Submitted by Alison Sneddon, Disaster Risk Reduction Advisor, Practical Action
14 Apr 2021

Linking early warning with early action: Closing the gaps for stronger resilience

Forecast-based early action and early warning systems are integral components of disaster resilience and have the potential to reinforce one another, enhancing the effectiveness of these tools for greater risk reduction, management and response. This conversation is particularly timely considering the growing approaches for enabling forecast-based early action (and anticipatory action) driven by humanitarian actors like the Red Cross Red Crescent Network, UN agencies and NGOs, alongside the global efforts to strengthen early warning systems that reach the ‘last/first mile’ by climate, disaster and development actors.

This blog article looks at the different components of an early warning system to find links with early and anticipatory action approaches, and ways to build and develop holistic systems which leave no one behind. Although many initiatives are happening simultaneously in different sectors, there is immense potential to capture learning and synergy across the enabling systems for early warning and early/ anticipatory action, and ultimately strengthen resilience.

This image shows a diagram.
Elements of an effective EWS. This diagram provides a useful way of framing these complex systems in order to understand the different elements that make up an effective EWS Source: Practical Action adapted from World Meteorological Organization (2017)

Risk knowledge

A full understanding of the disaster risks facing vulnerable communities is a key requirement for taking early actions which are relevant and effective in reducing those risks. Forecast information provides knowledge about the physical hazard in question, but risk knowledge is also contingent on an understanding of the exposure of people and assets to that hazard, and of the vulnerabilities and coping capacities of the population (Practical Action and Early Warning Systems).

This is where a holistic, end-to-end early warning system can support effective forecast-based early action: by bringing forecast information together with knowledge about the impacts of previous hazard events, and the vulnerabilities and exposure of a population. In practice, early warning systems are still working towards the collection and management of this knowledge. The link between early warning and early action here underscores the importance of this development for policymakers, funders, and researchers as well as practitioners. Impact-based forecasting is an emerging area where the inclusion of risk assessments, based on exposure and vulnerability data alongside hazard forecasts, can connect early warning with early action, providing stakeholders with increasingly useful information for decision-making (The Future of Forecasts – Impact Based Forecasting for Early Action).

Monitoring and warning 

Providing reliable, accurate, and timely forecasts is essential for effective early warning and early action. Data scarcity in many hazard-prone areas is a major and pressing challenge, requiring investment in national hydrological and meteorological services (Forecasting hazards, averting disasters: Implementing forecast-based early action at scale).

However, this gap also presents an opportunity to work with communities, working alongside people who live and work in vulnerable locations to understand historic, current, and changing conditions, collect data, and assess the accuracy of forecasts. This approach will not only support the improvement of monitoring and warning, but build dialogue and trust between stakeholders, supporting the usefulness of forecasts in guiding early action (Building resilience to El Nino-related drought: Experiences in early warning and early action from Nicaragua and Ethiopia). In Nepal, for example, Practical Action is working with communities to pilot the application of low-cost LiDAR sensor technology to monitor river levels, and has been developing probabilistic forecasting to increase the lead time available to issue warnings based on observed conditions (Improving Flood Early Warning Lead Time in Nepal). It is important to continuously understand and assess the needs of different users. Such a yearly needs assessment which tracks how user requirements are fulfilled is a core component of a CREWS supported impact-based early warning project in Papua New Guinea for building drought resilience (CREWS Impact Feature Papua New Guinea).

The image shows a group of peaple looking at the river gauges in Nepal
River gauges in Nepal, Source: Practical Action

Communication and dissemination 

Effective early warning and early action are contingent on information being communicated to stakeholders in ways which are accessible, understandable, and useful (Practical Action and Early Warning Systems). Linking forecasts with specific early actions is a key way for forecast-based early action to support the effectiveness of early warning, and long term efforts to strengthen this essential pillar of early warning systems can lay the groundwork for efficient and effective information-sharing for forecast-based early actions. 

Analysis of information and communication flows between stakeholders, tailoring the content of forecast and warning information to meet different needs, and identifying how to best reach people with that information are all long term actions which can set forecast-based early action up to succeed when a hazard occurs. 

For example, as part of a long-term collaboration with national hydro-met services and telecom providers in Bangladesh and Nepal, Practical Action has been improving the timeliness and reach of early warnings sent to community members via text and voice messages, supporting the effectiveness of the early warning system and increasing the time available to community members to take action (Practical Action and Early Warning Systems).

