International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean   

Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
Issue: 13/2006- 12/2006 - 11/2005 - 10/2005 - 9/2004 - 8/2003 - 7/2003 - 6/2002 - 5/2002 - 4/2001- 3/2001

Partners in Action


Antigua, Guatemala
Hemispheric consultation on early warning

From 3rd to 5th June 2003, 85 participants from 19 nations, including experts in early warning, governmente officials, international and subregional organizations, NGOs, community leaders, and media represenatives met in Antigua, Guatemala to discuss early warning systems. The consensus reached during that event stressed once again the importance of establishing strategies aimed at reducing the impacts of natural phenomena, including early warning systems.

Within the process of disaster reduction, known in some cases as risk management, early warning systems play a crucial role in bringing together institutions from various sectors with diverse backgrounds with the common goal of providing people living in high risk areas with the proper warning so that losses might be minimized in the event of a disaster.
Although advances from one country to the next, or from one region to another can vary drastically, it is well recognized that early warning is an integral part of the efforts in reducing disasters and as such must be understood in the context of disaster preparedness. However, to be effective, early warning must be understood as a process which encompasses not only the forecasting of events both in terms of its timely appearance and geographical span, but also the most effective response by those people who are directly affected by such natural phenomena.

The experts and specialists who gathered at the HCEW stressed the fact that the early warning process involves many actors from widely diverse

backgrounds working together, using an understandable language among them, and coordinating efforts with authorities, personnel from institutions, and local volunteers and community leaders.

While the process is well understood by the experts, there are challenges that need to be met in regards to such a process. On the one hand, some natural hazards are still not sufficiently understood so as to provide timely and precise forecasts which can be used by the institutions and the people to respond effectively. This lack of precise knowledge on the dynamics of these complex phenomena can only be overcome with massive research at the national and regional levels, joining scientific and technical efforts from several institutions in order to begin establishing procedures to issue warnings associated to these phenomena.

As crucial as the scientific understanding of the natural events is, the social aspects of early warning are equally important and cannot be overlooked. The inadequate understanding of a warning by a population can lead to a deficient response which can result in many fatalities and losses. In a similar fashion, the improper handling of information by the media, as well as the improper use of the internet can lead to unwanted responses.

Within the early warning community, it is well understood that the aim of early warning is to promote the right response from those who will be affected, either via the evacuation from high risk areas; or the implementation of alternate activities in order to minimize losses from natural hazards. Hurricanes are examples of those events in which warnings promote the evacuation of people from coastal areas after preparing buildings in order to face the impacts of tides, strong winds, and torrential rains. By contrast, warnings associated with long-term droughts and El Niño phenomena must trigger changes in agricultural and economic activities, depending on the local geography, as El Niño can provoke either droughts or massive precipitations according to the region of the hemisphere in which it manifests itself. In this case, the response from the agricultural community must be one of recognizing the impacts and select the proper crops to minimize losses.

The former discussion leads to the understanding that early warning must involve both long and short lasting events. However, taking into account the dynamics of natural phenomena of various kinds, one must recognize that each phenomenon allows for different time-windows in which to provide early warnings. For example, the Mexican experience with respect to earthquakes, as well as the volcanic eruption experiences in Central and South America are examples of time-windows which might span in reality few minutes to provide a warning, enough to take some actions, but not enough to evacuate large towns. By contrast, hurricanes can now be forecasted with time-windows spanning various days, giving people and authorities ample time to prepare for such events. Similarly, adequate warning systems for such mid- to long-term phenomena as El Niño and drought, will permit implementation of proper development strategies leading to effective risk reduction).

In Central America, efforts to promote early warning received a tremendous boost after hurricane Mitch devastated four countries. In the wake of Mitch, government agencies and non-governmental institutions collaborated in the implementation of many early warning systems of various kinds, especially in the case of floods. The overall result of this increased attention to early warning is the introduction and implementation of risk management processes, in which early warning is the arrow guiding the path throughout rural and urban communities affected by hydro-meteorological events.

However, high population growth and massive migration to cities and urban centers in Latin America is taking its toll on the environment and on the efforts by municipal authorities to plan and manage urban growth. The invasion of public and private lands in high risk areas requires the implementation of risk reduction measures, of which early warning must be an integral part.

In a similar, but unfortunate turn of events, the fall in prices in international commodity markets, specially in the case of coffee, rubber, and sugar cane, has resulted in more poverty, which becomes the main ingredient for the creation of risks.

To make this grim situation even worse, climate change is also taking its toll on poor agricultural societies which cannot yet cope with loss of productivity, especially in case of extreme poverty which leads to malnutrition and lack of productivity. Thus, early warning is now more than ever an important tool to mitigate the losses caused by natural phenomena of various kinds.

Among the experts in early warning, the following have been identified as high priorities:

• Research into natural phenomena and their dynamical nature, in order to develop early warning strategies and systems, making sure that all relevant phenomena, including health, are considered.

• Systematization, inventory, and exchange of experiences, lessons learned, successful applications, as well as short gaps and misses in relation to early warning systems and processes among the various nations and regions of the hemisphere.

• More efficient use of the existing resources, as well as the tailoring of resources to needs, capacities, and limitations regarding technology for early warning in order to promote sustainability and long-term use.

• Allocation of national and international resources to sustain and improve early warning capabilities within the regions and nations of the hemisphere.

• Lobbying at the political sector in lesser-developed countries to promote early warning as a tool to promote disaster preparedness and disaster reduction.
• Involvement of the media in the early warning process.

The HCEW provided the first opportunity for specialists from very diverse areas and countries to exchange ideas on early warning systems, processes, and goals.This meeting also afforded the opportunity to see the ample and diverse developments in early warning within all regions of the hemisphere, as well as the adaptations which have been generated based on existing local resources and limitations. In addition, it has offered an opportunity to analyze the various schemes used to promote and implement early warning systems.

While North America leads the hemisphere in early warning systems for diverse phenomena, even encompassing outer orbit phenomena such as meteorites and solar wind storms, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, and many other countries are also making use of satellite technology to set up early warning systems for forest fires, hurricanes, thunderstorms, and floods. Similarly, South, Central American, and Caribbean nations are researching into the dynamics of volcanic processes, developing incipient early warning systems for volcanic eruptions, as well as for the lesser known lahars and debris flows.

While Hawaii and Chile lead the way in early warning systems for tsunamis caused by seaquakes and underwater landslides, Central American nations are discovering means to enhance the applicability of community-operated early warning systems initially dedicated to forecasting floods in small basins in the context of health and emergency management.

In conclusion, early warning is providing a window of opportunity to reduce the impact of natural phenomena throughout the hemisphere, which must be widen to encompass other types of phenomena, as well as to make the necessary improvements in those instances where it has already been implemented.