Sounding the Alarm: a unique role in Early Warning Early Action

by Global Disaster Preparedness Center (GDPC) | Dec 27, 2023 | Insights and Inspirations

Amid escalating climate uncertainties, the Global Disater Preparedness Center (GDPC)’s unique position in our Network bridges critical gaps in effective early warning systems, embraces the collaborative approach needed for precise early warnings and acknowledging diverse stakeholders, and commits to translating knowledge into action, ensuring no community is left vulnerable in the face of disaster. Discover why it is vital in 2024.

Imagine the situation. The rains started two days ago and show no signs of stopping. Though not surprising for the rainy season, this storm is particularly torrential. As the river rises dangerously high, creeping towards your home, you realize the threat of devastating floods. You and your neighbors scramble to evacuate but don’t have enough time to gather essential supplies, protect livestock, or save valuables. If you had only been warned, you could have avoided so much loss and heartache.

While hypothetical, this scenario reflects the real challenges that millions of people face worldwide. As carbon emissions continue to rise, weather patterns are becoming increasingly unpredictable. The frequency and intensity of extreme weather events is on the rise. In 2022 alone, the financial impact from disasters reached USD 275 billion. Over 30,000 people died and 125 million were directly affected by disasters.

August 15, 2023. Wailuku, Hawaii. American Red Cross staffer Doyle Rader holds hands with Thao Tran as she recalls her harrowing and desperate story of survival from the wildfire that swept through Lahaina. Tran recognized a familiar face at the shelter: The man who saved her life. “He pulled me from Hell back to Heaven,” Tran said. Photo by Scott Dalton/American Red Cross

Early warnings save lives and reduce disaster impacts, but almost half the global population lacks access to adequate early warnings. With its experience working with vulnerable communities and an expansive network of volunteers, our network of Red Cross Red Crescent National Societies is uniquely positioned to change this. As climate change accelerates disaster frequency and intensity, doubling down the Red Cross Red Crescent efforts in early warning is more crucial than ever to safeguard communities.

Celebrating wins and learning from failures

2023 has seen many missed opportunities for effective early warning and early action. From the Derna dam collapse in Libya to wildfires in Maui, these events reminded us how devastating disaster impacts can be when warnings fail. Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies are uniquely placed to help advocate for and aid in building these life-saving approaches to keeping people safe from disaster.

This vital work has radically reduced cyclone mortality rates in Bangladesh – from the hundreds of thousands in the 1970s to single digits today.

We can find inspiration in the many examples of strong and effective early warning systems within the network. Some of these systems arose out of necessity and urgency after past tragedies. Triggered by a devastating 1970 cyclone that claimed over 300,000 lives, the Bangladesh Red Crescent established the Cyclone Preparedness Program. This program has trained thousands of community members to help each other carry messages from door to door and move people to safety in advance of a cyclone. Here, the Red Crescent is just one important link in a chain of informants who help to share the warning messages with the “last mile” communities. The simple scene of a Red Crescent volunteer bicycling through a neighborhood with a bullhorn, warning people of the alert and the immediate actions to be taken, encapsulates community-based early warning system that saves lives. This vital work has radically reduced cyclone mortality rates in Bangladesh – from the hundreds of thousands in the 1970s to single digits today.

Parbati Gurung, Chisapani community flood gauge reader, monitors the level of the river upstream and alerts the community when the water reaches a dangerous height. Community members downstream also call her for further information (Photo by Practical Action).

There are many other early warning success stories where timely warnings helped avert loss of life. Ahead of Mount Pinatubo’s 1991 eruption and Typhoon Yunya’s landfall in the Philippines, a joint Philippine-American team undertook a massive evacuation, removing over 58,000 people from harm’s way. Thanks to early warnings and urgent collaboration between officials at all levels, this pre-emptive action significantly reduced the dual disasters’ impacts. In Nepal, investments in community-based flood early warning systems significantly extended warning lead time to take action. (For more examples of early warning successes and lessons learned from failures, check out our recent report.)

In addition to knowing when and where a storm will strike, we can now better predict likely human impacts.

In the 50 years since the Cyclone Preparedness Program began, innovations have helped make early warning more precise and effective. Advances in technology allow for more accurate and timely hazard predictions. In addition to knowing when and where a storm will strike, we can now better predict likely human impacts. Improvements in communication and mobile technologies also enable alerts to reach more people faster. This has triggered a great number of approaches and good practices

A collaborative approach to early warnings

Yet amidst new solutions and innovation, investing in fundamentals remains vital. Effective early warning systems (EWS) can’t be designed or implemented by one actor. EWS capabilities exist among diverse stakeholders at various levels, from local capacities needed to support marginalized communities to private sector and informal partners to access relevant data or develop innovations for early warning. 

Research and tools have been developed to better understand good practices, challenges and obstacles to delivering early warning and early actions messages across channels, languages and with inclusivity in mind. To be effective, coordinated participation at all levels is essential – spanning international agencies, national governments, universities, civil society groups, local officials, and grassroots community networks. Ultimately, communities at the last mile need to be involved, and feedback loops are necessary to continually improve the quality and understanding of the messages.

Translating knowledge into action

Issuing and disseminating alerts is only part of the challenge. Equally important is offering clear, actionable guidance and ensuring communities know how to act on them. After all, issuing a warning that results in no action is a useless effort.

Helping educate communities on the importance of listening to alerts and how to take appropriate action is an important responsibility. With their trusted community status, Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers and staff can convey critical messages and advise on key response measures. Leveraging existing community-based disaster risk reduction tools and approaches (EVCA, Public Awareness Public Education (PAPE), City-Wide Risk Assessment, etc.), National Societies can play a crucial role in enhancing preparedness and enabling effective early action.

Integrated Flood Resilience Programme in Bangladesh. Photo by Al-Shahriar Rupam/IFRC BD

Recognizing this unique capacity, the IFRC has joined the Early Warning for All (EW4All) initiative, leading Pillar 4 on Preparedness to Respond. This important global UN effort, currently being rolled out in 30 countries, is a prime opportunity to put early warning and early action at the forefront of our work, and should not be limited to the pilot locations. Though IFRC heads the Pillar, achieving success requires every National Society to embrace this responsibility and opportunity. 

Our experience shows that informed, empowered communities, when properly equipped, can protect themselves.

Many National Societies have long-standing experience working with vulnerable communities on disaster preparedness. It is vital to expand this work to prioritize early warning early action as this is one of the most effective ways to mitigate disaster impacts. Our experience shows that informed, empowered communities, when properly equipped, can protect themselves. As trusted local partners, RCRC National Societies should play an important role to support communities in this process, leveraging their unique community ties to ensure life-saving alerts reach everyone.

Moving forward

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