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Every year, disasters related to meteorological, hydrological and climate hazards cause significant losses of life. Although natural hazards cannot be prevented, early warning of the impending events can significantly reduce the death and destruction associated with them. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has been working with its international partners and the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) of its 188 Members to integrate early warning systems into emergency management and response.

Over the years, WMO has contributed to prevention and preparedness measures, including risk assessment, emergency planning and response, and the operation of end-to-end multi-hazard warning systems. These early warning systems are having a dramatic impact. Although the number of disasters due to weather, climate or water extreme events has increased dramatically over the past half century, the losses of life have decreased.

Early warning systems give hospitals, medical professionals on the ground and other emergency services providers extra lead time to alert the public, manage and allot resources and prepare for the impending event. Early warning systems are in place in a range of locations for various natural hazards, including floods, droughts, heatwaves, wildfires, and sand and dust storms. Not only do such events directly affect people’s safety and health, but they also can deny access to life-sustaining food and water.

Climate change is posing new risks for disaster risk management, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its Fourth Assessment Report stating that weather and climate extremes are very likely to increase with the changing climate.  Information on climate variability and change is increasingly being used in disaster risk reduction efforts. Indeed, shifting to the emergency preparedness strategies called for in the Hyogo Framework for Action requires the use of climate information to identify, assess and monitor disaster risks. Adopted in January 2005 by 168 Governments at the Second World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Hyogo, Japan, HFA is a 10-year plan of action to substantially reduce disaster risks by shifting from emergency response to preparedness and prevention strategies.

The foundation for these systems is robust observations and monitoring. WMO and the NMHSs of its Members, through their scientific and technical programmes and network of Global Meteorological Centres and Regional Specialized Meteorological Centres provide a range of observational, monitoring, forecasting and prediction services. To strengthen early warning, these meteorological and hydrological service providers must work in concert with local and regional governments. Through a coordinated approach, disaster risk reduction can occur effectively and in a timely fashion.

Facts and Figures

From 1980-2007, nearly 8 400 natural disasters worldwide took the lives of over 2 million people, over 70 per cent of which were caused by weather, climate or water-related hazards such as droughts, floods, windstorms, tropical cyclones, storm surges, extreme temperatures, land slides and wild fires, or by health epidemics and insect infestations directly linked to meteorological and hydrological conditions.

In 2008, 321 natural disasters killed 235 816 people — a death toll that was almost four times higher than the average annual total for the seven previous years, partly due to Cyclone Nargis which left, according to UNISDR, 138 366 people dead or missing in Myanmar.

Over the past 50 years, 90 per cent of disasters caused by natural hazards have been of hydrometeorological origin.

In the period 1956-2005, the number of disasters and related economic losses from weather-, water- and climate-related hazards has increased nearly 10- and 50-fold respectively. However, the reported loss of life has decreased from 2.66 million (over the decade 1956-1965) to 0.22 million (over the decade 1996-2005), due particularly to increasingly accurate early warnings.

WMO’s objective is to reduce by 50 per cent, by 2019, the associated 10-year average fatality of the period 1994-2003 for weather-, climate- and water-related natural disasters.

Reducing deaths, protecting communities: Examples in action

On heatwaves:

WMO, jointly with the World Health Organization (WHO), is preparing a Guidance on Implementation of Heat Health Early Warning Systems. Heatwaves could affect the health status of millions of people in some parts of the world, particularly those with low adaptive capacity.  A heatwave is a period of unusually hot weather that lasts from a few days to a few weeks. They can lead to increased death rates from heart and respiratory diseases. Human diseases, injury and death caused by heatwaves can be reduced when early warning reaches communities in a timely and easy to understand manner.

The WMO-WHO Guidelines will act as a catalyst for bringing together key players from climate, health, emergency response agencies, decision-makers as well as the general public for initiating action concerning the overall management of heat as a hazard. WMO is also comparing a number of currently used techniques in various parts of the world, looking for example at the French Heat-Health Watch Warning System. It was established in 2004 in the wake of the deadly European heatwave in 2003, which caused more than 70 000 excess deaths across Europe.

On sand and dust storms:

The WMO Sand and Dust Storm Warning Advisory and Assessment System (SDS-WAS) includes 14 Operational Research Dust Forecasting Centres that produce daily dust and sand forecasts.  Dust and sand storms pose myriad health risk to the local populations and ecosystems. They can disable the respiratory system, reduce visibility and damage crops. Some studies have suggested that acute respiratory infections among children, to which sand and dust storms contribute, are one of the major causes of mortality in developing countries.

The sand and dust forecasts provide important information on when and where plumes of sand and dust will appear, and provide governments, businesses and communities with information to help protect their people. The SDS-WAS helps ensure that all populations affected by sand and dust storms have access to forecasting products.

On wildfires:

A WMO-supported Regional Specialized Meteorological Centre in Singapore is dedicated to the forecasting of wildfires and related events. Formed after the 1997 Southeast Asia fires that led to more than 20 million cases of smog-related health problems, the centre provides public satellite imagery and information about the location and size of major fires and smoke plumes.

NMHSs and partners elsewhere in the world similarly use satellite imagery and other data to support emergency response to wildfires. WMO, in cooperation with WHO and the UN Environment Programme, has developed guidelines for policy-makers on actions that can be taken in response to fires.


WMO is the United Nations' authoritative voice on weather, climate and water

For more information please contact:

Ms Carine Richard-Van Maele, Chief, Communications and Public Affairs, WMO. Tel.: +41 (0)22 730 83 15; cpa[at]wmo.int
Ms Gaëlle Sévenier, Press Officer, Tel. +41 (0) 22 730 8417, E-mail: gsevenier[at]wmo.int

Ms Lisa Munoz, Press Officer, Tel. +41 (0) 22 730 8213.  E-mail: lmunoz[at]wmo.int

Web site: http://www.wmo.int




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