Global Early Warning Systems needed: Creating Partnerships to Cope with Natural Disasters

Every year in the past two decades, more than 200 million people, on average, have been affected by natural hazards. Disasters have caused a massive loss of life and negative long-term social, economic and environmental consequences. Vulnerable societies have been deeply affected, particularly in developing countries with less coping capacity.

The threat of disaster to these countries triggered by natural hazards poses a serious obstacle to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.1 Historical experience, such as the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, has demonstrated that, although the occurrence of natural hazards cannot be prevented, their impact could be decreased when resilience of communities is strengthened.

Following the ten-year review of the progress made in the area of disaster reduction, the World Conference on Disaster Reduction (WCDR)2, held in Kobe, Japan in January 2005, adopted an important policy document, the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters.3 The Framework highlighted early warning as one of the major elements of disaster-risk reduction, which could save lives and help protect livelihoods and national development gains. Early warning systems have been recognized as an effective tool to reduce vulnerabilities and improve preparedness and response to natural hazards.

The importance of early warning has been underlined in various UN General Assembly resolutions as a critical element of disaster reduction. When the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) was established in 2000 as the successor to the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (1990-1999), the promotion of people-centred early warning systems was clearly underlined and included in its mandate. The significance of early warning for disaster reduction has been repeatedly emphasized in major international agendas, including the Yokohama Strategy4, Agenda 215, the Barbados Plan of Action for Small Island Developing States6, the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation7, the Mauritius Strategy8 and the G8 Summit in Gleneagles9, as well as major multilateral environmental agreements, including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention to Combat Desertification.

To promote the goals of the 1994 Yokohama Strategy, specific activities on early warning were undertaken during the International Decade. In 1998, the International Conference on Early Warning Systems for Natural Disaster Reduction was convened in Potsdam, Germany, with the focus on state-of-the-art knowledge of early warning systems. The Second International Conference on Early Warning (EWC II) was organized in Bonn in 2003 by the Government of Germany under the auspices of the UN/ISDR. It was linked to the efforts of the Working Group 2 on Early Warning of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Disaster Reduction. EWC II emphasized the need for integrating early warning into relevant public policy. After the adoption of the Hyogo Framework, the Third International Conference was convened in Bonn in March 2006, focusing on developing concrete measures and project ideas to implement the Hyogo Framework.

Early warning received very high attention after the 26 December 2004 tsunami, when it became clear that a tsunami warning system and associated public education could have saved thousands of lives. The UN Secretary-General in his report, In Larger Freedom: Towards development, security and human rights for all, proposed that the United Nations system should take a leadership role in developing comprehensive global capacities for systematic people-centred early warning systems, which would cover all hazards for all countries and communities. Subsequently, he requested that a global survey be undertaken, with a view to advance the development of a global early warning system (GEWS) for all natural hazards. The survey report, coordinated by the ISDR secretariat, concluded that while some warning systems are well advanced, there are numerous gaps and shortcomings, especially at the local community level in developing countries, for effectively reaching and serving the needs of those at risk. The report also recommended the establishment of a globally comprehensive early warning system, rooted in existing early warning systems and capacities, as well as a set of specific actions toward building people-centred systems at the national level. It also proposed filling in the main gaps in global capacities, strengthening the scientific and data foundations for early warning, and developing the institutional foundations for a global early warning system.

In his 2006 report on the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, the Secretary-General encouraged Member States and organizations to develop a GEWS for all hazards and communities, based on existing systems. He also emphasized the need to address the associated technical and organizational gaps and needs, as recommended in the Global Survey of Early Warning Systems. Coordinated planning and recommendations are needed to define priorities and practical objectives to be achieved, and engage the attention and participation of all relevant stakeholders. These actions should take place through existing relevant mechanisms, particularly the International Early Warning Programme (IEWP).

