Communication in times of disaster

Investigating the potential and pitfalls of mobile communication technologies to enhance early warning and disaster preparedness in Zimbabwe

In March 2019, tropical cyclone Idai caused catastrophic damage in Madagascar, Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. With more than 1300 deaths and many more people missing, it ranks as the second-deadliest cyclone on record. Accompanied by heavy rains, it was flash floods and landslides that claimed more than 600 lives and caused extensive damage in Chimanimani District in Zimbabwe. But when the news in Germany and other European countries were reporting about the movement of the cyclone, already envisioning potential damages, the majority of the people in this part of Zimbabwe were still completely unaware. And even after the cyclone had hit large parts of the eastern highlands, the information about potential aid was distributed very unequally. This shows, that despite the proliferation of information and communication technologies (ICT) in many parts of rural Africa, the distribution of information can still be disparate or disrupted. Thus, while ICTs have been celebrated by many as a means to enhance access to information and to “democratise knowledge” (e.g. Sanger 2009), examples like this one reveal the complex politics of information flows. Considering the high vulnerability of rural communities to disasters and the crucial role that access to information plays to increase disaster preparedness as well as response, this research therefore wishes to investigate the underlying politics of information flows in the context of disaster risk reduction (DRR) in Zimbabwe.


Building on qualitative and quantitative research in Chimanimani District, expert interviews in (inter)national organisations involved in DRR in Zimbabwe, as well as an analysis of public debates on this issue in major online forums (e.g. twitter and Facebook), this thesis will contribute to a better understanding of the role of different media to communicate disaster risk and response in rural Zimbabwe and use this as a basis to critically reflect on the potential and pitfalls of ICTs to enhance disaster preparedness more generally.

Keywords: disaster preparedness, disaster risk reduction, cyclones, ICT, digital humanitarianism, social media

Principal Investigators:

Julia Verne and Everjoy Chiimba (funded through a PhD scholarship from the Jesuits)