How do you build an effective Early Warning System?

Friday, March 12, 2021

Practical Action is an international development organization that puts ingenious ideas to work so people in poverty can change their world. We’ve been working with flood-prone communities to develop effective early warning systems (EWS) for the past two decades.

We’ve recently collected some of our knowledge and recommendations based on the extensive experience we’ve gained from our work and research in Transforming lives through ingenuity: Practical Action and Early Warning Systems. Below we highlight our most important recommendations and examples of how we’ve approached these in our work on EWS.

Take a holistic, people-centred approach

This diagram adapted from the World Meteorological Organization does a good job of showing the complexity of the elements that make up an effective EWS:

For an early warning system to be effective you must address all elements to ensure that timely, accurate, reliable, and understandable information reaches everyone in the right way for them to take appropriate action.

Understand risk

You need to understand the risks affecting communities, including hazards, exposure, vulnerabilities, and coping capacities. This understanding needs to be gained by collaborating both with those at risk, and those responsible for reducing it.

Practical Action has been working in Nepal, Peru, and Bangladesh as part of the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance since 2013. We’re using the Flood Resilience Measurement for Communities (FRMC) framework and tool to measure and understand community flood resilience. The FRMC uses information from a wide range of stakeholders, from community members to local officials and experts. It allows us, the communities we work with, and decision makers to better understand a community’s risk and existing capacities and identify areas for improvement.

Undertake evidence-based monitoring and warning

You need to monitor environmental conditions and issue warnings in a scientifically robust, low-cost, contextually appropriate, scalable, and sustainable way.

In Peru we’ve designed low-cost, community owned and maintained, rainfall monitoring stations using open source software and 3D printing. You can find out more about this work, our achievements, and the challenges we’re still to overcome in Monitoring rainfall for early warning: Peru’s ingenious solution. If you’re interested in the tech underpinning this approach have a look at the blog Why is Raspberry Pi perfect for building flood resilience?

Maintenance of EWS monitoring station. Credit: Practical Action

In Nepal where many communities are affected by riverine flooding, particularly during the monsoon season, we’re focusing on river monitoring for EWS. We advise government at all levels on how to best apply and manage their monitoring stations to reduce the risk of flood hazards. We’ve also piloted different manual, low tech, and automatic, high-tech but lower cost, solutions of which a summary can be found in Monitoring rivers for flood early warning: Nepal’s ingenious solution.

Communicate effectively

In order for warnings to reach everyone at risk, they must be accessible, tailored, clear, understandable, useful, and actionable.

In Nepal, we have been working with the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM) and telecom providers to send mass push SMS warning messages to all mobile phones in areas at risk. During the 2020 monsoon around seven million text messages were sent to people at risk. Similarly, in Bangladesh Practical Action sends out push voice messages and advisories to community members’ mobile phones. A vital part of this has been to ensure that information is clear and actionable, for example by avoiding technical language and ambiguous messaging.

Example of early warning message sent to mobile phone. Credit: Practical Action

Though more and more people across the globe have access to mobile phones, not everyone does. We’re therefore also working with communities to establish additional local and appropriate ways to disseminate warnings that reach, and are understood by, all community members. Some of these include loudspeakers, local brigades and ‘resilient agents’, digital boards, and community-managed bulletins.

Volunteers disseminating early warning message during a drill using megaphone and coloured flags. Credit: Archana Gurung

Develop response capacities

Development of and access to preparedness plans, Standard Operating Procedures, training, education, and resources in advance of a flood is vital in order for everyone to understand their role and responsibilities, and be able take the right action at the right time to avoid a disaster.

We work with communities and local authorities to develop preparedness plans, identify safe evacuation routes, improve access to evacuation facilities, prepare resources for evacuation, practice evacuation scenarios, and develop the capacity of first responders.

Brigades and local authorities coordinating emergency response exercise in 2019. Credit: Giorgio Madueño, Practical Action Peru

In 2019 we captured the annual flood drill we coordinate in the Karnali region of Nepal in an informative seven minute video. Based on the Nepali experience we’ve also created a manual that can help in planning and executing similar exercises.

We’ve also been working with forecasters, responders, and disaster management authorities in Bangladesh and Nepal to develop Standard Operating Procedures which provide clear guidelines for what early action to take, when, and by whom in the case of a likely hazard event.

Address cross-cutting issues

While undertaking all of these recommendations, you need to ensure that the development and implementation of the EWS involves local communities and marginalized people; considers gender perspectives, cultural diversity, and social vulnerabilities; develops effective governance and institutional arrangements; and takes a multihazard approach.

Practical Action has conducted several studies investigating gender in disaster risk reduction (DRR) and EWS in Peru, Nepal, and southern Africa, providing recommendations for developing gender sensitive and transformative EWS. As part of this work we developed a novel methodology for hearing the perspectives of those most marginalized whose insights and experiences may be missing from traditional data collection techniques – and consequently from DRR planning and strategy.

Find out more

For a more comprehensive coverage of recommendations and examples read Transforming lives through ingenuity: Practical Action and Early Warning Systems.

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