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How early warning systems help us deal with severe weather


In April 2021, The island nation in Southeast Asia, East Timor, was hit by the worst floods in its recent history. The tropical cyclone caused flooding that affected more than 30,000 families and killed 34 people.

Such events are unfortunately becoming a familiar story around the world, with climate-related disasters on the rise. But in East Timor, a new climate adaptation project could help reduce this risk. The plan focuses on building an early warning system in the country, alerting people in advance if a similar extreme climate event occurs in the future. It can make a big difference – allowing people to protect themselves and their property.

Such systems are increasingly considered a key measure of climate change adaptation. “We are really caught up in the intensification of climate impacts over the next decades or longer,” says Stephanie Tay, an expert in climate resilience at the World Resources Institute. “So it’s just part of the reality now that we need these systems to protect people and ecosystems.”

Early warning systems can alert communities about things like approaching hurricanes, tornadoes, or landslides due to heavy rainfall, where even a few hours of surviving accidents can make a big difference, Tay says. They can also provide knowledge of slow-onset events, such as a drought coming after several months. “You are using the system to notify the people who will be affected by these events, so they can take appropriate actions to prepare.”

In Bangladesh, for example, a country well known for its vulnerability to climate and its sophisticated use of such systems, cyclone warnings have led to a significant reduction in the number of deaths over the past two decades.

They are also so efficient, according to a 2019 report from the Global Commission on Adaptation, that their benefits far outweigh the cost. The report found that a 24-hour warning of a storm or heat wave can reduce damage to people and property by 30 percent.

There are several aspects to making these systems work. A key factor is ensuring accurate monitoring data in order to issue accurate and timely warnings, says Jokim Zoetliff, head of the Climate Services and Capacity Building Unit at the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), which runs the project in East Timor. “People need to trust predictions and warnings, because if they are not accurate, and this happens often, you will lose people.” Therefore, early warning systems projects often install equipment such as automatic weather stations and radar systems, strengthening the country’s hydrometeorological services.

But another important part is ensuring that the resulting information actually reaches the people most likely to be affected. In fact, there is no point in sending an email alert if no one has the internet. Tropical cyclones can also wipe out communications infrastructure, so backups may be needed even if people have cell phones. So each project has to consider the local context to decide on the best way to disseminate information, which could be anything from alerts via SMS or radio broadcasts to someone making an announcement with a loudspeaker in the center of the village.

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