August 2009

Strengthening multi-hazard early warning systems capacities’ to save lives



Every year, disasters cause considerable impacts on lives, livelihoods and property around the world, setting back socio-economic development in many countries by years, if not decades. This is particularly a challenge for developing countries, which are also the most vulnerable. Statistics from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters reveal that, between 1980 and 2007, nearly 8 400 disasters caused by natural hazards have taken the lives of over 2 million people and produced economic losses over US$ 1.2 trillion. Of this total, around 90 per cent of the events, and over 70 per cent of casualties and 75 per cent of economic losses were caused by weather-, climate- or water-related extremes such as droughts, floods, windstorms, tropical cyclones and storm surges, extreme temperatures or by wild fires, health epidemics and insect infestations, which are directly linked to meteorological and hydrological conditions. The Fourth Assessment Report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate change (IPCC) in 2007, has provided new scientific evidence that these events are expected to rise in frequency and severity as a result of climate variability and climate change in years to come.

Over the last 50 years, the recorded numbers of disasters caused by natural hazards and the associated economic losses have increased nearly 10-fold and 50-fold, respectively, while loss of life associated with hydrometeorological hazards has decreased 10-fold (Figure 1). This has been attributed to the development of early warning systems (EWS) in conjunction with preparedness and emergency response planning at national to local levels and significant efforts in community education and preparedness.

graphic   graphic
Figure 1 — Economic losses and casualties caused by natural disasters

In January 2005, the United Nations convened the Second World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe, Hyogo, Japan. During this conference the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters1 (HFA) was negotiated and adopted by 168 countries, shifting the paradigm for disaster risk management from post disaster response to a more comprehensive approach that would also include prevention and preparedness measures. The second high-priority area of HFA stresses the need for “identifying, assessing and monitoring disaster risks and enhancing early warning”.
Taking this acknowledgement into consideration it becomes clear that early warning systems must be an integral component of any nation’s disaster risk management strategy, enabling governments at national to local levels and communities to take appropriate measures toward building community resilience in anticipation of disasters.

Early warning systems are increasingly recognized at the highest political level as a critical tool for saving lives and livelihoods, and there are increasingly more investments by national to local governments and international development agencies and bilateral donors to support such systems. However, one of the major conclusions of the Global Early Warning Survey Report2, launched at the Third International Early Warning Conference (EWC–III), in Bonn, Germany (March 2006), was that many challenges in legislative, financial, organizational, technical, operational, training and capacity-building aspects remain to ensure that early warning systems are implemented as an integral part of disaster risk reduction strategies, within a multi-hazard framework. Furthermore, results of a country-level survey conducted by WMO in 2006-073, indicated that over 60 per cent of countries, primarily in Africa, Asia, Small Island Developing States and Latin America, require the development and strengthening core capacities such as hydrometeorological observing networks, 24/7 forecasting systems and communication capacities and development of partnerships that operationally engage technical agencies and disaster risk management agencies at national to local levels to ensure that early warning systems are effectively implemented. Results of an early warning system assessment report compiled and drafted by WMO in collaboration with 18 other United Nations (UN) agencies, to support the 2009 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Reduction Report4, reveals that, while efforts have been underway by governments, international and donor agencies to develop EWS capacities, many countries, especially those at highest risks, remain challenged in building and sustaining their early warning systems.


In 2006, during EWC-III, a Checklist for Developing Early Warning System was provided5 as a tool for governments and stakeholders as a simple list of the main elements and actions they can refer to when developing or evaluating EWS. Building on these development and knowledge bases, as part of a major initiative together with UN and development partners, WMO is working systematically to assist countries in developing their EWS. The First Expert Symposium on Multi-Hazard EWS, hosted by WMO in May 2006, identified criteria for “good practices” in early warning systems, examples of such practices around the world and discussed enabling factors for the development of early warning systems. One of the major gaps identified was the need to document and learn from experiences of countries with good practices and develop guidelines that could help governments and national to local agencies as well as development and bilateral partners in the development of EWS, particularly focusing on mechanisms for planning, legislation and institutional coordination and collaboration from national to local levels. Following the First Expert Symposium, WMO has been working with its partners to facilitate documentation of first set of good practices including the:

  • Bangladesh Cyclone Preparedness Programme;
  • Cuba tropical cyclone early warning system;
  • French “Vigilance” system; and
  • Shanghai Multi-Hazard Emergency Preparedness Programme.

