Climate information seen as key in new Early Warning, Early Action report

The latest World Disasters Report by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies argues that disaster-relief agencies need to shift focus from expensive response operations to cost-effective prevention measures. An important component of this, the report details, is using climate records, monitoring and forecasts to make planning decisions days, weeks, even months ahead.

The WDR lays out a relatively new operational approach, called “early warning, early action”, which the International Federation says will save more lives per dollar spent. It argues that public money buys about four times as much humanitarian ‘impact’ if spent on preparation before disaster strikes than on response.

“We are pleased to see that the new World Disasters Report stresses the value of climate information in reducing disaster risks,” says Stephen Zebiak, director-general of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society. “Decision makers need reliable, science-based information to know how, where and when to prepare. In developing such information, the IRI aims to make sure its work is guided by real needs and is useable by those who need it.”

In late 2007, the IRI partnered with the International Federation to develop tailored forecasting and monitoring products to help the organization improve its capabilities to respond to and prepare for emergencies. The resulting International Federation Map Room is now being used daily in the organization’s operations. The collaboration is timely: the number of annual weather-related disasters has been rising steadily since the 1990s, according to the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre. And last year, hydrometeorological events such as floods, storms, heatwaves and droughts together accounted for nearly 60 percent of the International Federation’s internal disaster relief emergency fund (DREF) grants, most of them relatively small-scale events.

“Early warning and early action together can save thousands of lives and livelihoods, reduce vulnerability and strengthen resilience,” writes Bekele Geleta, the Federation’s Secretary General. “Strengthening communities’ capacities to prevent and/or cope with the impact of hazards is a concrete way to prevent disasters from retarding the development of the poorest countries.”

User-oriented climate products

“Climate risk management is about incorporating climate into decision-making at all levels. It is about enabling and supporting the use of climate and related information by decision makers, and particularly those who are directly at risk from the climate. With this information, people can make better decisions…They can protect themselves in advance of extreme weather, but can also take advantage of favourable weather and can learn to address the issue of uncertainty.”

WDR 2009, pg. 103

While scientific advances have revolutionized forecasting and the communications technology used for warnings, the WDR argues that a more people-centred approach is essential to ensure information and warnings captured by satellites, computer modelling and other technologies reach the most vulnerable communities, which can then act on them. Early-warning products can be too technical and include large uncertainties, and they do not naturally lead humanitarian actors to a decision, the authors contend.

With this in mind, three students in the Climate and Society Master’s program embarked on internships with the IRI and the International Federation in 2008 to act as bridges between the providers of climate information and regional offices of the International Federation in Senegal and Panama. The interns’ goal was to review the available climate and weather monitoring and forecasting tools and see how the information could be improved to encourage decision makers to understand and use it.

The report details the experience of intern Arame Tall, who spent several months working in the West and Central Africa zone office in Dakar, Senegal. Tall worked with the disaster management team there to increase its understanding of seasonal forecasts and support preparedness strategies. Understanding of this information helped inform the decision by the regional office to issue of a preemptive appeal for preparedness activities, worth nearly $750,000 by the International Federation-the first of its kind. The appeal broke new ground because it was based solely on the threat of future flooding, derived from seasonal forecasts that called for above-average rainfall for the region. While there was no major emergency in any one country, disaster managers were much better placed to deal with the widespread smaller emergencies that did occur-especially in Benin and Togo.

This summer, the internship program has expanded to ten students working in ten countries.

For additional information about the World Disasters Report, visit the International Federation’s web site.