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Strengthening Early Warning Systems for Disasters

It is clear that Southeast Asia is highly prone to natural disasters such as floods, droughts, cyclones, typhoons and tropical storms. The Great Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, Cyclone Nargis in 2008, Typhoon Ketsana in 2009 and the Thailand Floods in 2011 are examples of the catastrophic events that have affected the region in recent history. Each event caused extensive economic damage and took its toll on human lives.

These incidents make it apparent that there is a need to alert people of the risks posed by natural disasters. However, this realization came too late when over 230,000 people lost their lives due to the 2004 tsunami.

This event highlighted the immediate need for early warning systems in the Southeast Asian region, promoted by the global outpouring of support. It also presented an opportunity to raise public awareness on the importance of building greater resilience towards natural disasters.

During the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in 2005, development leaders stressed the importance of developing early warning systems that are people-centered, which means that they deliver timely and understandable warnings to those at risk. This would reduce disaster risk and improve safety, and increase awareness in disaster-prone regions.

Today, many countries in Southeast Asia have established early warning systems for better preparedness complimenting one of the seven global targets as outlined in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015−2030. The Sendai Framework acts as a guidance document for disaster risk reduction development initiatives over the next 15 years.

Community members evacuating due to a riverine flood in Toungoo township in Myanmar during ADPC’s emergency simulation.

Community members evacuating due to a riverine flood in Toungoo township in Myanmar during ADPC’s emergency simulation.

Identifying gaps in disaster communication

The primary objective of having an early warning system is to empower individuals and communities to respond timely to natural hazards by following the four components developed by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. The components that are aimed at reducing the risks caused by disasters to life and property include the use of risk knowledge, monitoring and warning services, dissemination and communication, and response capability.

Although early warning systems are in place in the region, improving the effectiveness of a system does not in itself lead to reducing disaster risk. One needs to understand the functionalities of the system and ensure the system is regularly updated.

By definition, an early warning system sends alert messages to the vulnerable populations during the event of an upcoming disaster. It is made up of a chain of communication channels that are comprised of sensors, detection systems, decision support tools and sub-system messaging tools. As high-tech as the system is, it is still at risk of errors if policy and practice do not support the technology.

While most countries in Southeast Asia have well-established early warning systems, identifying the existing gaps in warning dissemination and response can help address shortcomings, and aid countries and the international community in strengthening the systems.

Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC) has been helping governments and communities improve their capacity to effectively respond and adapt to the changing climate by strengthening early warning systems in Southeast Asia.

ADPC promotes partnerships and networking across communities, countries, institutions and sectors. This facilitates the exchange of experiences and practices in strengthening early warning systems by identifying and filling gaps in existing policies and institutional arrangements of National Disaster Management Organizations and other agencies. The learning exchange builds expertise among stakeholders for the effective application
of warning information.

Over the years, ADPC has implemented various projects in the region with a focus on strengthening early warning systems. From this work, we’ve selected success stories from Myanmar and Cambodia presented below.

A group of community first responders together with the trainers at ADPC’s emergency simulation in Toungoo township in Myanmar.

A group of community first responders together with the trainers at ADPC’s emergency simulation in Toungoo township in Myanmar.

Building preparedness through practice in Myanmar

In Myanmar, ADPC worked with the Department of Meteorology and Hydrology and the Relief and Resettlement Department to strengthen early warning systems in the country’s coastal belts. The regional project was funded by the ESCAP Trust Fund for Tsunami, Disaster and Climate Preparedness and it provided ADPC an opportunity to conduct simulations and drills to test the readiness of the areas’ early warning systems and build awareness of their importance.

“It is useful to see how coastal communities in Myanmar are preparing themselves by utilizing the warnings and forecasts provided by our department. This is a useful learning experience towards a people-centric end-to-end early warning system in Myanmar,” said Dr. Hrin Nei Thiam, Director General of the Department of Meteorology and Hydrology.

ADPC designed the project activities in consultation with the government, pilot townships, village administrations and local communities, who all provided insights into the existing community-based early warning systems and their gaps.

Several key developments took place during the process including connecting the national and state level to better communicate early warning messages, which had been identified as a gap in the past. Early warning messages from the Department of Meteorology and Hydrology were enhanced to make risk-related information more accessible and understandable at the community-level. Also, awareness was created among the communities about minimum standards and procedures that they need to follow to identify safe evacuation sites. This knowledge can be applied in different areas in hopes that safe zones can be identified when needed.

Responders bring relief supplies to people evacuated due to riverine flooding during an emergency simulation in Toungoo township in Myanmar.

Responders bring relief supplies to people evacuated due to riverine flooding during an emergency simulation in Toungoo township in Myanmar.

Improving early warning systems through policy strengthening in Cambodia

During Typhoon Ketsana in 2009, it became apparent that Cambodian provinces did not have the tools and capacity required for a timely delivery of life-saving information to authorities and residents in local communes. This confusion caused increased losses of life and damages to property.

In the aftermath of the disaster, and as part of the Ketsana Emergency Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Project led by the World Bank, ADPC provided technical assistance to the National Committee for Disaster Management of Cambodia in addressing the gaps in the country’s early warning system. Together with ADPC, the National Committee for Disaster Management developed a roadmap to establish a multi-hazard early warning system within their proposed Disaster Management Information Center.

ADPC conducted gap assessments that found inconsistencies in disaster data, characterized by poor availability and a lack of historical records. Stakeholders also had limited opportunities to access, share and effectively use the existing data to generate risk information and knowledge, and the specific roles and responsibilities of different actors in emergencies were still to be defined.

From ADPC’s recommendation, the National Committee for Disaster Management established official communication protocols with its technical partners. A royal decree now requires for the National Committee for Disaster Management to enter into bilateral and multilateral agreements to enable effective coordination with its stakeholders and make them accountable for upholding the communication protocols. It also gave the National Committee for Disaster Management the authority to fill the gaps and meet the requirements of good weather services provided by early warning systems by upgrading its existing instruments, improving the observation quality, keeping record of good-quality data and proper monitoring and forecasting systems.

“We have seen improvement in the commitment to disaster risk management. However, gaps and threats still remain and we need to strengthen the system and develop capacities to make the system more effective. We need technical assistance in identifying the local risks and vulnerabilities as well as their impacts on different sectors and response programs,” said H.E. Ross Sovann, Deputy Secretary General, National Committee on Disaster Management.

The importance of an informed community

Early warning systems give communities the ability to make risk-informed decisions in disaster situations. This information is crucial because it makes people aware of the need to keep themselves and their loved ones safe during a disaster.

While little can be done to prevent the increased frequency of natural disasters, informed populations can lessen disaster impacts. By doing this, we can help reduce the loss of life disasters cause and help promote best practices for future generations to follow.

For more information, go to www.adpc.net

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Dr. Rishiraj Dutta serves as Technical Specialist at the Department of Climate Change and Climate Risk Management at Asian Disaster Preparedness Center.