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WMO / ISDR / OCHA / UNDP / Red Cross

Early Warning Systems: saving lives already

Early Warning Systems are a critical component of disaster risk reduction. The development and sustainability of effective early warning systems are costly and resource intensive, but can be achieved through political commitment and organizational coordination and partnerships.

WMO is partnering with the World Bank, Red Cross, OCHA and other UN bodies to disaster warning systems.

Dr Maryam Golnaraghi, Chief of Natural Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Programme, World Meteorological Organization

Close to 90 percent of the loss of life due to all natural disasters in the last 10 years has been the result of hazards such as floods, droughts, tropical cyclones, heat waves and severe storms From 1980 to 2005, weather-, water- and climate-related extremes were also responsible for 72% of the two million casualties from natural disasters and over 75% of the total economic losses. The risks associated with these hazards appear to be on the rise, linked to the changing climate.

But while on the global scale the economic losses associated with weather-, climate- and water-related hazards have increased by nearly 50 fold over the 1956-2005 period, reported loss of life has decreased -from 2.66 million over the 1956-1965 decade to 225,000 from 1996 to 2005.

The reduction in loss of life is attributed to preventive and preparedness strategies involving contingency planning and early warning systems.

Over the last decade there has been an increasing political and public awareness on the importance of early warning systems as a critical component of disaster risk reduction. A few weeks after the tragic December 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, during the Second World Conference on Disaster Reduction (Hyogo, Kobe, Japan, 18-22 January 2005), 168 countries adopted the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015 (HFA) and identified five high priority action areas. The second priority area stresses the need for «identifying, assessing and monitoring disaster risks and enhancing early warnings». HFA stresses that early warning systems are essential investments towards the protection of lives, livelihoods and property, contributing to the sustainability of development, and that they should be integrated into governmental policy and decision-making processes and emergency management systems at national to local levels.

In March 2005, in his report to the 59th General Assembly, Kofi Annan, then UN Secretary-General requested the Secretariat of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) to coordinate a Global Survey of Early Warning Systems. Guided by an ISDR Inter-Agency Task Force (ISDR/IATF) Working Group, co-chaired by WMO and United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the survey confirmed that while there has been rapid progress in the detection, modelling and forecasting of certain hazards and communication methodologies, many gaps remain at the national level along the four components of early warning systems. The report of this survey was launched at the Third International Early Warning Conference, which focused on a set of exemplary projects for addressing gaps in early warning systems, built on partnerships and alliances at national, regional and international levels.

For years WMO has been promoting the importance of prevention strategies in disaster risk reduction built upon contingency planning, preparedness and early warning systems. Over the years, WMO, through its coordinated network of National Meteorological and Hydrological Services of its 188 Members, 40 Regional Specialized Meteorological Centres operated by the National Meteorological Services, and ten international scientific and technical programmes has developed capacities for observing, detecting, developing and disseminating forecasts and warnings for a wide range of weather-, water- and climate-related extremes and conditions. In 2003, WMO Congress established a major crosscutting Natural Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Programme with the vision to strengthen these capacities and cooperation in the field of disaster risk reduction at national to international levels.

Preventive and preparedness strategies involving contingency planning and early warning systems have cut deaths from weather disasters by 90 percent since 1956.

Today it is recognized that one dollar spent on disaster preparedness can prevent US $5-10 of losses. WMO convened an international expert Symposium on «Multi-Hazard Early Warning Systems as an Integral Part of Disaster Risk Reduction», bringing together experts from 18 international, regional and national agencies involved in different aspects of early warning systems, to share experiences on governance, organizational, operational, and financing aspects, and to identify opportunities for strengthening coordination and collaboration among agencies working on different aspects of early warning systems.

WMO is also working with WHO to develop guidelines that any country can use to set up and run Heat/Health Warning Systems. Several showcase projects organized by climate/health expert teams through the WMO Commission for Climatology have demonstrated that interagency partnerships are vital to saving lives when heatwaves threaten.

WMO has other partnerships within and in addition to the United Nations system in sectors such as health, transportation, energy, agriculture and forestry, water resource management, and tourism. The Associated Programme on Flood Management (APFM) is a joint initiative of WMO and the Global Water Partnership (GWP). It promotes the concept of Integrated Flood Management (IFM) as a new approach to overflow control.

Early warning capacities exist, but they need to be improved and expanded to all countries, particularly those with least resources. WMO is initiating partnerships with organizations such as the World Bank, UNDP, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) and OCHA to initiate concrete activities to strengthen early warning capacities at national to local levels.

Dr Maryam Golnaraghi joined WMO in September 2004 to head up its Natural Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Programme. Prior to joining WMO, as the founder and President of Climate Risk Solutions, Inc. a Boston-based consulting firm, she was actively involved with the development of the weather derivatives markets in the United States.