Mr. Robert Glasser, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, addresses the World Meteorological Organization's event (Photo: UNISDR)
By Jonathan Fowler
GENEVA, 23 March 2016 – Weather forecasters are a critical part of efforts to rein in the impact of natural hazards such as floods and droughts, which are being stoked by climate change, the head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction said today.
Speaking on World Meteorological Day – this year’s theme is “Hotter, Drier, Wetter. Face the Future” -- Mr. Robert Glasser said national weather agencies were key players when it comes to tackling climate change and implementing the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, a 15-year blueprint adopted by the international community in March last year.
“National Meteorological and Hydrological Services can play an even greater part than they do already in improving preparedness and encouraging governments, the private sector and civil society groups, to address underlying risks which compound the impact of severe weather events,” he said at a ceremony hosted by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).
“The goal is to move away from simple weather bulletins to focus on the threat to lives, livelihoods and assets. Combined with the growing number of national disaster loss data bases, risk and impact-based early warning systems could enable us to get ahead of the curve of disaster response to make real progress on mitigation and reducing both numbers of people affected and economic losses, by encouraging investment in measures which build disaster resilience,” he added.
That, he said, could help encourage measures such as restoring mangroves in cyclone belts, building cyclone shelters and wind-resistant housing, as well as the relocation of endangered informal settlements and the use of dams and dykes in flood zones where relocation is not an option.
The globe has just come through the hottest year on record, noteworthy for one of the strongest El Ninos experienced in modern times which, coupled with the ongoing impact of climate change, contributed to a steep rise in droughts and floods worldwide.
Examples of the impacts include food insecurity in Zimbabwe and Ethiopia, forest fires and consequent pollution in Indonesia, and severe drought in California, and flooding in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and southern Brazil, as well as India and China.
In addition, such conditions add punch to tropical storms such as Cyclone Pam and Cyclone Winston, which devastated Vanuatu and Fiji in March 2015 and February this year, respectively.
Mr. Glasser lauded the WMO for its strategic shift from “telling the public what the weather will be to giving us a better sense of what the weather will actually do,” saying it was essential for the implementation of the Sendai Framework.
The Sendai Framework has seven targets. It aims to secure substantial reductions in disaster deaths, the number of affected people and economic losses, plus damage to critical infrastructure and disruption to basic services such as health and educational facilities. It also seeks to increase the number of countries with national and local risk reduction strategies, bolster the capacity of developing countries, and vastly increase coverage by early warning systems.
“Investing in early warning systems is a high priority for the WMO,” noted its Secretary-General Mr. Petteri Taalas, whose agency is a key driver of the Climate Related Early Warning Systems (CREWS) initiative, a global plan launched last year to extend coverage in developing countries.
Experts are also keenly aware of the need for early warning systems to make sense to the people they serve.
One recent disaster where early warning terminology did not make sufficient sense was Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013 in the Philippines. There was limited public understanding of the technical term "storm surge" -- when the sea is driven inland, in a tsunami-like wave.
The typhoon, known locally as Yolanda, killed more than 7,000 people and caused US$10 billion in estimated economic losses. In the city of Tacloban alone, one of the areas hardest hit, 90% of all structures were either destroyed or damaged.
“Early warning to limit loss of life is fundamentally not only a technical challenge, but a social challenge as well,” said Mr. Glasser.