24 Mar 2023, 14:11

UN's global disaster alert systems goal faces uphill climb

UNITED NATIONS, United States, March 24, 2023 (BSS/AFP) - How can anyone seek
shelter from a natural disaster they don't even know is coming? Last year the
United Nations called for every person on the planet to be covered by early
warning systems by 2027 -- but months into the effort it is becoming clear
that the project will require more data and expertise.

With a relatively low price tag of $3.1 billion, the UN's plan hopes to
implement the simple principle of early warning systems: assess risks using
meteorological data, forecast impending problems using modelling, prepare
populations ahead of time, and send out alerts to those expected to be

But building out those steps poses unique issues at each turn, according to
those involved in the effort, many of whom are gathered this week in New York
for a historic UN conference on water-related crises.

In Tajikistan, 100 years of weather data exist only on paper, chair of the
country's environmental protection committee, Bahodur Sheralizoda said.

Digitizing this data could provide "more precise weather forecasts" or be
applied to climate modeling, he added.

"With the small investments, we can have really big impact in the long run."

To help fill the data gap, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA) is also hoping to deploy weather stations made from 3D
printers around the world, said the agency's chief scientist Sarah Kapnick.

When it comes to analyzing the meteorological data and predicting future
weather events, there is also a lack of local expertise, said Stefan
Uhlenbrook, director of hydrology, water and cryosphere at the UN World
Meteorological Organization (WMO).

"You need local capacity to run the local models," he told AFP.

Some help should be coming from NOAA, which Kapnick said has plans to "train
local climate forecasters and leaders."

After risks are identified, getting those alerts to remote populations poses
possibly the biggest hurdle.

"To reach the last mile... and then to get them acting and prepared is a big
challenge," said Uhlenbrook.

This is where the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent
Societies (IFRC), a WMO partner in the field, comes in.

- Regular training and drills -

For IFRC Secretary General Jagan Chapagain, the country of Bangladesh should
be viewed as a model to replicate.

Scarred by the horrific 1970 cyclone that killed hundreds of thousands, the
South Asian country has for decades built up storm-resistant shelters and
warns residents of upcoming dangers, by bicycle if necessary, Chapagain told

While church bells, loudspeakers and sirens are still used as warning systems
in many isolated places, alerts sent via radio, TV and SMS have become the

"In 2022, 95 percent of the world's population had access to mobile broadband
networks and close to 75 percent of the population owned a mobile phone,"
said Ursula Wynhoven with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

That makes mobile networks "powerful communication channels" for alerts,
especially because "SMS warnings can be targeted to reach only those located
in an at-risk area," she added.

Few developing countries have installed such systems, she said, noting a
"relatively low cost."

WMO chief Petteri Taalas also highlighted the cost effectiveness of setting
up early warning programs, saying that "you'll get the money back at least
tenfold that you invest."

He pledged at the UN Water conference to speed up implementation of the UN's
2027 goal, beginning with water-related disasters.

Floods and droughts account for 75 percent of climate-related disasters,
which are expected to increase further due to global warming.

But simply alerting a population is not enough -- there must also be "regular
training and drills," warns IFRC chief Chapagain.

People must practice the processes of interpreting different signals and
finding the nearest escape routes or shelter.

"Once people understand the logic, they manage these things better," he said.

While climate change is expected to intensify storms, at the opposite
extreme, it is also expected to increase the severity of droughts.

Though the potential for drought-induced disaster happens more slowly,
Uhlenbrook said, warnings are still important to protect livelihoods.

For example, "we had in Europe a very dry, warm winter, so the (water)
reservoir levels are very low," Uhlenbrook said.

Farmers near Italy's Po River who plan to plant rice, which need lots of
irrigation, should take that into consideration, he explained.

NOAA's Kapnick highlighted that drought predictions, based off advanced
climate modeling, are of particular importance in "developing nations with
heavily agriculturally based economies."

"Early warning systems based on seasonal predictions are critical for
planning for food security and macro-economic forecasts," she said.

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