The documentation of these examples where carried out by teams of experts from the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services, Disaster Risk Management Agencies, Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and other key institutions engaged in these EWS.
Early warning systems: institutional coordination and cooperation re fundamental
Early warning systems are based on four core elements which need to be supported by clear plans, legislation, institutional mandates and coordination and collaboration mechanisms that would effectively engage key stakeholders from national to local levels to implement the systems. The four components of EWS incluye:

  • Observation, monitoring, detection, analysis, forecasting and development of hazard warning messages;
  • Assessing potential risks and integrating risk information into emergency preparedness plans and warning messages;
  • Dissemination of timely, reliable and understandable warning messages to authorities and public at risk;
  • Community-based emergency planning, preparedness and training programmes that would enable effective response to warnings to reduce the potential impact on lives and livelihoods.


It is particularly important to recognize that an EWS is not created nor operated by a single agency, but requires involvement, acceptance and cooperation by all stakeholders responsible for different components. For the EWS to be effective it must be built to leverage institutional capacities, mandates and expertise, as well as to ensure operational collaboration and coordination among a variety of stakeholders at national to local levels (hereafter, referred to as EWS stakeholders), such as:

  • Disaster risk management and civil protection agencies and authorities;
  • Technical and sectoral agencies such as the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHS), Geological Services, Health Services, etc., responsible for monitoring, detecting and developing and issuing warnings;
  • Other entibies, such as the media, military, NGOs working at national to local levels, etc.;
  • The design and operation of a EWS must be based on commitment to the concepts of collaboration, cooperation, coordination, and information sharing among all these stakeholders.

National Meteorological and Hydrological Services are key components of the National Disaster Risk Management and Early Warning Systems

The NMHSs are critical partners within the national institutional structure of EWS, providing data, information, forecasts, warnings and analysis to support all four components of early warning systems. Specifically, NMHSs operate networks where key meteorological and hydrological variables are systematically monitored, recorded and widely transmitted (nationally and globally) in accordance with global standards established by WMO. Such information constitutes essential inputs for the analysis and production of forecasts and early warnings of hydrometeorological hazards such as floods, droughts, tropical cyclones, storm surges, tornadoes and heat- and cold waves. Moreover, analysis of historical data provides probabilistic information on the frequency of occurrence and potential magnitude of severe or extreme hydrometeorological phenomena. Such analyses have important applications in hazard mapping, vulnerability assessments, quantification of risk, emergency preparedness and other risk reduction measures that could reduce risks associated with these hazards.

The role of NMHSs in supporting the warning process, falls into three categories, based on their mandates for specific hazards, which delineate the roles and responsibilities and coordination requirements related to warning development and issuance. These categories are:

Type I hazards: The NMHS has sole mandate for the development and issuance of the warning for the hazard (e.g. high winds, thunderstorms, tropical cyclones). The NMHS communicates and coordinates directly with emergency managers and the government. Other technical agencies provide support to the NMHS where appropriate;

Type II hazards: The NMHS has a joint mandate with another agency for the development and issue of the hazard warning. The joint mandate requires these agencies to coordinate for the development and issuance of the warning message. Other agencies may provide support where appropriate;

Type III hazards: The NMHS has no direct mandate for the development of the hazard warning but is required to provide information to other agencies that have the mandate. Also under this category, in some cases, the agencies with a warning mandate, may be required to utilize the NMHS communication network for the dissemination of the warning.

Based on the level of mandate of an NMHS, its coordination and cooperation and operational procedures with other technical agencies and the disaster risk management and civil protection agencies would vary. In addition to its role in the warning process, NMHS are expected to provide support to the emergency planning, response and relief operations through provision of relevant hydrometeorological information, analysis, forecasts and other technical support.

See also Recent events in this issue

WMO Disaster Risk Reduction Programme


2. In 2005, following the Indian Ocean tsunami, UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan requested a global early warning survey.  This survey was coordinated by ISDR Secretariat with the support of a multi-agency task team, co-chaired by WMO and OCHA.  The report can be accessed at:$file/UNISDR-Sep2006.pdf?openelement.

3. Of the 187 WMO Members, 139 participated in the survey. The survey has been synthesised in the “Assessment Report of National Meteorological and Hydrological Services in Support of Disaster Risk Reduction”:

4. Global Assessment Report on Disaster Reduction:

5. The Checklist can be accessed at Third International Conference on Early Warning (EWC III) website:


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