Disasters and early warning

Isabelle H. Lacson
It is time to examine early warning systems, a critical but overlooked part of preparedness, and consider how early warning plays a role in making communities more resilient to vulnerabilities

Data from the UN indicates that the number and exorbitant costs of humanitarian crises are increasing in the world today. Besides the pertinent discussion on how to improve response, it is also critical to examine the role of building resilience within the humanitarian context.

It is time to examine early warning systems, a critical but overlooked part of preparedness, and consider how early warning plays a role in making communities more resilient to vulnerabilities. Understanding the value of early warning is key to building accountability in the humanitarian agenda.

The UN defines an early warning system as “the set of capacities needed to generate and disseminate timely and meaningful warning information to enable individuals, communities and organizations threatened by a hazard to prepare and to act appropriately and in sufficient time to reduce the possibility of harm or loss.” It is considered a cost-effective solution to addressing risk, as early warning often leads to early mitigation strategies.

The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), argues that the onus of early warning usually falls on governments. Nonetheless, the humanitarian community could do more to support its improvement.

At their core, governments are obligated to ensure the security of their citizens. Improvement and investment in early warning systems is thus viewed as a typical component of development, separate from the humanitarian purview. However, as humanitarian crises become increasingly complex, the divide between humanitarian and development responsibilities continues to blur considerably. As resilience continues to be a priority on both sides, early warning will eventually find common ground in humanitarian and development action. 

Despite recognition of early warning’s role, this has not translated to significant investment prevention. According to the Global Humanitarian Assistance Report, last year’s threefold L-3 crises in Syria, the Central African Republic and the Philippines led to an all-time high of $22 billion dedicated to humanitarian response. In contrast, only $532 million was spent on prevention and preparedness. Data from OCHA also shows that funding for prevention and preparedness came to a mere 0.5% of humanitarian aid in the last 20 years. 

Lack of accountability

Unsurprisingly, conversation on early warning has been limited in tandem with its funding. Though general consensus dictates that early warning is an important part of preparedness and prevention and there are certain conventions on what makes it effective, there is a considerable lack of accountability with affected populations who are on the receiving end of the delivery of early warning.

What if the humanitarian community is missing a significant opportunity to include early warning and pave the way to an improved, accountable humanitarian agenda?

In 2006, reeling from the response to the Indian Ocean tsunami, the UN conducted the Global Survey of Early Warning Systems, based on the premise that effective early warning systems could have saved more lives. Within this report, the significance of feedback in the development and evaluation of early warning systems was highlighted. However, the report did not delve into policy options for implementation of a feedback mechanism.

Eight years later, no subsequent report dedicated exclusively to early warning systems has been made. Yet, critical gaps in early warning systems remain, including the lack of a feedback mechanism with communities.

Feedback mechanisms are a part of being accountable to populations affected by humanitarian crises. If feedback were incorporated into early warning, populations at risk for conflict or natural disaster would be able to provide critical evaluation of the delivery, content and clarity of an early warning message. Affected populations would be given a venue to express their thoughts on early warning messages: Did it come too late? Did only certain groups understand it? Did it make sense? Did the institution delivering the warning provide enough information?

Local knowledge could also be shared and embedded in the early warning framework. Initiatives like the UN Environment Programme’s CLIM-WARN Project, which seeks to develop a global early warning system for climate-related hazards, recognize the value of partnering with communities on delivering early warning. The project consults with local communities on their past experiences with crises on how early warning could be improved, account for local knowledge such as sky patterns and animal migration in the context of impending hazards and be delivered from trustworthy institutions. 

There are several reasons why this practice of including an accountability framework in early warning should govern the conversation of the future of humanitarian assistance.


Early warning is the gateway to aid. By its definition, early warning is a form of communication with affected populations, and communication is increasingly being viewed as aid itself.

Affected populations have demonstrated on numerous occasions, from Haiti to the Philippines, that communication and information are valued components of a humanitarian response. Giving importance to early warning and encouraging feedback on its role in prevention demonstrates this principle and can serve as the starting point of communicating with communities.

Early warning is lifesaving. The UN Office for the High Commissioner on Human Rights has considered how paying more attention to early warning indicators can defuse tensions before a conflict escalates. Having access to accurate information at an earlier time allows for lifesaving decision-making to take place.

Further, early warning systems for natural disasters have easily demonstrated the difference between life and death. Recently, the UN reported that an early warning system for earthquakes in China that made use of radio wave signals provided crucial lead-time for people to flee to safety. For those affected in the Yunnan Province, there was no doubt – an early warning message saved their lives. 

Early warning is empowering. Early warning puts information into the hands of affected populations and gives them the right to make their own decisions. Guidelines from the Inter-agency Standing Committee, which governs the coordination between agencies delivering humanitarian assistance, emphasized that “affected persons should be… given the opportunity to take charge of their own affairs to the maximum extent and as early as possible.” Early warning gives people the right to make their own choices and make decisions that respect preferences, personal judgment and experiences.

For a greater understanding of the power of early warning, imagine a scenario that is likely happening with communities in the Philippines today, as Typhoon Ruby (Hagupit) crosses the country. (Editor’s note: For more updates on the typhoon, check Project Agos)

You are the head of a poor family living in a coastal town in the Eastern Visayas. You hear on the radio that a storm is coming and community residents should brace themselves for the impending damage. Storm surges are predicted to be as high as your makeshift home. The warning given is clear, understandable and from a trustworthy source. With the information at hand, you are able to make your own decisions to prepare your family and get them to safety. You share the information with your family members and neighbors, and send your older children to tell other community members that may not have received the news. Your family decides together that evacuating to a nearby school would be the best decision for your safety. You send your spouse to immediately purchase the supplies that were suggested in the radio broadcast for preparing to shelter outside your home. You continue sharing information with your neighbors and building situational awareness on the storm by monitoring news broadcasts, reports from community leaders and warnings from the government. Then, the storm hits. But because you were able to evacuate ahead of time, all your family members are alive. They are alive because you received enough information to make an informed decision. 

Going beyond early warning’s function as life-saving, empowering aid that allows affected populations to make decisions, early warning should be viewed as a human right. As a mechanism that could spell the difference between life and death, early warning is critical to protecting the right to life.

The inclusion of accountability mechanisms to affected populations should not be limited to the epicenter of a response. By being accountable from the onset and building early warning capacity in transition, humanitarian actors have the opportunity to reform the humanitarian space and champion resilience.

Early warning in the humanitarian context allows for a direct and noble application of the core tenets of the field: to address human suffering wherever it is found and to protect life. The time to critically examine improving early warning to communities has come. We need early warning, now. – Rappler.com


Isabelle H. Lacson is a Master of Public Administration degree candidate in Urban Policy and Management at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She served as a chief of staff to a member of the Philippine House of Representatives, which paved the way for a career focus on urban disasters, disaster risk reduction policy and climate change policy. She has held positions related to these themes at the Philippine Mission to the UN, the UN Environment Programme and most recently, the New York City Office of Emergency Management.

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