Learning from experience: a summarised review of early warning systems

Executive Summary

During the Horn of Africa famine in 2011, agencies, donors and the international community failed to prepare and respond early enough to prevent massive suffering. 1 Retrospective analysis found that climate information, such as forecasts for below-average rainfall and measurements of below average vegetation, coupled with analyses of socioeconomic conditions, could have been used to catalyse early action (EA) before the drought occurred. 2 This underscores the need for timely information and the need for appropriate action that could save lives and livelihoods before a crisis.
With the increase in frequency of disasters, there is a need to improve early warning systems (EWS) for EA to reduce the risks faced by children and their families. As a consequence, the term early warning, early action (EWEA) has become increasingly common among those responding to slow-onset disasters.

Effective EWS are one that catalyses action early, yet the main challenge to building an effective EWS is the lack of strong evidence as to what information leads to action.

Climate information is critical and pervasive in EWS. Numerous types of climate data exist, such as forecasts, predictions, outlooks, projections and scenarios (Mason et al. 2015). The three main characteristics of each are: timescale; lead time and target period, but reliable historical data is necessary to establish ‘normal’ conditions, which are then used to assess the magnitude of events relative to ‘normal’. How climate information is then used is important when considering the influence it has on action and decisionmaking.

Climate-related, sector-specific EWS are driven by both the availability of forecasts that allow sufficient lead time for appropriate action (such as distributing bed nets to prevent malaria, as a result of high rainfall) and the confidence in the forecast.

Evaluating the socio-economic impact of action is challenging and can lead to inconclusive results. 3 Quantifying the impact of action based on a forecast when no disaster occurs is challenging and remains a key barrier to evaluating impact. As a result, some agencies have adopted a ‘no regrets’ approach to taking actions based on uncertain climate information. No-regrets action increases resilience, and this is the basis for ‘sustainable growth in a world of multiple hazards’. 4 Case study analysis has identified both opportunities and challenges including the development of effective, holistic EWS, setting up EA funding/ contingency funding with clear trigger mechanisms, effective information partnerships, understanding forecasts, evaluating impacts and action planning.
World Vision’s approach includes three key components:

  1. collection and analysis of EW data;

  2. translation of EW data into EA through information management and clearly defined decision-making, systems and procedures at each level; and

  3. recommendations for EA.