring Indians safely through the monsoon season will have a potentially life-saving technology at their disposal–video conferencing.
The Threat of This Year’s Monsoon
The past two monsoon seasons have failed to bring sufficient rain to India’s farms, placing tremendous strain on the sole major economy on Earth still dependent on the weather.
However, early predictions for 2016 indicate that this shortfall may be addressed this year. In fact, it may be dangerously surpassed. The threat is so great that the Bengal government in the country’s north has established two new flood control centers, and has dispatched relief teams to vulnerable areas. When such areas stretch along more than 90 miles of riverfront, vigilance must be eternal.
Top officials are already meeting with experts at the flood centers and on the ground every day.
Those meetings are being held via video conferencing technology that has been added to the flood relief effort for the first time this season. In addition to bringing experts face-to-face, the video service will also provide a real-time view of the rising waters and reliably relay exactly what is happening in flood-affected areas.
However, future efforts could go a step further and enlist video technology that enables relief teams to not only monitor the swelling rivers, but actively engage with the people they endanger.
Indians are very familiar with the current state of video conferencing technology.
The country’s current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, appeared via hologram at more than 800 rallies during his leadership campaign in 2014. During that run he set a record by appearing simultaneously at 88 different venues, fittingly delivering a message about a future digital India.
That same technology could be used to project disaster relief experts directly to the site of major flooding to act as guides and administer advice–in effect, turning distant monitors into first responders.
The Prime Minister’s office has openly explained how Mr. Modi achieved his omnipresence. While the hi-def cameras needed to capture the speaker are widely available, current projection techniques are dependent on a complex setup of glass and mirrors.
As such, even the most modern of today’s holographic technology may be too cumbersome for deployment this year. Nonetheless, traditional two-way video conferencing screens could fill the void far sooner. Mounted on the back of conventional trucks, and staffed by a single driver with only minimal training, these systems could still take the control center-bound disaster expert as close to the crisis as possible.
Fit the trucks with any of the small video conferencing setups currently capable of capturing large audiences within a 45 degree arch, and a single expert could converse simultaneously with people at a dozen sites. And, of course, the expert themselves need never leave the control center, remaining at the hub of all incoming information.
The Portable Town Hall
In addition to these mobile video teams, video conferencing could be used during times of disaster to hold impromptu town hall meetings.
Simple, portable video conferencing devices, like the ones commonly used in today’s business world to host large conference calls, could be placed at town halls and meeting places throughout the predicted troublespots ahead of time.
Such systems could be set up quickly using satellite or wi-fi internet connections, and allow experts back in a control center to relay the latest forecasts to the townspeople. Conversely, the two-way exchange of a video call would let the flood-affected ask questions and provide on-the-ground information.
Video Drones for Disaster Relief
And there need not even be forethought in getting video conferencing equipment in place. Drones could be fitted with video conferencing-enabled mobile phones and flown directly to people in distress. Cellphone in hand, those in need could give rescue teams a view of the immediate threats surrounding them, and get in face-to-face touch with family or grief counselors to help ease their burden.
After all, if drones can be pressed into service delivering pizza, they can surely be recalibrated for a more altruistic cause.
The unpredictable, double-edged sword of monsoon season will continue to present India with a formidable threat each year. Every new technology that can help keep people safe as the deluge falls is a blessing.