Seven reasons to act early, before a hazard turns into a disaster

Author(s) Martin Field
Heavy flooding from monsoon rain and tide from river in Dohar, Bangladesh (2016)
Sohel Parvez Haque/Shutterstock

Anticipatory action allows humanitarians and affected communities to make informed decisions ahead of a crisis. This means saving time and money; preventing displacement, disease, loss of livelihood; and preserving the dignity of those affected.  

1. Better information leads to better decisions  

More than half of all humanitarian crises can now be predicted, thanks to advances in data collection, forecasting and risk analysis. Early interventions and funding can be planned, ahead of the shock.  

The key is coordinated analysis, planning and implementation. Disaster relief funds – like the Start Fund, the DREF, and CERF – provide a pool of funds and expertise. Advance planning draws in experts from diverse disciplines – like risk analysis, meteorology, logistics and delivery, both at the global and the local level.  Potential disasters are predicted using climatic models, weather forecasts, satellite images and demographic data. A specified trigger activates the plan, releasing budgeted funds.  

2. Saving time means saving lives and livelihoods 

Getting in early can mean the difference between life and death. 

Traditional humanitarian interventions respond to a disaster once it has unfolded. Getting in ahead of the crisis is more effective, saving more lives, and preventing suffering. 

Anticipatory action and forecast-based financing are designed to quickly unlock pre-arranged funds to respond to crises in their early stages.   

In Bangladesh, for example, an anticipatory action pilot programme was triggered when floods hit in July 2020, releasing $5.2m in CERF funding within hours. Recipients started receiving cash and emergency supplies three days before the worst flooding, giving time to prepare themselves and to protect their families and homes.  

3. Preparing communities can reduce displacement 

Early interventions can keep people safe in their homes, or ensure that evacuations are temporary. 

In the Philippines, a forecasted category 4 typhoon will trigger a pilot anticipatory action plan. Conrado Navidad, IOM’s National Emergency Coordinator for the Philippines, explained that families in targeted districts will start receiving cash payments three days before the typhoon hits. This gives them time to buy supplies to sustain themselves and fortify their houses – using techniques recommended through a preparatory campaign ahead of the typhoons. 

“If their houses were not strengthened, they would be forced to stay longer in the shelter,” he noted. “As much as possible we don’t want them to stay long in the evacuation centres, they need to decamp as soon as it is safe to return. They can only do that if they have houses to return to – even if they are damaged but can be repaired quickly.” 

Reducing the time spent in shelters also helps reduce Covid-19 risks, Navidad said, and the plan’s design also encourages social distancing when collecting payments and supplies. 

4. Early intervention keeps more people healthy  

Offering early assistance greatly reduces health problems and the psychological trauma that accompanies disaster. 

In Somalia, analysis showed imminent food insecurity in June 2020, caused by floods, desert locust infestations, and Covid-19. This triggered CERF-funded anticipatory action, and, within weeks, hygiene kits were distributed to 53,000 people and 30 wells were upgraded to provide access to clean water, reducing the spread of disease. Early delivery of emergency supplies included nutritional supplements, cholera kits, and trauma kits, as well as testing facilities for Covid-19 and other contagious diseases.  

This pro-active intervention reduced the spread of disease, and directly improved nutrition for 5,700 children and 20,000 pregnant and lactating women. 

5. Protecting livelihoods strengthens resilience 

Disasters disrupt people’s capacity to work and produce food. Anticipatory action helps them to prepare themselves and reduce negative impacts. 

The FAO uses anticipatory action to respond to slow-onset hazards by bolstering agricultural and pastoralist capacity. In the Philippines this has involved distributing drought-tolerant rice seeds and farming equipment. In Mongolia, cash transfers and animal care kits helped avoid negative coping strategies like selling livestock and other valuable assets, in the event of a dzud – a climatic hazard involving drought and extreme cold. 

In Ecuador, the Red Cross movement’s early action protocol (EAP) for volcanic ashfall involved cash payments and livestock protection, giving local farmers greater resilience: “More than 40% of families [in the programme] explained that if they wouldn’t have had these cash payouts and livelihood kits, they would have sold their cows and livestock at six times under the market price,” said  Mathieu Destrooper, Red Cross Regional Anticipation Advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean. 

6. Preserving dignity reduces dependence and disruption 

Anticipatory action reduces dependence on humanitarian assistance.  

Cash transfers, material supplies, and information provided ahead of the crisis let individuals and communities make their own choices, preserving their dignity. 

Typically, during a preparatory phase, well ahead of the hazard, prospective recipients are consulted, and information is provided on how the actions would unfold, how to take appropriate measures, and what materials would be required. 

“In Bangladesh, by receiving support before the peak flooding, beneficiaries were encouraged to prepare themselves and face the crisis on their own terms,” OCHA anticipatory action specialist Daniela Cuéllar noted. “Spillover effects are also evident: some 76 per cent of women and girls who received dignity and menstrual hygiene kits were more likely to access regular health care, continue school, generate income, or participate in social and community activities, compared to non-recipients.” 

7. Saving money, to reach more people 

In 2022 a record 274 million people – one in every 29 people – will need humanitarian assistance and protection, requiring a budget of US$41 billion. 

“It’s obvious that we need to use our resources more intelligently,” says Nicholas Bishop, DRR focal point at IOM, “If we can deliver in a more effective way, we can serve more people with the same amount of funding.” 

Anticipatory action clearly allows more effective delivery: the FAO calculates that every dollar invested in anticipatory action gives families seven dollars in benefits and avoided losses. 

The evidence is clear. It is time to scale up! 

“Anticipatory Action is not just a theoretical approach,” said Rein Paulsen, Director of FAO’s Office of Emergencies and Resilience, in a PreventionWeb blog post.   

“It is a proven way to manage the fallout from a climate disaster or conflict. We have early warning systems in place and a clear understanding of how disasters evolve in order to pre-empt the worst impacts.” 

Humanitarian, development and disaster reduction organisations are adopting forecast-based approaches to meet the challenges posed by extreme climatic events. UNDRR has a central role, contributing to anticipatory action networks and platforms and forging links between agencies involved in humanitarian action, climate research, long-range forecasting and disaster risk reduction.  

As part of this focus, in 2022 PreventionWeb will be expanding its resources on anticipatory action and the humanitarian-DRR nexus. Watch this space! 


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