On 3 August, as ISIL fighters took over the town of Sinjar in the north west of Iraq, over 500,000 people in the Ninewa plains began to flee to the Kurdistan region and onto the nearby Sinjar Mountain. In OCHA’s office in Erbil (the capital of the Kurdistan region), two mobile phone lines made available for communities and humanitarian actors to call in to report on needs and the evolving crisis started to ring.
Community leaders in the village of Kocho called to warn of the imminent massacre of civilians. People stranded in the scorching heat on Sinjar Mountain called to ask for airdrops that should contain not only food and water, but also solar mobile chargers. A local engineer who sought refuge in the Kurdistan region called to provide the approximate coordinates of family members and acquaintances who were on the mountain and with whom he had regular contact.
Thanks to mobile technology, communities were actively communicating through their own networks. But was the humanitarian system fully equipped to listen?
Less than two weeks later, an inter-agency team comprised of UN agencies, INGOs and a media development organisation carried out a rapid assessment with displaced populations and host communities to understand their information needs and access to communication channels—a first of its kind in an emergency response. This consultation was undertaken following a request by humanitarian partners operating in Iraq to the Field Coordination Community of Practice of the CDAC Network.
The report which ensued reveals a concerning situation. Its findings highlight that displaced Iraqis often have only limited access to conflicting and broken information regarding the provision of and access to basic services. This lack of information, in turn, creates mistrust and confusion.
The report recommended for the humanitarian community to increase information flow and support existing communication channels. It called on donors to fund a Communications with Communities (CwC) structure within the existing humanitarian cluster system, as well as specific CwC activities, such as an inter-agency call centre.
The report’s unique findings were therefore used to inform the humanitarian programme cycle and were included in Iraq’s Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO) and Strategic Response Plan (SRP) to ensure an effective and prioritised humanitarian response. This, hopefully, will set a precedent for other emergencies.
Two months after ISIL began its offensive in the Ninewa plains, it is estimated that 1.8 million people are displaced by conflict. In the first two weeks of October alone, over 180,000 people have been newly displaced by ongoing fighting in Anbar Governorate. Without dedicated capacity, including financial and human resources, the humanitarian community will not be able to fulfil its responsibility to listen, respond and thus communicate with the increasing number of people affected by the crisis. The next stage of the humanitarian programme cycle—resource mobilisation— will demonstrate donors’ and humanitarian actors’ true commitment to communicating with communities.