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Afghanistan: Internet Brings Help To Disaster Victims

London, 17 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The earthquake in northeastern Afghanistan, which has killed thousands in a string of remote villages, has been the first major test of a new information network set up to help relief organizations cope with disasters.

The earthquake, measuring 6.1 on the Richter scale, devastated Takhar province near the border with Tajikistan. Within hours, news about the disaster was posted on an Internet web site by an educational and humanitarian trust funded by the Reuters group, renowned for its news service from 160 bureaus worldwide.

The Reuter Foundation's AlertNet is an on-line news and communications service designed for the international emergency relief community. It aims to make a practical contribution to the speed and efficiency of humanitarian operations - and to save lives.

The service, launched last September, with its headquarters in London, is offered free of charge to relief agencies with proven track records. It aims to provide help in natural disasters like floods and famines, or man-made disasters like war and refugee crises.

AlertNet editor John Owen-Davies, a veteran Reuters foreign correspondent, said the Afghan earthquake has proved to be a case-study of how an external information agency can help aid workers.

He said the disaster demonstrated both the need for an impartial service offering immediate access to disaster-related news, and a private site where aid agencies can talk discreetly to each other.

In reporting on the Afghan earthquake, AlertNet gave voluntary agencies a quick snapshot of the disaster scene; weather conditions, geography, security, accommodation, and access by land and air.

Aid workers, reaching the web site by laptop computer, learned that the bleak Rostam disaster zone suffers temperatures at night of minus 20C; that it lies at an altitude of 2,000 meters at the junction of the Hindu Kush mountains and the High Pamirs; and its near-impassable roads are littered with potholes from war and neglect.

On security, an Alertnet report said that the disaster zone lies on the frontline between Pashto-Taliban forces and troops loyal to Burhannudin Rabbani, crucial information for relief agencies seeking to transport food and medicines through the area.

Owen-Davies told RFE/RL, "We are interested in the build-up to a disaster, the breaking story, and how we can help relief agencies to bring assistance to the victims affected."

He said AlertNet aims to be "a neutral information broker to the relief community, comprising traditionally secretive organizations wary of officials -- be they from the government or the military in a disaster-hit country, or from foreign missions."

The AlertNet, which will incorporate news from Reuter correspondents around the world, as well as its own network of sources, comprises public and private zones. The public zone, open to all Internet users, includes latest disaster-related headlines from the Reuters newsfile; general information on disasters, including details of helplines and advice for travelers; and an area for aid agencies to place news releases, including public appeals for help. The private zone, restricted to AlertNet members, is a password-protected area containing more detailed (and sensitive) news and background for relief agency professionals. It includes key contacts for member organizations; an area for news and field reports; and an electronic bulletin board for exchanging operational logistics.

Membership is restricted mainly to internationally-recognized relief organizations such as Save the Children, Aid Action, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Owen-Davies, a former Reuter bureau chief in India, Nigeria, Indonesia and Turkey, said of the decision to set up AlertNet: "We wanted to help. There's a bit of sentimentality about this. As journalists, we've seen disasters around the world. We've always felt that we wanted to do something, but we never could because of deadlines. We want to help. It's payback time."