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How Early Warning Systems Help Us Deal With Extreme Weather

In April 2021, the Southeast Asian island nation of Timor-Leste was hit by the worst floods in its recent history. Induced by a tropical cyclone, the floods affected over 30,000 households and killed 34 people.

Such events are becoming a sadly familiar story around the world, with climate-related disasters on the rise. But in Timor-Leste, a new climate adaptation project could help to lower this risk. The plan focuses on building an early warning system in the country, alerting people in advance if a similar extreme weather event was to happen in the future. It could make all the difference—allowing people to safeguard themselves and their assets.

Such systems are increasingly considered a key measure to adapt to climate change. “We're already locked into intensifying climate impacts for the next decades or longer,” says Stefanie Tye, a climate resilience expert at the World Resources Institute. “So it's just part of the reality now that we need these systems in place to protect people and ecosystems.”

Early warning systems can alert local communities on things like approaching hurricanes, cyclones, or landslides due to extreme rainfall, where getting ahead of incidents by even a few hours can make all the difference, says Tye. They can also provide knowledge of slower onset events, such as an upcoming drought several months away. “You use the system to inform people who will be impacted by these events, so that they can take the proper measures to prepare.”

In Bangladesh, for example, a country well known both for its climate vulnerability and its sophisticated use of such systems, cyclone warnings have significantly decreased the number of fatalities over the past two decades.

They are also efficient, according to a 2019 report from the Global Commission on Adaptation, with their benefits vastly outweighing cost. Just 24 hours’ warning of a coming storm or heat wave can cut damage to people and property by 30 percent, the report found.

There are several aspects to making these systems work. A key one is ensuring accurate observation data in order to produce accurate and timely warnings, says Jochem Zoetelief, head of the climate services and capacity building unit at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which is running the project in Timor-Leste. “People need to have confidence in the forecasts and in the warnings, because if they are not accurate, and that happens too often, you'll lose people.” Early warning system projects will therefore often install equipment such as automatic weather stations and radar systems, and strengthen the country’s hydrometeorological services.

But another crucial part is ensuring the resulting information will actually reach people most likely to be affected. Indeed, there’s no point in sending out an email alert if no one has the internet. Tropical cyclones can also wipe out communication infrastructure, so backups may be needed even if people have mobile phones. Each project therefore has to look into the local context to decide on the best ways of spreading the information, which could be anything from SMS alerts or radio broadcasts to a person making an announcement with a megaphone in the middle of a village.

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In another early warning system project being run by UNEP, this time in five Pacific Islands, the focus is on integrating traditional knowledge, says Portia Hunt, who also works in the climate services and capacity building unit at UNEP. It aims to develop climate glossaries that translate scientific information into local languages and integrate with traditional means of predicting the weather and climate. Another big focus is on ocean observation, using equipment such as wave buoys to monitor sea conditions, an important element for island communities that rely on fishing for their livelihoods.

Grassroots elements can be vital. In the Gran Chaco area of South America, a local initiative to set up an early warning system has already had a big impact on resilience against river flooding. One benefit is that communities could use a local network they have been building together over decades for other means to now communicate warnings. “The Chaco region is a very vast region with very isolated communities, with pockets of populations,” says Tye. “They're able to reach even very remote people who would otherwise never have any idea that a flood is coming to their town.” The bottom up approach taken has also enabled people from all sorts of backgrounds to have a strong say, adds Tye, including women, young people, and Indigenous populations.

Besides these scientific and communication aspects of early warning systems, though, plans also need to be in place for people to actually act when the warnings come. “It's not enough to communicate the warning. You need to make sure that people have a way to respond to it,” says Tye.

In Bangladesh there has been serious investment in building storm shelters throughout the country, so that “every single community, no matter how small it is, once they get the warning, they have somewhere to go,” says Tye. These buildings often have other uses, in some cases as schools, but are built high enough above ground to ensure people can take shelter when needed.

Other measures may include having food supplies ready in the event of a drought or a specific set of actions farmers know they can take to protect their crops, says Zoetelief. In the case of Pacific islands, early warnings can help people understand when they shouldn't go out to sea to fish.

These are not the only adaptation measures that are needed. Simply knowing about an extreme event may help people to better prepare for it, but that doesn’t mean they can mitigate all its impacts. The enhanced climate information supported by early warning systems projects can also inform other types of climate change adaptation, says Hunt. It can help to predict which regions have the highest exposure to flooding so that disaster risk reduction approaches can be targeted there.

Many countries still lack such information. Of 138 countries that provided data on early warning systems to the WMO, just 40 percent of them had multi-hazard early warning systems in place. “There's a huge need for this and there's also a huge gap,” says Tye, noting that this is the case especially in the global south, which is the most vulnerable to climate change but has the least resources for adaptation.

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At COP26, rich countries promised to double their support for adaptation in poorer countries to $40 billion per year, but far more money is needed. Overall adaptation costs in developing countries are thought to be five to 10 times greater than current spending. “We really do need to find the funding for climate adaptation if we don't want the worst case scenarios to play out in every single country,” says Tye.

But others should also not be complacent, says Hunt. The UK, for example, is seeing rising temperatures, more heat waves, and risks of flooding, while California and Australia are seeing a greater risk of wildfires. “There's also a need for developed countries to strengthen their adaptation to climate change through early warning systems,” she says. “It's a global need.”


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