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


People centered early warning systems as a critical component of disaster reduction: Update on recent developments

The Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004 was probably the loudest wake up call, in recent history, indicating the urgent need to have effective people centered early warning systems in place, in all countries and regions, and for all types of hazards. The disaster led to better knowledge and understanding of tsunamis as well as to increased commitment to establishing early warning systems in different regions of the world.

Early warning is certainly not a new issue. The need to develop people-centered early warning systems, which ensure that warnings reach risk prone communities, who know how to respond to these warnings, has been promoted by the ISDR secretariat for several years, and most recently, it was identified as one of the priorities of the Hyogo Framework for Action (2005-2015). The issue has also been discussed at three International Early Warning Conferences, hosted by the Government of Germany in Potsdam (1998), and in Bonn (2003 and 2006). The Third International Early Warning Conference, which took place in Bonn from 27-29 March 2006 gathered more than 1,250 experts and government officials to showcase innovative early warning projects, to promote their implementation, and to identify unused potential in early warning, as well as facilitating multi-disciplinary scientific debate on latest practices and research. The full conference report will be available and

Photo: UN 2005/UTE Grabowsky

Box 1 Global Survey of Early Warning Systems

Soon after the Indian Ocean tsunami, the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan requested that a global survey of capacities and gaps for early warning systems be undertaken, with a view of establishing a “worldwide early warning system for all natural hazards building on existing national and regional capacity”. According to the survey, which was prepared and coordinated by the ISDR secretariat, in consultation with relevant stakeholders, the weakest elements concern warning dissemination and preparedness to act. Inadequate political commitment, weak coordination among the various actors, and lack of public awareness and public participation in the development and operation of the early warning systems were identified as root causes. However, the survey also found that there are already many capacities available upon which a truly effective globally comprehensive early warning system can be built.

The survey makes the following five main recommendations:

1. Develop a globally comprehensive early warning system, rooted in existing early warning systems and capacities
2. Build national people-centered early warning systems
3. Fill the main gaps in global early warning capacities
4. Strengthen the scientific and data foundations for early warning
5. Develop the institutional foundations for a global early warning system

An ISDR secretariat published report is available on the following website:


Strengthening the Indian Ocean Tsunami Early Warning System

If an effective tsunami early warning system had been in place in the Indian Ocean region, thousands of lives could have been saved. This recognition led to the speedy development of a regional warning system, largely thanks to the work of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) and its participating governments, as well as other UN agencies, including WMO and the ISDR secretariat. The basic technical elements of the Indian Ocean Tsunami Early Warning System (IOTEWS), which allow accurate tsunami warnings to be issued, are currently in place. Twenty-three real time sea level stations have been deployed to complete the upgrade of the Global Sea Level Observation System (GLOSS) network. This network is the fundamental basis for the monitoring and detection of tsunamis in the Indian Ocean. Countries have also designated focal points to receive and disseminate the warnings. The Global Telecommunication System (GTS) has also been strengthened, and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has carried out assessment missions in several countries to upgrade national GTS components. Study tours and training on establishing national tsunami warning centers and developing public information products have also been organized for national authorities and experts.

The regional system was seriously tested on July 17, when a 7.7 magnitude earthquake, 200kms off the coast of Western Java, created a tsunami that hit the shore approximately 40 minutes later. Although the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a local tsunami warning 17 minutes after the earthquake, there were difficulties in transmitting the warning to the coastal communities. As a result, the tsunami killed more than 500 people.

Addressing the “last mile” of the early warning system, and making sure that the systems are people centered, clearly remains one of the biggest challenges in developing early warning systems, not only in the Indian Ocean, but in other regions of the world as well.

Over the past 18 months, the region has benefited considerably from the active support of the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery, former US President, Bill Clinton, towards accelerated development of a regional early warning system. President Clinton has also supported and endorsed a seven agency consortium initiative, coordinated by the ISDR secretariat, to assist countries in the region, and to develop and implement their national tsunami early warning and response plans. For more information on the activities of the UN Special Envoy, please visit:

The importance of public awareness, education and traditional knowledge in saving lives

Solutions do not necessarily need to be high-tech. The Indian Ocean tsunami took the lives of so many people because of a general lack of awareness of tsunamis by the public – despite frequent earthquakes in the area. However, there are some very powerful examples of positive action. Simeuleu island is located off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, only about 100 km from the epicenter of the massive earthquake. There, because of traditional knowledge, only seven people were killed out of a total population of about 83,000. The community had previously experienced a tsunami in 1907, and, since that time, the knowledge of tsunamis had been transmitted from generation to generation through cultural practices such as songs and poems. The simple knowledge,“if you feel the earth shake, then immediately get away from the seashore”, was embedded in lore and thereby saved many lives. It is a lesson of the power and simplicity of an experience learned and preserved.

Other similar examples include the survival of the tribes in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Scientists believe that the ancient knowledge of the movement of wind, the sea and birds helped these traditional communities to “sense” the tsunami and to flee to the highland forests, much before the waves hit the coast.

Yet another example, illustrating the power of knowledge and education is the story of ten-year-old, British school girl Tilly Smith, who warned the tourists to flee to safety, moments before the tsunami engulfed the coast. The girl had recognized the signs of an approaching tsunami after learning about them in her geography class at school, just weeks before visiting Thailand. These stories are but few reminders about the importance of addressing the non-technical and non-scientific aspects of the early warning chain, if early warning systems are to be truly people centered.

Photo: UN 2005/UTE Grabowsky
President Clinton addressing the opening of the Third Early Warning Conference in Bonn, Germany, 27-29 March, 2006


For more information on early warning activities, please visit:,,