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Disaster risk reduction

Millions of people are affected by floods, storms, droughts, landslides and other disasters related to weather, climate and water. Dozens of major catastrophes occur every year and can set back the economic progress of regions and countries. Hundreds of smaller events go unreported. These too claim lives, destroy houses, ruin crops and bankrupt enterprises.

We can take steps to prevent natural hazards becoming disasters. By building cities with strong houses in safe places and using efficient warning systems, the scale of potential loss can be reduced. The 2005 Hyogo Framework for Action is an internationally agreed blueprint on how to build resilient communities. The scientific expertise and operational capabilities of NMHSs are fundamental to achieving this.


Are disasters increasing?

Climate change has to an extent, created a public perception that the number of natural disasters is rising. The truth is more complex. While scientific studies of meteorological data are starting to show increases in the occurrence of some weather extremes, an important component lies in the exposure of communities.

The most dramatic trend in recent decades is the reduction of disaster death toll, principally in droughts and floods, through the development of early warning and response programmes. Combining meteorological and hydrological forecasting and warning with emergency management, mass evacuation and humanitarian response services has saved many lives.

However, rising populations and poverty combine to push people into higher hazard zones. Houses are built on floodplains or hillsides where landslides are common and drought-prone land is being farmed. In many countries, quantities of capital stocks and other assets are also growing at a rate faster than the population, resulting in greater economic, financial and insurance losses globally.

Climate change is likely to trigger more disasters in the future, not only because of the changes in meteorological hazards and the rise in sea levels, but because of pressures on the food chain, water resources and health.


Better climate services for risk reduction

Good quality information and expertise on weather, climate and water are vital ingredients of disaster risk reduction and are a priority for NMHSs.

Warning services range from short-term weather forecasts and warnings, through to seasonal climate forecasts and beyond, to multi-decade projections of climate change.

For example, there are six Tropical Cyclone Warning Centres with regional responsibility to provide advisories on all tropical cyclones, hurricanes or typhoons.

The Global Framework for Climate Services has prioritized disaster risk reduction as a prime focus. The exposure of poor populations often results in frequent losses in lives and livelihoods even from moderate hazards. Development agencies therefore now recognise disaster risk reduction as a key ingredient for future successful economic and social development.

In developed countries, loss of life still occurs, but it is substantially lower than in poor countries due to greater planning, infrastructure and warning services. However, the value of economic assets may be substantial and financial losses high. There is considerable scope for damage reduction and cost savings through the timely use of early warning services.



Cuba’s Tropical Cyclone Early Warning System is credited with a dramatic reduction in deaths from natural hazards. It includes an early warning system and an effective response, which gives communities at risk time to evacuate to emergency shelters.

Hurricane Gustav destroyed an estimated 100 000 homes in Cuba in 2007. Although considered to be the strongest hurricane in 50 years, the community was prepared and there was no loss of life.


Effective early warning systems

Effective early warning systems comprise four components, which must be coordinated across many agencies from national to community level.

Hazards are detected, monitored, forecast, and hazard warnings developed.

Risks are analysed and information incorporated into warning messages.

Warnings are issued by a designated source and disseminated to authorities and the public.

Community-based emergency plans are activated in response to warnings.

Failure to coordinate or execute every component will result in a breakdown of the system.

The success of disaster-related early warning systems also requires that careful attention be given to the communication, interpretation and use of warnings. To maximize their effect, the WMO is promoting good practices. This involves extensive consultation, the development of a standard template for countries to document their experiences and the synthesis of standard principles, irrespective of political, social and institutional factors.

Good practices have been documented in seven early warning systems for meteorological and hydrological hazards: the Bangladesh Cyclone Preparedness Programme; the Early Warning System for Cyclones in Cuba; the Vigilance System in France; the Warning Management in Germany; the Multi-Hazard Early Warning System in Japan; the Multi-Hazard Early Warning System of the United States National Weather Service; and the Shanghai Multi-Hazard Emergency Preparedness Programme.

The conclusion is that there is enormous potential to save lives and limit financial loss through the application of meteorological information and disaster reduction techniques. Moreover, such systems would benefit poverty reduction, economic development and adaptation to climate change.


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