NASA satellites track Hurricane Ike swirling over Cuba
and heading towards the Gulf of Mexico in September.
©REUTERS / NASA, COURTESY www.alertnet.org
‘‘If I’d had time to research this properly
we wouldn’t be here.” A frustrated correspondent
had been scouring Mozambique’s flooded Zambezi valley
by helicopter for a disaster and found only a successful
government operation to evacuate thousands of people from
The truth is that the smoother evacuations are, the less you’re
likely to hear about them. No disaster, no story. And then
the danger is: no story, no donors.
Even attentive disaster-watchers might be surprised to hear
that seasonal Zambezi flood waters in Mozambique in early 2008
peaked above the 2001 level, when more than 100 people died,
and well above last year’s, when a huge international
relief operation followed.
Yet by mid-January, some 55,000 people had been moved, virtually
without any loss of life. For a post-conflict African state,
it was an extraordinary and barely reported feat (see box).
Forecasts and warnings
AS well as Mozambique, Bangladesh, the Caribbean and West
and Central Africa are good examples of ‘Early Warning
“Unusually, we decided to send emergency funds to the
southern African countries affected by the floods in January
based on the clearly flagged potential for the situation to
deteriorate, including medium-range forecasts,” says
Peter Rees, head of the International Federation’s operations
“What the local Red Cross or Red Crescent can do is
prepare communities through the volunteer network and help
them be self-reliant,” he adds.
What’s new in Early Warning Early Action is routinely
taking humanitarian action — moving supplies, people
and money — based on forecasts and warnings. And at
grass-roots level, helping to get these warnings across in
a way people can trust.
Rees’s experience of managing the International Federation’s
Disaster Relief Emergency Fund or DREF — a cash reserve
for National Societies dealing with emergencies — has
highlighted a large increase in climate-related disasters:
storms, floods and droughts and the health emergencies they
can trigger. Exactly the kind of events that can often be
Now the International Research Institute for Climate and
Society at New York’s Columbia University, which specializes
in integrating climate information into decision-making, and
the International Federation have formed a partnership to
develop early-warning methods that will allow the International
Federation to mobilize its network for early action.
“We try to provide the International Federation with
weather and climate information in context,” says Molly
Hellmuth, the institute’s focal point. “We can
help them spot climate anomalies and put them into language
the International Federation’s whole network can understand.”
The International Federation’s West and Central Africa
zone in Dakar, Senegal, is also working with African meteorological
and drought centres on climate factors that affect food security.
Maarten van Aalst, an expert at the Red Cross Red Crescent
Climate Centre in The Hague, explains: “Early action
applies not just when a particular hazard, like a cyclone,
is about to hit, but also to longer timescales when the warning’s
about elevated risk.”
Raising the bar
“The focus of the Red Cross Red Crescent should be
on providing both early warning and the last mile of dissemination
to households,” says Bhupinder Tomar, an International
Federation disaster preparedness specialist.
“We need a mechanism that will actually permit action
after early warning, including access to human and financial
resources at very short notice.
“The challenge is not only to inform communities of
any impending disaster risk, but also to help them deal with
it,” he adds.
In Togo, experts are about to test an early-warning system
in flood-prone villages using poles with coloured bands to
represent danger levels. When flood water rises to the red
band, says West and Central Africa disaster management coordinator
Youcef Ait-Chellouche, “people know they need to start
moving to safe places.”
When forecasts for West Africa suggested extremely heavy
rainfall this year, the International Federation launched
a pre-emptive flood-preparedness appeal worth nearly US$ 750,000,
primed with a substantial contribution from DREF. Relief stocks
were pre-positioned in three cities and contingency plans
and early-warning systems developed with National Societies.
Soon after the appeal, thousands of people in the Liberian
capital Monrovia were made homeless in floods described as
the worst ever in the city, while extremely heavy rain caused
deaths and damage in Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Côte
d’Ivoire, Gambia, Niger, Nigeria and Togo.
It is far easier to wait for disaster to happen, then respond,
than it is to stay on the ball seven days a week, interpreting
carefully worded forecasts, and allocating resources by experience,
judgement and specialist advice, rather than what’s
on the evening news.
“But until we get the donors fully on board with the
idea of taking action before disaster strikes,” says
Rees, “we will have to lean on DREF — the only
instrument flexible enough to enable us to guarantee genuinely
Send us outboards
Sergio Moiane, the senior local official, points to
a map on the wall of the Mozambique government’s
flood-relief centre in Buzi, just south of Beira. “This
area’s like a funnel,” he explains. “We
know for sure that when the level at Dombe gets to
5.5 metres, we’ll be flooded three days later.”
And flooded they were. In mid-January, the height
of the rainy season, Buzi was soaked to its very foundations,
but otherwise unscathed by the flood waters that had
just receded. No one died, although more than 1,100
upriver evacuees were in temporary accommodation nearby,
and the flooding was judged to be the worst since independence
Buzi is also the training base of the Mozambique Red
Cross Society’s aquatic rescue team, which will
be able to replenish its stocks of fuel and outboard
motors thanks partly to a cash grant from the International
Federation’s DREF. Branch president and team
manager Paulo Inacio Maguanda gently points out that
evacuations cost money.
Only quick-impact aid mechanisms like DREF can support
local early action like this, as international money
may not filter down to the branch during the emergency
phase. But once the DREF grant is assured, National
Society headquarters can draw on their own reserves
The Mozambique Red Cross keeps boat teams in four
flood-affected provinces, but they were all desperately
short of spare parts and engines by the end of January.
Asked what he would most like from the regional appeal
launched by the International Federation a week after
the DREF money was announced, Maguanda does not pause
for thought. “Send us outboards,” he says.