Six global lessons learned on early warning systems

Based on our experience with public warning systems protecting more than 800 million people in more than 20 countries worldwide, we have learned six important lessons that may be useful for the dialogues and action in this crucial month for climate-related disasters.

T he recent disasters are a stark reminder that no country or community is fully protected. From the July 2021 floods in Europe with more than 240 fatalities and close to Euro 2.5 billion in insured losses to the Haiti earthquake with more than 2,200 fatalities and 800,000 people affected.

The frequency and intensity of climate-related disasters will continue to grow. According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the number of weather, water, and climate disasters has increased by a factor of five from the 1970s to the 2010s. Fortunately, death tolls have fallen in that same period – from over 50,000 deaths in the 1970s to less than 20,000 in the 2010s. The IPCC, and many other organizations, have credited the advances in early warning systems worldwide for this downward trend.

Early warning systems are integrated systems to monitor and predict hazards, assess risks of disasters, and communicate these risks to individuals, communities, businesses, and governments so they can take timely action. Unfortunately, data provided by 138 WMO member countries show that only 40 percent of them have multi-hazard early warning systems.

The month of October has two critical milestones for disasters risk reduction and early warning systems. First, the international day for disaster risk reduction 2021 focuses on enhancing international cooperation with developing countries. Second, the COP26 in Glasgow (from 31 October to 12 November). One of the COP26 goals is to enable and encourage countries affected by climate change to “build defenses, warning systems, and resilient infrastructure and agriculture to avoid loss of homes, livelihoods, and lives.”
Based on our experience with public warning systems protecting more than 800 million people in more than 20 countries worldwide, we have learned six important lessons that may be useful for the dialogues and action in this crucial month for climate-related disasters.

1. Disasters are complex in nature; warning messages do not have to be

The ability of citizens and businesses to take informed action depends on balancing details on impending disasters and updated risk information with the simplicity of the message.

2. Multiple channels are needed to reach all potentially affected

Ensuring that every potentially affected person and business is informed needs multiple channels – from traditional systems like SMS, radio messages, and public board messages in roads and public transport stations, to modern systems like coordinated and targeted cell broadcasts and location-based SMS. For example, the warning system.

India’s coastal Early Warning Emergency Messaging System sends critical location-based messages to mobile phones before, during, and after emergencies, as well as regular SMS and voice calls. The system is designed to reach over 46 million residents of Odisha, 54 million from Andhra Pradesh, and 34 million in Kerala. The system was widely used in one of the deadliest cyclones in Odisha in 2019 (Cyclone Fani), saving thousands of lives.

3. Warning systems need to be inclusive

Leaving nobody behind in emergencies requires adjusting messages to diverse audiences through different languages, accessibility for persons with disabilities, and various channels for those who do not frequently use or have access to mobile phones. A key lesson of the floods caused by Hurricane Ida in New York earlier this year was the need to break language barriers in warning systems to immigrant communities. Tourist destinations need warning systems in multiple languages to alert visiting tourists, like Peru’s early warning emergency messaging system (Sismate) designed to reach the 33 million residents and the four million tourists that usually visit the country.

4. Warning systems need to be targeted

General alert messages without specific information or distributed broadly in areas that are not in danger can generate confusion and erode the trust in the warning system. Fortunately, technology now allows alerts to be sent only to mobile phones active in the affected area at the time of the alert, as well as anyone entering the affected area afterward. Warning systems can also send “all clear” messages only to those affected.

5. Alert messages are not enough; early planning and drills are a must

The effectiveness of an emergency alert is directly related to the capacity of individuals and businesses to act upon it. This generally requires early planning not only by Governments but also by households. For example, the seismic alert system in Mexico (Sasmex) is combined with periodic drills for greater effectiveness.

6. Inter-institutional coordination is essential

Numerous agencies need to prepare for disasters, the issuance of warnings, and the post-disaster recovery and continuous alert system. An integrated warning system can break the institutional barriers for improved flow of information and better response. The alert system in Mauritius allows all government and law enforcement agencies to inform their local stakeholders in a coordinated manner on emergency events.

Each early warning system needs to respond to the specific hazards and the institutional and cultural characteristics of each country. However, there are lessons of global experience that can guide international cooperation with developing countries to reduce disaster risks. Warning systems are central to minimize the loss of lives and assets.

Ede Ijjasz is the CEO and Founder of Eigen Impact Consulting, a boutique consulting firm specializing in strategy, sustainability, evaluation, and leadership development, with offices in Washington, DC, and Sydney. Mr. Ijjasz is a Senior Advisor to the Global Center on Adaptation. Mr. Ijjasz worked for more than 23 years with the World Bank. During his career at the World Bank, he worked in more than 90 developing and emerging countries in all regions of the world – from fragile and conflict-affected countries to high-middle-income countries. He was responsible for a portfolio of about $80 billion of investments and close to 800 policy and advisory reports. He was regional director for sustainable development and infrastructure for Africa and Latin America, global senior director for the social, urban, rural, and resilience technical practice, and manager of the China sustainable development and infrastructure program. He has been featured in several global media outlets such as CNN, Wall St. Journal, Time, The Economist, LA Times, and CNBC. 

Valerie Risk is Vice President of Everbridge International Public Warning Systems. A leader with a passion for transformation strategies and solutions that unlock value and bring a fresh perspective to critical operations globally, Val has been working in IT and Digital for over 30 years.  UK 2018 Times Business In The Community Gender Champion and dedicated to challenging, collaborating and inspiring.  A confessed non-conformist and game changer who believes in the power of making a difference in a digital and diverse world.

Rachele Gianfranchi is Heading Government Affairs at Everbridge, in the Netherlands. In the last 20 years she built her experience working for the EU Commission, The World Bank’s IBRD, setting up and managing a Brussels-based advisory firm. Her policy and regulatory expertise have been in telecom regulation and digital, including AI, climate. She has a Masters’ degree from Johns Hopkins University and a degree in Political Science from Università di Firenze. Mother of two, open-water swimmer, she is based in Amsterdam since 2015.

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.

Related blog posts: