Early warnings systems are a proven, effective, and feasible tool for climate adaption providing at least a tenfold return on investment. That’s according to the United Nations which is hoping to provide everyone on earth early warnings against extreme and dangerous weather in the next five years.
The UN estimates that it will cost USD 3.1 billion dollars or just 50 cents per person per year to set up the Early Warnings for All system (EW4ALL). This global system is a collaborative multi-stakeholder climate adaptation program that includes the private sector, civil society, academia, financial institutions, and disaster experts among others. The good news is that implementation has begun just a few months after the announcement of setting up the system.
In February 2023, the Caribbean saw the first regional launch of EW4ALL to enhance its existing weather forecasting and disaster risk management strategies. In the months ahead, at least 30 other particularly at-risk countries will see components of the system being rolled out. Experts say the need for system is felt now more than ever considering the global context.
EWS coverage needs to be complemented with context-specific effective warning dissemination methods and translated to clearly outlined emergency action plans to reduce economic losses and the negative impacts on human wellbeing.
“Only half of the 193 Members of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) have proper early warning systems in place and there are major deficits in the weather observing networks especially in Africa and Pacific and Caribbean Islands,” says Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of WMO.
The Early Warning initiative is expected to address that by investing in and improving disaster risk knowledge, observation and forecasting abilities, dissemination and communication and disaster preparedness and response.
Currently less than 50% countries have a multi-hazard warning system for disaster risk knowledge in place. There are also major gaps in observation, monitoring and forecasting of hazards and communicating warnings and disaster related information to those who are most vulnerable.
The UN’s action plan for the new system points out that there are also gaps in preparedness, response plans and capabilities related to policy development, governance, collaboration and inclusion at large.
“The negative trend of weather patterns will continue until 2060 at least, and melting of glaciers and sea level rise for the coming thousands of years. A powerful way to mitigate those effects is invest in multi-hazard early warning systems and to create impact-based forecasts,” says Taalas.
The gaps have been identified, funding for overhauling the system is underway, the number of collaborators has crossed 150 and the 5-year action plan for the global Early Warning System (EWS) for all is under implementation. So what are the challenges this system faces?
“The utility of EWS hinges on multiple factors, and ensuring global technological coverage alone is not enough. EWS coverage needs to be complemented with context-specific effective warning dissemination methods and translated to clearly outlined emergency action plans to reduce economic losses and the negative impacts on human wellbeing,” says Rohini Pande, Professor of Economics and Director of the Economic Growth Center and Inclusion Economics at Yale University.
Pande cites the example of an Early Warning System that she has been working on with Inclusion Economics at Yale University and Google research since 2019. The program deploys advanced machine learning models to generate high quality flood forecasts and smartphone-based alerts. These flood warnings are then disseminated grassroots volunteers through traditional and digital communication channels to vulnerable communities in Bihar in India.
A midline survey covering 119 local communities and 634 households revealed some interesting results. Compared to control communities, households in where local volunteers were active were 50% more likely to receive alerts before water reached their area and were 57% more likely to report receiving highly accurate flood alerts.
“After three years of iteration and trial-and-error, we have identified an effective community-based dissemination method that amplifies the reach of flood alerts and which rural households can access, trust, and act on,” explains Pande.
The negative trend of weather patterns will continue until 2060 at least, and melting of glaciers and sea level rise for the coming thousands of years. A powerful way to mitigate those effects is invest in multi-hazard early warning systems and to create impact-based forecasts.
The other challenge is that it will take five years for the EW4ALL to be fully implemented across the world. Considering that climate change risks are escalating faster than expected, will it be a case of too little too late?
Pande thinks that we need to consider two main factors when thinking about the timeline. The first is technological coverage since lower-income countries visibly lag behind. The second factor is having appropriate systems in place for driving preparedness capabilities and implementing time-sensitive response actions.
“It is precisely in this latter context where climate financing needs to support local climate adaptation and resilience strategies actively, disaster risk and preparedness knowledge sharing needs to be enhanced, and more research on cost-effective scalable solutions needs to be undertaken,” she explains.
The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) points out that accelerated action to adapt to climate change is essential to close the gap between existing adaptation and what is needed. The UN Secretary General too has called for climate action on all fronts saying we need to do everything, everywhere, all at once. The EW4ALL is a crucial solution to achieve that, despite the challenges it faces.