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A flood victim sits on her bed along a road where many families are living after being forced to flee the flood waters August 24, 2010 in Shadadkot , Pakistan.

Paula Bronstein/2010 Getty Images

Pakistan is flooding. People are dying and being displaced. Food aid distribution is lagging.

But can they make phone calls?

An unusual question, perhaps. But a crucial one, nonetheless.

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You see, the United Nations has a division -- the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) -- that is responsible for rushing into disaster zones to help resurrect vital telecom infrastructure that has been destroyed. Why is that important?

We're not talking about allowing people to engage in idle gossip at steep monthly rates.

We're talking about cellphone towers losing electricity or falling into crevices, about shifting tectonic plates rupturing fixed-line phone service, about rooftop antennas in crowded urban areas collapsing into rubble, about flood waters shutting down power generators to various parts of a mobile network.

Without any of this, government agencies can't distribute all the aid your donations have provided, can't co-ordinate with humanitarian agencies to figure out where the need for medical services is the greatest and can't, in short, respond to the crisis properly.

For citizens, it's even more frightening. During the Haiti earthquake, as with many disasters, family members didn't know whether their loved ones were alive. People were texting SOS messages from beneath the rubble -- and having their text messages join a long queue created by the strained wireless networks (a data backlog situation that also happened, if you recall, when Sidney Crosby scored his momentous goal for Team Canada). That's why there's other groups, as well, such as Télécoms Sans Frontières.

On Monday, shortly after the ITU sent out an appeal for funds, I spoke to Cosmas Zavazava, who heads the emergency telecom division at the ITU, among other duties there. I last spoke to him during the devastating Haiti earthquake. Here is an edited version of our talk.

How do disasters affect the telecommunications network?

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Generally, no matter what kind of a disaster it is, whether it is an earthquake or floods or typhoons or hurricanes, telecommunications are quite vulnerable -- particularly, terrestrial telecommunications networks. And they are either destroyed or disrupted when emergencies or disasters strike. The case of Pakistan is not unusual. There is a lot of flooding going on throughout the country and it affects: One, the rural communities that are probably not connected, they don't have access; second, is that infrastructure, especially where it is terrestrial, water can destroy that infrastructure. You can have antenna masts that are hit by the floods and fall. Water can get into the cables and the telecommunications fail. There are many aspects. You can also have power supplies get knocked down, and you cannot use the telecommunications systems.

What we do is try and use alternative systems -- as is the case in Pakistan, (we're going to) use satellite communications systems which are easy to deploy and can be used to co-ordinate humanitarian activities such as the supply of food and medicine, and also to provide such services like telemedicine for the injured.

How much has the ITU spent on Pakistan so far?

We have got a standby fund. We have the ITU framework for co-operation in emergencies, which is a global initiative with three pillars: One is the technology pillar, which brings together all the technology companies that give us in-kind contributions in terms of telecommunications systems, like geographical information systems (GIS), satellite communications system, Wi-Max, and some base stations -- which are a deployable CDMA mobile bay station, which you can just transport in to get people connected. We will also have various other kinds of communication systems like GIS and so forth. We will bring together

The second pillar is called the finance cluster, which deals with financial resource mobilization, so we created a standby fund which is there and used when emergencies strike. It's worth millions of dollars. From time to time, the ITU injects money, for example, immediately after the earthquake struck in Haiti the organization pumped in about $1-million (U.S.) into the fund. We use it to carry out, for example, first-response equipment, to train people on the ground, to carry out assessments to see where the damage is.

The third pillar is logistics, which exists to bring together air freight companies, like FedEx, which is one of our members. So when we have a major disaster and we're transporting huge systems, they don't charge us for transportation.

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So what have you done in Pakistan?

We have discussed with the authorities and we have systems that have been set aside for Pakistan, for use in co-ordinating search and rescue operations, and coordinating the logistics for those humanitarian agencies that are on the ground. We have also set up an appeal. It's online. As soon we reach a certain point, we will offload all the contributions to the Pakistan government.

So has anything actually been sent yet?

We have been put on standby because of the situation on the ground. We have negotiated with Pakistan, and there is a consignment that is waiting to go. Because they wanted to assess what was happening on the ground, to see how they were coping in remote rural areas. They were using various kinds of systems, but they have indicated they would like us to deploy some systems and the consignment is waiting to go to cover those areas where there are gaps.

What's in the shipment?

It's a broadband satellite communications system from Inmarsat, which is capable of providing interactive video, voice, and high-speed data. You can surf the net, send emails, and exchange high resolution images. We also have THURAYA systems, which are satellite telephones that have GPS systems. They are quite useful for search and rescue, to identify the locations of victims.

Meanwhile, we're also allocating resources for assessments. Because they also need our expertise in assessing the damage to their infrastructure, to identify the various locations where the infrastructure has been damaged, and help them to restore it.

There is very little landline infrastructure in Pakistan, right?

That's right. Basically, there is very little. But even mobile networks are also affected. And the thing is that there are also humanitarian workers who may have problems. The first priority we have is to government, and government agencies. Then we help to set up community telecentres, where the public can also make phone calls to their relatives who are in other areas, just to assure them they are doing fine. From the beginning we were in contact with the government.

They wanted us to assess the systems they had on the ground, to see if there were gaps or not. They have done that. And we have received an official request from the government. It got here on Friday. We should be deploying the equipment (Tuesday, Aug. 24).

Why has it taken this long?

What we are trying to do is avoid a situation where you end up with a lot of confusion and system interferences, because there are so many systems it creates chaos.

What kind of shape will the ITU's emergency response take, once you're on the ground?

In 2005, after the Kashmir earthquake, we had a very successful deployment because we set up a lot of telemedicine centers in the mountains and disaster zone. And we trained 22 junior doctors, who were attending to the injured. And after that, we link it up with Karachi or the U.S. or another specialized hospital, and we use the interactive video link -- a specialist who is thousands of kilometres away can direct an operation or help in diagnosing the patients. Or you can send via satellite the X-rays. We think these are some of the things that we'll set up now.

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