Big change can start with a small message: voice SMS as flood early warning

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Accessible and actionable early warning can help people in Bangladesh prepare for and respond to annual monsoon floods. Sumi shares how early warning messages via voice SMS helped her and her community when faced with particularly intense floods in 2020.

During the annual monsoon season, a large portion of Bangladesh’s land disappears under water. Sumi has lived in the same flood-prone community since she was a child. Many people like her are affected by floods every year and struggle to make ends meet as they repeatedly have to rebuild their lives, homes, and livelihoods after floods. Moving is not an option for most people as they cannot afford it.

Climate change means increasingly intense and unpredictable extreme weather and rising sea levels which result in increasing challenges for people living in Bangladesh’s flood prone areas.

Impact of flooding in Sumis community
Impact of floods in Sumi’s community. Photo by Gobinda, VERC

2020 brought severe and diverse challenges for Sumi and her community

2020 was a difficult year for many people in Bangladesh. The COVID-19 pandemic and associated financial challenges, in combination with Cyclone Amphan, and a prolonged monsoon season took a toll, particularly on the poorest.

In an average year Sumi’s community is likely to experience floods for 10-15 days. But in 2020 the water took longer to subside and the community was flooded over and over, at least four or five times.

Community members sought shelter in the nearby evacuation centre. But because of the risk of spreading COVID-19 in cramped conditions the centre could not house them all.

I saw my neighbours secure their livestock and move to shelter centre safely before the flood. Due to COVID I couldn’t be housed in the community shelter but I moved to a safe higher place with my family.


Early warning systems save lives and livelihoods

Sumi believes that things could have been a lot worse had it not been for the early warning messages she and her neighbours received from Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance partner Practical Action.

Sumi being interviewed about her experience after flood waters have receded from the community.
Sumi being interviewed about her experience after flood waters have receded from the community. Photo by Ashik Islam, Practical Action

During previous floods we could not prepare ourselves as we rarely received any flood early warning in this remote area. I am very happy this year as every member of my family is safe and healthy despite the pandemic and flood.


Practical Action developed and disseminated several early warning messages based on forecasts from government bodies. Warning messages in the form of voice SMS were sent to almost ten thousand people in flood prone areas alerting them to upcoming flood risk and providing advice on action to take. This included guidance on how to limit the risk of spreading COVID-19 during emergency response and evacuation.

What is a voice SMS and why do we use them?

Because access to education is a challenge for marginalised communities in Bangladesh many of the people we work with struggle to access information in writing. That’s why warnings are disseminated by short voice messages instead of text. These voice SMSs are easily accessed and understood by the receiver who can take appropriate action.

Many people in the communities we work with live in poverty. They cannot afford expensive smart phones, but most families have access to at least one, more basic and much cheaper, mobile phone. The voice SMS works great on these simpler phones.

In order to reach those who don’t have any phone, the information is also shared using loudspeakers at local prayer centres.

Preparedness allowed Sumi to take the right action

Thanks to the early warning voice SMS messages Sumi and others in her community were well prepared for the 2020 floods.

I heard the news of the upcoming flood and COVID-19 through the voice message and discussed it with my husband and neighbours. Everyone shared the news with others and urged them to take early action according to the message. This year we got three days lead time before the flood and I was able to secure my stove and wood for cooking. I also stored dry food, saline, and water purification tablets.


Sumi learned about vegetable cultivation from a training she did with Practical Action’s partner VERC and has since been growing vegetables.

In 2020, in response to the early warning she received, Sumi was able to harvest and sell her vegetables in the local market before the floods. This way she saved her crop from being washed away like previous years.

Community members have raised their assets and belongings to protect them from the floods after receiving flood early warning messages via voice SMS. Photo by Gobinda, VERC.
Community members have raised their assets and belongings to protect them from the floods after receiving flood early warning messages via voice SMS. Photo by Gobinda, VERC

Multi-hazard risk communication

The alert service has also played a big role in managing the Coronavirus pandemic. Information about the virus, its symptoms, and how to mitigate the spread has been shared via voice SMS.
According to Sumi, people in her rural area would not have known anything about COVID-19 without the alerts Practical Action sent out. For people who have limited access to news media the sharing of information via voice SMS is life changing.

Find out more

You can find out more about the work Practical Action and partners are doing in Bangladesh as part of the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance here, and more about Practical Action’s experience of developing and implementing early warning systems in this blog.

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *