Empowering local communities for early action


Patrick Fuller

United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction
Satellite view of category 4 Tropical Cyclone Fani approaching India, from 02 May 2019, as seen by Meteosat-8
Satellite view of the Cyclone Fani as it hit India on 2 May 2019
Copyright: 2019 EUMETSAT

Extreme weather events now account for 90% of major disaster events globally. The number of  weather and climate related disasters has more than doubled over the last twenty years and unless urgent action is taken to address the climate emergency, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America could be dealing with a combined total of over 140 million internal climate migrants by 2050.[1]

The World Bank estimates that the global economy loses US$520 billion every year as a consequence of disasters which push 26 million people into poverty. But on a positive note, lives lost to disasters are decreasing, thanks largely to improvements in early warning systems which enable countries to reduce risks and be better prepared.

On 29 October 1999, a record-breaking ‘super cyclone’ barrelled into the Indian State of Odisha from the Bay of Bengal. Packing wind speeds of 260 km/h, the cyclone claimed almost 10,000 lives, leaving the government with a US$4.4 billion damages bill. Fast-forward to May 2019 when Cyclone Fani, a powerful category 4 cyclone struck the same area. This time, damages topped US$8 billion but lessons learned from the 1999 super cyclone meant that only 64 lives were lost.

The super cyclone tragedy had prompted the Odisha State government to adopt a “zero casualty” policy for natural disasters. In advance of Fani’s arrival, timely early warnings from the Indian meteorological department coupled with mass evacuations involving more than 45,000 volunteers, meant that a record 1.2m people were moved to safety in less than 48 hours.

Extreme weather events were seen as the most prominent risk in the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Risks Report and there is no doubt that investments made in early warning systems coupled with effective actions on the ground, save lives and reduces the humanitarian and economic burden of disasters.  Every US$1 invested in risk reduction and prevention can save up to US$15 in post-disaster recovery but, despite advancements in hazard forecasting tools and technology, there remains a critical gap between those who monitor and generate hazard warnings and those in communities who should be on the receiving end. This is the “last mile challenge”.

The devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was perhaps, a watershed moment where poor monitoring systems and a lack of timely warnings contributed to the deaths of over 200,000 people. They were taken by surprise when a massive 9.1 Magnitude earthquake off the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia, triggered tsunami waves which devastated coastal communities in 13 countries. Since then, international bodies, together with countries and regional entities have collaborated on a range of initiatives to improve forecasting and early warning systems. These include the Climate Risk Early Warning Systems initiative (CREWS) which supports 80 least-developed countries and small island developing states to develop effective, multi-hazard, gender-informed early warning systems.

Sometimes simple low-tech solutions, where communities are at the heart of decision-making, prove the most effective. In the Solomon Islands, a hazard-prone archipelago of 992 islands in the south Pacific, locals from one remote island created a community-based early warning system using a truck horn as a siren and a solar-powered three-colour emergency light system to monitor floods.

To be effective, early warning requires an ‘all of society’ approach, where investments in forecasting technology are coupled with local actions taken by government authorities, civil society and at-risk communities themselves. 

On 28 September 2018, a 7.4 magnitude undersea earthquake off South Sulawesi in Indonesia, generated a tsunami that killed almost 4,000 people.  Half of those who died were unable to escape the tsunami waves as warnings failed to reach them in time. The long chain of command between government bodies meant the evacuation order came too late and power outages delayed public alerts via text message and local sirens. Some people were reluctant to evacuate without an official warning while others tried to reach higher ground only to find evacuation routes blocked by collapsed buildings.

Warnings of a sudden onset disaster such as a tsunami or cyclone should prompt timely evacuations. But early warning and early action can be highly context specific depending on the nature and stage of a hazard, the available technology and the ability of the affected population to react. A slow-onset disaster such a food crisis caused by climactic factors may develop over a period of months or years, requiring constant monitoring and various interventions at different stages.

In the winter of 2017 / 2018, the livelihoods of thousands of Mongolian herders were threatened when their livestock faced starvation due to summer drought followed by freezing winter conditions – known locally as ‘Dzud’. Information from crop and food security assessments, long-range weather forecasts and monitoring of livestock market prices, triggered early action by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), which released emergency funds, enabling vulnerable herders to take preemptive measures to protect their precious animals. Most bought sufficient feed which allowed them to maintain the condition of their animals through the winter and sell their goat cashmere in early spring, for higher prices.

Most disaster losses arise from small-scale emergencies that go unnoticed by national governments and the media, and which have to be managed by affected communities themselves without national or international assistance. Where poverty, conflict, climate change and disasters collide, risks are higher. 58% of deaths from natural disasters occur in the world’s top 30 most fragile states.[2]

Saving lives and reducing losses requires investment in national early warning systems. But empowering local communities is also key. They are always the first responders in any disaster event and know best what they need to safeguard their families and homes.

Mapping the risks in their communities, planning evacuation routes, conducting regular disaster drills, learning life-saving first aid skills and improving flood drainage – are just some of the measures that communities can take before disasters strike. Men, women, the young and old and those with disabilities all have a role to play in keeping their communities safe and ensuring that no-one is left behind.


[1] Groundswell: Preparing for internal climate migration, World Bank 2018

[2] Disaster risk reduction in conflict contexts”, The Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

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