08.15.134:45 AM ET

Crowdsourcing Help For Flooded Sudan

Meet engineer Abeer Khairy, the woman working to help local aid agencies pinpoint which areas of the devastated capital need help, in the face of a government standstill.

When Sudanese software engineer Abeer Khairy was trapped in her house for three days by the nonstop torrential downpour that precipitated the massive flooding that has been hitting and devastating Sudan since August 1, she sat awake at night, frightened, and at three in the morning designed the Sudan Flood Map. The map is open source project that locates and reports the outlandish amount of damage caused by the flooding.

The map was deployed the following afternoon, after Abeer started publishing the link on her Facebook account. "I was scared," she said, "and given the fact that I live in a good neighborhood, I knew then that there must people who were without a roof, I decided to do the least I'm capable of, deploy the map so NGOs can see the affected areas and help them." 

Khairy’s map has proven indispensible to Nafeer, a youth-led grassroots initiative and one of the only organizations providing relief on the ground. Despite the fact that, according to the United Nations, 150,000 residents have been displaced by the flooding and tens to dozens of people have drowned or died from collapsing houses, lightening and electrocution, the Sudanese government has continued its intensive restrictions on NGOs in the country.

It often takes a week to register international aid groups, for example, even in times of severe crisis—causing a grave shortage of help to the devastated areas. According to Khairy, as of late last week, no NGO had officially been able to start working in the flood zone, though the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs began making moves to provide aid as of Monday. Meanwhile, she says, during the first wave of major flooding, government officials appeared on TV to blame the citizens of Khartoum for building houses in the flooded areas.

An aerial view of the area affected by floods caused by heavy rains in Khartoum August 5, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer (SUDAN - Tags: ENVIRONMENT DISASTER)
An aerial view of the area affected by floods caused by heavy rains in Khartoum, Sudan on August 5, 2013. (Stringer/Reuters)

In place of official help from aid agencies and the government, independent relief initiatives are taking up the slack, and exemplify the wave of energetic Sudanese millennials, primed to make change in the country.

Khairy has been mapping calls to the Civil Defense hotline (998) to report emergencies such as floods, fallen houses and sewage mixed with floods. During the first few days, she says, calls were being directed to Nafeer, which has been working on the ground to provide basic needs to people impacted. This includes shelter (linoleum covers), food (wheat, sugar, milk and prepared food) drinkable water and medical aid. Besides providing much needed help, Nafeer’s engineering team is conducting a sophisticated and detailed survey to collect data about impacted people, devastated areas and is gathering details about fully or partially destructed houses. “I believe that [the government] simply saw us organized and moving faster than them,” Khairy said, “so they thought, ‘Why not let (Nafeer) carry the work?”

One of the incoming calls to the Civil Defense (government) hotline that was transferred to Nafeer to manage was from a woman whose husband was badly injured; the couple was stranded in water three feet deep as the flooding continued to seep in. Nafeer’s field team consists of a medical team and supply distribution team, they go to the highly affected areas—based on calls and field surveys—but they cannot handle a case by case scenario. When cases come they are published through the Facebook pages and twitter hashtag, with the reporter's phone number, so that people nearby can reach out to them. This is the essence behind the name Nafeer. “The native translation of Nafeer is ‘trumpet,’” Khairy says. “When there is a disaster, usually the people of the area use a trumpet to get the people to come and work to help. So this is what people here did, they knocked the trumpet to alert others and get them help those who are in need.”

Besides mobilizing via Khairy’s crisis map, Nafeer has started a fundraising campaign to raise money for supplies to donate to flood victims, and has been organizing assistance and providing updates from its Twitter feed. According to Khairy, Sudanese expats from as far afield as Saudi Arabia, Ireland and the U.S. have been moved by the flood victims’ plight to donate to Nafeer. “This is our Sudanese spirit,” she says.

The government’s lackluster response to the flooding is the most recent nail in the coffin for President Omar al-Bashir, who has been criticized by the international community for years over his authoritarian style of rule and his apparent hand in the atrocities in the Western region of Darfur. (Bashir currently has a warrant out for his arrest by the International Criminal Court for genocide committed in Darfur.

The official non-response to the flooding has angered many Sudanese, who note that the president left the country to travel abroad to Iran as the flooding devastated Khartoum. Saudi Arabia wouldn’t give Bashir’s flight the right to enter its airspace, however, and he was forced to return to Khartoum and is consequently still in country.

The disaster, and the overwhelming response from the nation’s young people to help the flood victims, has added momentum to Bashir’s opponents, who have been working to stoke an Arab Spring style revolution in the country. As of right now, though there is much anger over of soaring food prices and government corruption, police tend to break up protests before they spread.

At this point—over two weeks since the flooding started—a few international NGO's are just getting to the ground. Once they begin operations, they will piggyback off the work already started, and the information gathered by the local groups.

“What's amazing about this experience is the quantity of people trying to make a difference!” Abeer said. “Staying in such a small space and working all day and all night, everyone helping in what he or she knows best and smiling, people donating millions to people they've never seen, this is extraordinary!