In Burkina Faso, CREWS are supporting a project that disseminates advanced weather advisories to farmers through the local radio broadcast. These advisories were customized for three pilot areas based on feedback from farmers. Training was provided to 1,100 farmers to help them interpret the advisories and adjust their farming practices, and training was also provided to local radio operations to help them understand how community members access, process and respond to warnings (CREWS Impact Feature Burkina Faso). 

The image shows a group of women listining to a local radio broadcast.
Local radio broadcast weather advisories, Source: CREWS

Response capability 

Early warning is only as useful as the response taken when it is received. The capability of stakeholders to respond to a warning is limited by complex factors: poverty and inequality mean that many households and communities simply will not have the resources to take action to protect themselves, their homes, or their livelihoods from a hazard event. The uncertainty of a forecast or warning could mean that the opportunity cost of taking such actions is too high. There may not be a safe place to evacuate to – or a place that is safe for marginalised and vulnerable groups. Forecast-based early action includes the identification of low and no cost actions, in collaboration with stakeholders, so that actions can be taken ahead of time even when resources are so limited  (Forecasting hazards, averting disasters: Implementing forecast-based early action at scale). These actions will vary by stakeholder as well as by hazard and lead time (see Anticipation Hub for a database of these early actions). A major advantage of linking forecast-based early action with early warning systems is that by using the additional time provided by a longer term, less certain forecast, early actions which are relevant for the specific communities at risk, and are centred on the needs, capacities and priorities of that particular context.

Forecast-based anticipatory financing is also a vital development in the humanitarian sector which addresses the high costs of taking actions for different stakeholders. Funds provided in advance of hazard events by mechanisms such as the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund, the START Fund, and the Central Emergency Response Fund enable stakeholders to undertake actions which make humanitarian response more effective in saving lives and protecting livelihoods, such as pre-positioning food and medical supplies, mobilising temporary shelter provisions, or reinforcing assets like dams, dykes, and boreholes (Anticipatory humanitarian action: Moving from rapid response to early action).

In 2017, for example, the Bangladesh Red Cross Society distributed cash grants to over 1,000 households in anticipation of flooding, enabling families to take actions to reduce the impact of the flood, such as protecting valuable assets like livestock, and avoiding debt (DRR in Action Case Study). 

Foundational principles

For all of these components to come together and deliver early warning and actions which meet the needs of vulnerable communities, it’s vital to consider and implement good governance practices, to meaningfully involve local communities, and to design and develop systems and processes which include and work for everyone, including marginalised gender and other groups. The importance of gender roles in enabling effective early warning and early action is increasingly being recognised in projects, for example by Practical Action in Peru and Nepal (Gender Transformative EWS) and in the Caribbean (CREWS Impact feature: Bridging the gender divide in early warning access across the Caribbean).  

By aligning with early warning systems which are already established or being developed, forecast-based early action can support efforts to clarify roles and responsibilities between stakeholders through the processes of developing standard operating procedures or early action protocols, supporting effective coordination of governance (Forecasting hazards, averting disasters: Implementing forecast-based early action at scale). 

Similarly, the processes involved in working with communities to identify triggers and related early actions provide opportunities to address the gaps and challenges in each of the pillars of an early warning system by prioritising the knowledge and needs of the communities these systems aim to protect. Forecast-based early action can bridge humanitarian and development approaches to resilience, making humanitarian response more effective by providing a base of knowledge and understanding about contextually specific considerations. This can be of particular value in relation to social vulnerabilities, such as gendered inequalities, which are affected by disasters and disaster management. 

The way forward

As development-based work, early warning systems can use the longer timescales in which they are designed and implemented to understand diverse vulnerabilities. Linking EWS with forecast-based early action programming can ensure that tools such as standard operating procedures, triggers, warning processes, and contingency and response plans are developed collaboratively with marginalised social groups, and that disaster risk reduction, management and response are effective in building resilience for everyone.

Initiatives such as the Risk-informed Early Action Partnership (REAP), Climate Risk and Early Warning Systems (CREWS), and the Anticipation Hub have a key role to play in bringing together experiences, lessons, and expertise from humanitarian, development, and climate sectors. By connecting key stakeholders and approaches, developing standards of practice, and sharing learning and knowledge, we can strengthen links between early warning and early action, and continue to improve the effectiveness of both of these important mechanisms.


This blog was written by Alison Sneddon, Disaster Risk Reduction Advisor, Practical Action with input from Maria Lourdes Kathleen Macasil, CREWS.
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