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Early Warning in action


Early Warning Early Action could revolutionize disaster management. But will donors back it?


NASA satellites track Hurricane Ike swirling over Cuba and heading towards the Gulf of Mexico in September.

‘‘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 low-lying areas.

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 Early Action’.

“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 support department.

“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 foreseen.

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 early action.”


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 in 1975.

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 as necessary.

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.

Alex Wynter
Alex Wynter is a journalist based in London.



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