Community based early warning system.

July 2, 2009 by mereza

Are our warning systems in order?
The previous post (Ethos of Readiness) posed a number of questions on where we stand as regards efforts aimed at strengthening disaster preparedness among the local communities living in areas prone to natural disasters e.g. floods, landslides, earthquakes etc. Building a culture of preparedness amongst these communities will improve their resilience to natural hazards. Recurring natural disasters have negative impact on the victims including casualties if adequate warning are absent or not received. Lives will be saved when effective early warning systems for natural hazards are in place.

An element in promoting community based disaster risk reduction and enhancing preparedness is the development of a community based early warning system. Community based early warning system provides the community and those involved with disaster risk management with advance information on the risks e.g. floods, landslides etc to facilitate disaster preparedness and response. The early warning thus is a critical factor in actions against loss of lives and injuries , providing some window of opportunity for people to protect their assets and livelihood and hence reduce economic losses. Basically, the community based early warning system allow those threatened by hazards to act in sufficient time and take appropriate steps to reduce the impact, loss or damage. Community based early warning system has been found to be effective in reducing the number of casualties. The effectiveness of technology based warning systems whilst has been acknowledged still finds itself challenged by age-old wisdom derived from centuries of experience with natural hazards. The wealth of local wisdom amongst the indigenous communities could be tapped for timely prediction of disaster allowing ample time for mobilizing evacuation. The Indonesian Red Cross found through a symposium on developing community based early warning system that comparatively, local wisdom was more effective than technology based warning systems both in terms of providing warning and in reducing the number of casualties[i]. In the 2004 earthquake (8.9 magnitude) and resulting tsunami, there were few deaths and injuries among the residents of Aceh’s Simeuleu Island since they fled to higher regions when the earthquake hit. The residents knew that a tsunami could follow the earthquake. Based on this experience the Indonesian Red Cross’s risk reduction programmes seek to enhance local community early

warning systems. Likewise, there ought to be similar traditions and knowledge drawn from generations of experience with natural hazards among the various communities. Surely, the wisdom and

knowledge varies according to culture, locations, and types of hazards, and digging up such secrets will bode well for the safety of next generations. Amongst our elders there are those who remember of warnings against enjoying a picnic or a swim at the Sg. Tua river streams even though the weather was perfectly fine and there are no overt signs of anything unusual. Stories abound of sudden floods and rivers overflowing their banks due to rain deep inland. Obviously those knowledgeable in reading the signs knew of the impending hazards and thus able to provide early warning to their communities. Nowadays we rely more on technology to predict and provide us with the early warnings. Central to this approach is the communication network and the community’s participation[iii]. In this age of technology, the system can easily adapt to existing communications already installed e.g. tv, radio, telephone (fixed, mobile). Other alternatives come into play e.g. sirens, beduk (wooden drum) as last resort. There are several reasons why we encourage the formation of community based early warning systems. Such system allows local authorities and communities to protect themselves against the hazards involved, e.g. floods. Who else in a better position to undertake preparedness measures against floods if not the local communities and the local authorities?. Locally organized action in this direction will give the stakeholders a sense of ownership, making it readily easy to maintain[ii]. In the earlier post I mentioned that areas affected by natural hazards can set the foundation for local risk mapping. Communities falling within the areas mapped out share similar risks and somewhat bonded through the same threats. Despite similar experiences through repeated seasonal hazards, the catalyst and stimulus to prompt local communities to act come from outside. Coordination of early warning system whilst targeting locally organised actions works best when initiated by an external party. In this context the Red Cross/Red Crescent have an important role to play in setting the stage for community based early warning system. Other NGOs dealing with humanitarian assistance have similar priorities in pushing for greater awareness in the value of disaster preparedness.

Measures taken to reduce the vulnerabilities of local communities’ increases ability to lessen or check the disaster. The process instituted for developing early warning system eventually leads to risk reduction[iv]. A review of the stages of disaster management cycle (mitigate, prepare, response, recover) will put this in a better perspective. The need to establish effective early warning system should start at the local levels. No doubt mechanisms for early warning systems ought to be in place regionally and at national levels, its equally critical for those already in the identified areas prone to natural disasters[v].

How effective are current early warning systems effective?
A key element of a successful early warning system is the communities’ capacity to take proper action to warnings and deal with the disasters. Hence the conduct of mock drills and simulation exercises can test the effectiveness of the early warning system and build the capacity in other areas with the same problems. Without them, warnings will be of low consequence if those most at risk are not trained to react appropriately on the message. At this juncture it is to

our interest to review the progress achieved so far in the implementation of community based early warning systems. Presumably much has been done through activities organised around building communities risk reduction. As of now, we have another five –six months to go before the next seasonal monsoon and of course the consequent floods. So it is time for us to reassess where we are. The community based early warning system can be mainstreamed into activities designed for implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action. In the development of risk reduction policies, early warning system constitutes a critical element in mitigation of risks. The push for developing community based early warning system stems from the awareness that global, regional or national alert system have limitations without collective efforts of “people centred networks[vi]. Measures for disaster risk reduction including early warning which are people centered enhance that culture of preparedness (Ethos of Readiness).

Johore floods 2006. Photo. thestar.com.my The cumulative effects of these measures contribute toward building local capacity to manage natural hazards with readiness. Whether efforts to date to build community preparedness have achieved establishing local level networks that can both receive and act on warnings is something which we need to delve into. It also raises the question whether entities which were involved in organizing these efforts managed to generate awareness and instruct to take actions for safety. These efforts nevertheless need to be sustained with follow-up campaigns aimed at promoting awareness and regular drills so as to ensure that the warning system work as expected. Do we know which communities in those affected areas have been trained in disaster preparedness including evacuation arrangements responding to early warnings? And again, in those areas prone to natural disasters and others falling victims to emerging flash disasters has there been any community disaster response teams organized? If so, has there been any early warning drills in anticipation of similar occurrences in the monsoon season? How are these drills coordinated with the Red Cross/Red Crescent and local authorities’ disaster plans. Integral to the early warning system is the Red Cross/Red Crescent’s network of volunteers which is crucial in mustering community resources to respond immediately upon hazard warnings being received. As we endeavour to strengthen the resilience of communities at risk, the significance of the early warning stands out in the ongoing process. Early warning is inherent to the process of developing a culture of preparedness. References:[i] (Community-Based Warning Systems Effective in Reducing Victims of Disaster, May 26, 2009, Nurdin Hasan).

[ii] Community-Based Flood Early Warning Systems, Rosa T. Perez, Susan R. Espinueva and Hilton Hernando, Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) [iii] Briefing Paper: Workshop on The science and practice of flood disaster management in urbanizing Monsoon Asia/ 4-6 April 2007, Chiang Mai, Thailand [iv] The future of community-based hazard information systems: Dr. Gordon Gow, Insights from the Internet sharing economy. [v] Regional Workshop on Mitigation, Preparedness and Development for Tsunami Early Warning Systems in the Indian Ocean Region, Bangkok, Thailand, 14-16 June 2006 [vi] People-Centred Community-based Early Warning Systems, Ulrich Cronenberg, IFRC Representative and German Red Cross Director for Disaster Management, at the Third UN Early Warning Conference, in Bonn, 28 March 2006

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