Early warning systems are only as good as the understanding that people have of their messages
By Jonathan Fowler
GENEVA, 28 January 2015 – Early warning systems are doomed to fail if they don’t make sense to the very people that they are meant to help, delegates heard today at an international conference on harnessing science and technology to implement the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.
“We can have the best warning system in the world, the best forecasts, but if the message doesn’t get through to the person on the ground then they’re really not much use,” Mr. Alasdair Hainsworth, Chief of the Disaster Risk Reduction Services Division of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), told the UNISDR Science and Technology Conference.
There is also concern that over 80% of least developed countries have only a basic early warning system and only four or five out of 40 small island states have an effective early warning system in place.
These shortcomings are to be addressed by the US$100 million Climate Risk Early Warning System (CREWS) which was announced at the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in March, 2015 supported by UNISDR, WMO , the World Bank and the French government.
Mr. Hainsworth and other conference speakers flagged the importance of scientific information being pitched in language that means something to non-specialists – whether they are policymakers or members of the general public – if appropriate action is to follow, including safe and orderly evacuations.
“If someone somewhere isn't making a decision that leads to better outcomes, then there’s no point,” said Mr. Phil Evans, Government Services Director at the United Kingdom’s Met Office.
“The question is what is the right language for the end-user,” he added, underlining that there were no hard and fast rules for what works. “It’s a fluid system, and the use of language needs to be driven by what gets the message through.”
The issues at stake are manifold, said Mr. Bapon Fakhruddin, disaster risk reduction and climate specialist at Tonkin and Taylor International Ltd.
“The failing may be that people didn’t understand the warning. It may be that they understood it but ignored it. Or it may be that they understood it, didn’t ignore it, but didn’t respond due to a lack of infrastructure such as shelters,” he said.
Around 700 scientists and policymakers have assembled in Geneva for the three-day conference, which began on Wednesday. They are working on creating a new partnership and a roadmap on the role of science and technology in the Sendai Framework which is a 15-year global agreement that was adopted at the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, with the aim of reducing global disaster mortality and losses.
Early warning systems are a core part of disaster risk reduction, and ensuring that all countries, whatever their economic level, have them in place is among the targets set down in the Sendai Framework.
“When responding to disasters, every action has a cost,” said Dr. Ayse Sezin Tokar, Senior Hydro-Meteorological Hazard Advisor at USAID. “Early warning gives us time to prepare, so we can reduce this cost.”
She offered a recipe for successful early warning: timely, accurate alerts that are specific enough to make sense to people facing a hazard, issued by a credible and reliable source such as an identifiable government agency rather than a plethora of sources, and which are relevant, user-friendly and accessible to all.
The CREWS initiative is one of a number of drives launched to expand early warning systems across the world, with a strong focus on developing countries.
Such plans are also part of a broader need to rein in the impact of climate change, underlined Marie-Pierre Meganck, of France’s Ministry of Ecology. “Early warning is the first step towards climate resilience,” she added.