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United Nations steps for building functional early warning systems

Source(s):  Glacier Hub

By Nabilah Islam

Communities around the world have been faced with sharp increase in disasters and severe weather events, resulting in extensive damage devastation. Hurricanes, cyclones, and glacier avalanches are some examples of events that have had significant consequences on vulnerable communities and human wellbeing. In order for societies to withstand major disasters, they must take precautionary actions and measures to prepare for impact and prevent potentially devastating outcomes.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) recently released a report on early warning systems (EWS). “Five Approaches to Build Functional Early Warning Systems” aims to support innovation and the development of systems through highlighting methods that have been successfully tested in southeast Europe, South Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan), and Central Asia. It emphasizes the importance of these systems as a necessary tool to improve quality of life and in building resilient nations.

The UNDP recognizes the effects of disasters on communities, particularly to developing countries and more vulnerable populations. “Around 85% of the people exposed to earthquakes, cyclones, floods, and droughts live in developing countries, and more than 69% of all people killed by disasters between 1996 and 2015 were classified as receiving a low or lower-middle income.”

The frequency and magnitude of natural disasters are expected to rise with global warming, with millions more at risk each year. According to the publication, about 90 percent of major disasters from 1995 to 2015 were linked to climate and weather, with damage costs increasing exponentially to over trillions of dollars today. EWS can be powerful in preventing great monetary loss, reducing disaster mortality rates, and also improving quality of life.

Melting glaciers, for example, not only present a natural hazard from ice and cliff breakage, but also increase the risk of hydrological drought. The document looks at a project in Uzbekistan, a desert country that has long relied on Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers. These rivers descend from the 7000 meter peaks of the Tien Shan to the east, supplying cities and agriculture, particularly cotton, a key export crop. These rivers are now much reduced, and changes in meltwater patterns puts future water availability and security at risk. The current drought EWS, established by the Republic of Uzbekistan and multiple partners, monitors runoff and supply to manage finite water resources.

A number of challenges and obstacles to successful EWS are addressed. An efficient, functioning system requires a design planned with regard to the social, economic, and environmental conditions of a region. What technology is available for use? What role does infrastructure play in disaster warnings? How do communities effectively respond to these systems? These are some questions governments, institutions and organizations must consider to avoid a possible system failure.

Andrew Kruczkiewics, a senior staff associate at the International Research Institute of Columbia University, told GlacierHub that some of the challenges associated with EWS are centered around availability and use. He said that some reasons they’re not used are lack of forecasting skill, lack of mandate, or confusion on timing of action. “A functional EWS is one that allows for an action to be taken to decrease the probability of impact. This action could be as simple as raised awareness, or as large as evacuation” he added.

So what does successful EWS implementation look like? According to the publication, there are five main areas of intervention vital to attempt to overcome these challenges: institutional and regulatory arrangements, technological solutions, community-based solutions, private sector engagement, and international cooperation and data sharing. These approaches to EWS are considered innovative and beneficial in tackling the aforementioned challenges.

The effectiveness of the application of these solutions, however, have only been observed in particular regions in Europe and Asia. This report has not analyzed the effectiveness of projects in Africa, South America, or south Asia. These are regions that are expected to be adversely impacted by climate change induced natural disasters, with some marginalized populations particularly vulnerable to disaster events.

Although the publication is not representative of effective projects in many vulnerable regions, it acknowledges the complexities of developing successful EWS. These solutions are useful components in initial design of a EWS, however the complex social systems must be identified, understood, and accounted for in order to address challenges and promote disaster resiliency.



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  • Publication date 14 Mar 2019

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