UN launches plans for global early warning system on natural disasters

19 January 2005 – The United Nations today launched comprehensive plans for a global early warning system to reduce the deadly toll of natural hazards, combining speedy transmission of data with training of populations at risk in a strategy that experts say could have saved scores of thousands of lives in the recent Indian Ocean tsunami.

“This new programme will help bring safety, security and peace of mind,” the Director of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), Sálvano Briceno, told the World Conference on Disaster Reduction (WCDR) in Kobe, Japan. “Millions of people worldwide owe their lives and livelihoods to effective early warnings systems.”

The International Early Warning Programme (IEWP), first proposed at the Second International Conference on Early Warning two years ago in Bonn, Germany, will improve resilience to all types of natural hazards ranging from droughts, wildfires and floods through typhoons, hurricanes and landslides to volcanic eruptions and tsunamis.

But it rose to the top of the disaster relief agenda with the 26 December tsunami, which left at least 165,000 people dead, more than half a million more injured and up to 5 million others in need of basic services and at risk of deadly epidemics in a dozen Indian Ocean countries from giant waves that in many cases took hours to reach vulnerable areas.

Had a tsunami early warning system that now exists only for the volcano- and earthquake-prone Pacific Rim also been operational in the Indian Ocean, the human toll might only have been a fraction of what it was since tremor and tidal gauges, fast data transfer and alarm mechanisms and training in the danger zones would have provided ample time for hundreds of thousands of people to flee to higher ground.

The IEWP brings together various UN organizations including the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), ISDR, the German Disaster Reduction Committee and other bodies.

“An effective warning system can exist only through regional cooperation that respects the principle of open, free and unrestricted exchange of observational data and ensures the establishment of an effective response plan that is activated when warnings are issued,” UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura said, stressing the need for wider information flow and the importance of community education for disaster preparedness.

Effective early warning systems have been widely recognized as worthwhile and necessary investments and, coupled with humanitarian aid and better preparedness, have slashed the number of people dying from famine, saving 2 million lives over the last 20 years.

In 2004, millions of people in the Americas and Asia were evacuated when tropical storms struck, undoubtedly saving thousands of lives.

“It is increasingly clear that we need a multi-hazard early warning system that should represent a new way of thinking and ensures that environmental stability factors based on local wisdom and knowledge are built into disaster plans,” UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said.

The WFP has already developed the HEWSweb – Humanitarian Early Warning Service – bringing together under one web platform the vast amount of information available from technical institutions on each type of natural hazards.

“One third of more than 100 million people whom WFP assists are those affected by natural hazards,” WFP Executive Director James T. Morris said.

WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud noted that about 90 per cent of all natural disasters are of meteorological or hydrological origin. “WMO aims to halve the number of deaths due to water-related disasters over the next 15 years by improving alerting systems for weather and water events through risk assessment, hazard detection, awareness raising and education about disaster prevention of communities at risk,” he told the conference.

Addressing the need for training in potential disaster zones, UN Volunteers (UNV) Executive Coordinator Ad de Raad set forth a series of proposals to strengthen preparedness and response efforts, including legislation to encourage formation of volunteer organizations, involving them in the development of early warning systems and providing people with incentives such as tax exemption and special leave to volunteer.

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