The 22-23 May Multi-Hazard Early Warning Conference feeds into the 2017 Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, also taking place in Cancun, Mexico from 22 to 26 May
By Jonathan Fowler
GENEVA, 8 May 2017 – Early warning systems and making the link between predictable weather and climate events and their impacts are critical to save lives and property when disaster looms.
Experts from around the world are set to launch a drive to improve warnings for an interlocking range of hazards and step up what is known as impact-based forecasting. Both are key aims of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, a 15-year agreement adopted by the international community in 2015.
They will do so at the two-day Multi-Hazard Early Warning Conference, which feeds into the 2017 Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, also taking place in Cancun, Mexico from 22 to 26 May.
“A multi-hazard approach is a cornerstone of good, effective disaster risk reduction. The Sendai Framework makes this crystal clear,” said Mr. David Coetzee, Manager of Capability and Operations at New Zealand’s Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management.
Climate risk exacerbates the more general risk of disasters that humanity has always faced. Over the last 40 years there has been a doubling of extreme weather events such as severe storms, floods, heatwaves and drought, which, in addition to their death tolls, have disrupted billions of lives and caused ever-increasing economic losses.
Forecasts, early warning systems and effective national weather services play an essential role in protecting communities from weather and climate impacts, which mesh with other risk drivers including poverty, unplanned urbanisation, deforestation, limited institutional capacity and lack of public awareness.
A key aim of the meeting is to help upgrade early warning systems for developing countries, many of them are still to benefit from advances in the science, technology and system governance.
“It’s important for developing countries to raise their early warning capacity, because their risk zones are densely populated and the damage is always huge when disaster strikes,” said Mr. Jean-Jules Nkengne, a disaster risk reduction expert in the municipality of Yaoundé, capital of Cameroon.
There will be a particular focus on the most vulnerable nations in the world: Least Developed Countries, Small Island Developing States and Landlocked Developing Countries.
A stark example is offered by last October’s Hurricane Matthew, which scythed across the Caribbean and the east coast of North America.
“In Haiti, Hurricane Matthew killed more than 500 people, despite the fact that forecasters knew it was coming and that there was still an international presence helping the country recover from the 2010 earthquake. That underscores the need to vastly improve how warnings reach the people who need them most,” said Mr. Robert Glasser, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction.
The disaster also cost Haiti around one-third of its Gross Domestic Product, in a country where over half of the population lives below the poverty line.
Substantial global efforts are already underway, including the Climate Risk and Early Warning Systems initiative (CREWS), which involves the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the World Bank, Mr. Glasser’s UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), and is led by the Government of France.
“Early warning systems are a first step to climate adaptation,” said Ms. Marie-Pierre Meganck, Head of the European and International Affairs Unit, Directorate General for Risk Prevention, at France’s Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy.
Setting up early warning systems is becoming ever-cheaper thanks to advances in technology. Using communication channels such as internet and cell phone networks, in addition to radio and television, through common alerting protocols, means the cost of an early warning system can be significantly reduced compared to ten years ago..
Improvements in early warning systems, including as a result of the use of weather satellites, the development of national meteorological and hydrological services, and the early action taken by civil protection systems to organise timely evacuations have all helped to drive a fall in mortality numbers from weather-related disasters.
The conference will showcase programmes in regions ranging from Southeast Europe to Southeast Asia, country-specific projects in places such as Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Myanmar, plus satellite-based systems from Europe, China and the United States, and a host of others.
Delegates will also discuss how to promote more globally the award-winning European Meteoalarm network.
Meteoalarm is a platform that gets alerts from national weather services to the general public, avoiding jargon and explaining the potential impacts of incoming hazards using simple language and colour coding.
“More impact-based weather forecasts and early warning systems will save lives both now and in the years ahead. There is a great need to strengthen the disaster early warning and climate service capabilities especially of developing countries. This is a powerful way to adapt to climate change,” said WMO Secretary-General Mr. Petteri Taalas.
Based on repeated analysis of past events, Meteoalarm describes the kind of damage that could be expected, constantly refreshes its data on exposure and vulnerability, and looks at risk from a multi-hazard perspective – in other words, knock-on effects such as how a cold snap might cause fog and trees to freeze, damaging power lines and thus hampering communications, just as a storm rolls in.
“You can’t have an impact-based forecasting system of you don’t have a strong understanding of the potential losses and where they might occur,” underlined Mr. John Harding, of the CREWS secretariat.
Meteoalarm was born after December 1999’s Cyclone Lothar – one of the worst storms to strike Europe in decades, with 140 deaths and almost 10 billion euros of damage.
Lothar was a wake-up call for forecasters, who realised warnings had neither sufficiently reached nor been fully understood by the public.
Impact-based forecasts do not simply list wind speeds, storm categories, rainfall measures, or temperatures, but explain what such data will actually mean in terms of impacts on the public.
Warnings can be adapted, for example for residents or businesses who need to know when to batten down their buildings, commuters and transporters who face traffic disruption, the health sector in a heatwave, or farmers facing flooding.
It is also important to tailor warnings to children, older people and persons with disabilities, among others, and to use the most public-friendly means of transmission, be that mobile phone messages, internet alerts, sirens, community volunteers, or a mix.
Even with tailoring, consistent warnings all along the chain are vital, requiring everyone to follow strict protocols.
Harmonising warnings between multiple agencies and across borders is a complex process. Meteoalarm, which brings together dozens of national agencies, was seven years in the making, going online in 2006. But its lessons could smooth the process for a global equivalent.