The purpose of the Secretary-General's report was to provide UN entities with a strategic survey of existing capacities, identify gaps in current early warning systems, encourage further inter-agency cooperation and avoid duplication of efforts related to the establishment of a GEWS. The report contains updated information provided by UN entities on their confirmation, plans and commitments for a GEWS to be carried out in the next biennium. It recommended international and regional mechanisms for governance, coordination and support. The report also proposed more explicit responsibilities for various United Nations and other international agencies in the technical, humanitarian and development fields. IEWP, as a strategy-strengthening process, is intended to help clarify and confirm the responsibilities of the main international organizations and to build more effective collaborative efforts towards substantive development of a GEWS. Nevertheless, significant obstacles still must be overcome to systematically affirm and coordinate a GEWS and apply the full technical capacities and financial resources of international organizations.

The mechanisms for international and regional governance, coordination and support form one of the two pillars of a globally comprehensive early warning system; the other being the country's capacities. These mechanisms provide clarity on the roles and capacities of relevant organizations, support necessary institutional partnerships, coordinate technical development and ensure appropriate mechanisms of accountability to Governments. What does a global early warning system mean? It means that regional forecasting systems are not only put into place to complete one global system by assembling elements of regional systems, but that protocols match international standards, that data is quickly and accurately evaluated, and that information is systematically shared with neighbouring countries through the reliable regional networks.

At the national level, a comprehensive warning system should ensure that countries are able to issue and receive hazard warnings and can effectively disseminate such information to communities and emergency responders. At the local level, it means that response plans to the warning are in place by local authorities, for example, to identify safe places and evacuate citizens from hazardous areas to designated safe places without confusion or delays. User-friendly hazard maps with evacuation routes are effective tools in many hazard cases. For effective reactions, it is important that citizens are properly informed in their communities and that children are educated through school programmes about what to do when they are at risk. For instance, lessons learned about tsunamis by an English school girl in her geography class saved her, her family and others at a resort in Thailand when the tsunami struck in December 2004. Conducting evacuation drills helps identify obstacles which may be faced during emergencies. Socially vulnerable people, such as children, the poor, the elderly and the disabled, may need further assistance from their community, as well as from governmental and non-governmental organizations.

Although costly at first glance, investments in structural measures in large cities would help reduce disaster losses in the long run. More research on cost-benefit analysis in relation to investment on early warning systems to disaster losses is highly encouraged. But no matter how much effort is made by early warning system stakeholders, in reality, there will be people who will not receive the message, even in developing countries. Yet, in some cases, people may be able to sense the risk by their personal knowledge and observations. For example, indigenous traditional knowledge on tsunami risk among the population on the island of Simeulue in Indonesia saved many lives during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. An integrated GEWS, therefore, begins with both traditional knowledge from the community and the most advanced global technological framework, which then links effectively with international, national and local networks to save lives and property. It is also important to consider all hazards and to link the warning systems for each to develop what is sometimes called an "all hazards" warning system.

An important feature of today's warning systems is the well established networks under the World Meteorological Organization. These networks closely link national meteorological and hydrological services to support operational services 24 hours a day and 7 days a week for collecting hydro-meteorological and climate data. They assist developing thresholds and algorithms for making decisions on issuance of warnings, as well as disseminating the warning to the public. These networks are a model case for strengthening other less developed hazard warning systems. The ISDR secretariat is consulting with interested parties on options for following up on these ideas.

The UN global survey is an important step toward identifying gaps and needs in respect to early warning systems worldwide. In the meantime, it is clear that any globally comprehensive warning capacity will not be a centrally managed system, but will strengthen existing institutional arrangements with a view to enhancing the resilience of people and communities and to reducing risk to hazards.

Notes 1. The Secretary General's Report, "Road map towards the implementation of the United Nations Millennium Declaration", (2001) includes specific strategies relevant to ISDR and early warning.
3. Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015:
4. Yokohama Strategy and Plan of Action for a Safer World (1994),
6. Barbados Plan of Action for Small Island Developing States (1994),
7. World Summit on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg, South Africa, 2002)
8. Report of the International Meeting to Review the Implementation of the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States (Port Louis, Mauritius, January 2005)
9. Response to the Indian Ocean disaster, and future action on disaster-risk reduction at the Gleneagles G8 meeting (2005)