Early warning systems a top priority to prevent climate change disasters, says UN report

A Tsunami Hazard Zone sign in Phuket: Thailand has taken the lead in Tsunami warning systems after the Asian tsunami which claimed around 240,000 lives in affected nations in December 2004. (Credit: Keystone / Barbara Walton)

A UN agency report says governments worldwide need to step up investment in early warning systems (EWS) for extreme weather events. 

In the last 50 years, the number of recorded disasters involving weather, water, or climate-related events has increased five-fold.

In 2018, around 108 million people sought help from humanitarian agencies to cope with droughts, wildfires, floods and storms.

The 2020 State of Climate Services report, co-ordinated by the World Meteorological Organization, warns that this number could increase by 50 per cent over the next decade, at a cost of around $20bn a year.

It calls for more investment into effective early warning systems, especially in turning early warning information into action. WMO secretary-general Professor Petteri Taalas said:

“Being prepared and able to react at the right time, in the right place, can save many lives and protect the livelihoods of communities everywhere.”

The onset of Covid-19 has made maintenance and investment into early warning systems more difficult. But addressing threats posed by climate change remains crucial, he said.

Continents' Multi-Hzards status (Credit: World Meteorological Organization)

Preparing for the worst.  Since 1950, not only have extreme weather and climate events increased in frequency, intensity and severity but they have also hit vulnerable communities disproportionately hard.

More than 11,000 disasters connected to weather, climate and water-related hazards occurred in that period, involving two million deaths and $3.6 trillion in economic losses.

Despite the increasing frequency of natural disasters, the authors of the report warn that one in three people worldwide are still not adequately covered by warning systems that could help save lives.

Developing countries are particularly at risk, where dissemination of warnings is weak and advances in communication technologies are not being fully exploited to reach out to people at risk, the authors said.

Systematic observations for collecting data on weather and climate are often inadequate, particularly across Africa where, in 2019, just 26 per cent of stations met WMO requirements.

Overall, since 1970, around 1.4m people have lost their lives in developing countries due to climate and weather related disasters. Meanwhile billions of dollars have also been lost, with small island states registered a loss of around $153bn alone.

Finding solutions. The report, produced by 16 different organisations and financial institutions, makes six recommendations for how governments can strengthen their resilience to disasters.

These include investment in filling early warning system capacity gaps, particularly in Africa and small island states.

It also stresses the need for a shift from “what the weather will be” to “what the weather will do” so that people and businesses can act early based on the warnings.”

Even if climate finance has reached record levels, crossing the half-trillion dollar mark for the first time in 2018, “adaptation finance is only a very small fraction (five per cent) and financing for risk information and early warning systems is only a fraction of that”. For the next ten years, $180bn will be needed annually, according to the Global Commission on Adaptation.

The report calls for more sustainable financing of the global observing system needed for early warnings and better tracking of finance flows to improve understanding of where these resources are being allocated.