Bringing the Pieces of the Early Warning Puzzle Together for Climate-Smart Economies

COP27 in Egypt concluded with a renewed sense of urgency to achieve the United Nations Secretary-General’s call for universal Early Warning System (EWS) coverage by 2027. The goal is clear, but there are several pieces of a puzzle that need to come together to achieve it.

R ecent technological advances make it possible to reach 99% of the population in seconds to alert them of an impending disaster. However, technology alone is not enough. A convergence of people, technology, finance, and governance is required. Our combined public and private experience of more than two decades in early warning systems show that the alignment of these four pieces of the puzzle can help turn the tide against the increasing loss of life and damage to economies caused by climate shocks.

2023 will be a milestone year for early warning systems

The coming 12 months will be unique with the launch of actions as part of the UN Early Warnings for All campaign, a series of new and deepened partnerships and initiatives launched at COP27 on early warning systems, and the upcoming 30th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

2023 will also be the year in which United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) focuses on the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction Target G and its seven indicators. In 2023, a global stocktaking exercise of the status of multi-hazard early warning systems will be completed in coordination with the World Meteorological organization survey. This exercise will identify areas where progress can be accelerated.

Finally, the International Telecommunications Union’s Global Regulators’ Forum in the summer of 2023 has the unique opportunity to accelerate access to mobile networks for emergency management. Mobile phone-based early warning systems have been shown to be the most effective way to warn the population (GSMA, 2013; EENA, 2022).

Puzzle piece 1: Understanding the economic costs of not having early warning systems

The human and economic costs of climate disasters are well understood, and their impact on geopolitical risk has been visible in migration flows for at least a decade. In the first seven years of the Sendai Framework (2015- 2021), it is estimated that 1.05 billion people were affected by disasters, and 300,000 people went missing or lost. The annual reported losses averaged US$ 330 billion, a stunning 1 to 2.2 percent of GDP, with least-developed nations and small landlocked island states bearing a disproportional burden of disaster-related economic losses relative to their national gross domestic product. Most important, in 2021 alone, 38 million new internally displaced people were recorded, of whom over 60 percent were displaced due to climate-related disasters.

At the current pace, the extent and frequency of disasters will soon make climate risk commercially uninsurable. Early warning systems can significantly reduce these damages. For example, according to the recently published UNDRR Global Status of Multi-Hazard Early Warning Systems (MHEWS), countries reporting limited or no coverage of MHEWS show up to eight times the mortality rates compared to countries that have one. Given the relatively small cost of these systems, the benefit-to-cost ratio has been calculated to be well above 10:1.

Furthermore, the potential business and economic opportunities a universal ESW can unleash are considerable. For example, new data-driven models based on the diffusion of 5G networks, artificial intelligence, and machine learning can open opportunities for the index-based insurance industry.

Puzzle piece 2: Mainstreaming early warning systems in development finance

Multilateral Banks and Development Finance Institutions are among the largest global providers of development capital and can strengthen the resilience of their investments by mainstreaming early warning systems. The relatively minor costs of EWSs and the substantial benefits they bring are a unique opportunity to enhance the resilience of investments (no matter the sector – from health to education to infrastructure and agriculture).

Furthermore, implementing EWS closely related to these investments will ensure that the information produced by the systems is used effectively and embedded in the operations and continuous resilience improvements of those projects. Of course, the connection and interoperability of these EWS with the national emergency system are critical. A specific EWS for a road transport network would bring particular benefits to road users – from logistics to private drivers – but needs to be connected to the national EWS for coordinated alert transmission.

Puzzle piece 3: EWS need to be designed for rapidly evolving technologies

Rapid technological advances are driving EWS costs down and are increasingly allowing targeted warnings to reach everybody. Over the last decade, technological improvements of EWS have accelerated. In 2013, a GSMA Disaster reduction analysis indicated the benefits associated with the rise of mobile networks’ use in public alert systems, particularly Cell-Broadcast. Since then, most governments around the world have adopted mobile alerting technologies. These systems are enhanced by extensive situational intelligence capabilities provided by heat maps, two-way communication, and data provided by location-based SMS functionalities.  Mobile alerting allows for the fastest diffusion of information, leveraging existing infrastructure with limited costs. Considering GSMA’s estimates that by the end of 2025, the total number of mobile-cellular subscribers will reach 5.7 billion, or 70 percent of the global population, the potential coverage to reach people at risk is evident.

In addition, today, alert messages can be conveyed simultaneously via a common alerting protocol (CAP) over multiple other channels, ranging from meteorological sources to web applications, TV, radio, digital billboards, sirens, and social media. What is critical is to have a single, authoritative, and trustworthy source issuing the original alert that is disseminated through all these channels.

Puzzle piece 4: Clear and efficient governance and regulations are core to the success of EWS

Governance and regulations can accelerate or hinder the 2027 goal of the Early Warnings for All initiative. Universal adoption of EWS requires good governance. It is critical to have institutions and systems that integrate meteorological forecasting, disseminate clear messages to the population exposed to a risk event in a timely and capillary manner, and accumulate risk data information for further analysis and optimization of future responses.

Furthermore, regulations of the telecommunications sector can accelerate or hinder progress in EWS. The very rapid uptake of EWS in EU countries between 2018 and 2022 provides a good example. This rapid uptake resulted from a clear regulation endorsed by the Board of European Regulators (BEREC) and supported by a reputable industry association like the European Emergency Number Association (EENA). The EU Dir 2018/1972 (Art.110) goes beyond a mere “tick-the-box” MHEWS adoption and focuses instead on objective MHEWS impact measures (notably time and population coverage).

From puzzle pieces to landscape

The success of the Early Warnings for All initiative requires bringing these four pieces of the puzzle together. Inter-governmental coordination, whole-of-society use of ESWs, private sector engagement, learning, and reiterative improvements can provide a massive return on investments and ensure their sustainability.

Equally important, technological progress, good governance and regulations, and the innovations that the private sector can bring to climate adaptation are all elements that can lift the game for the enhanced resilience of nations and communities.

The ideas presented in this article aim to inspire adaptation action – they are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Global Center on Adaptation.

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