Pacific’s Disabled to Fore in Early Warning Systems

Pacific’s Disabled to Fore in Early Warning Systems

Better community engagement of at-risk communities, with a particular focus on the disabled, was up for discussion at a recent Pacific meteorological forum.

The fourth Pacific Meteorological Council and second Pacific Meteorological Ministers Meeting (PMMM) was held in Honiara, Solomon Islands in mid-August.

Reaching communities and ensuring that those most in need are provided with effective communications and technologies are top priorities for the Pacific Meteorological Council (PMC).

Consequently, Dr Fakhruddin’s presentation on end-to-end, impact based multi-hazard early warning systems, beginning with community ownership and engagement, was exceptionally well received. 

Dr Fakhruddin is one of the world’s leading experts in early warning systems (EWS). He has developed tailor-made frameworks for many Pacific and Asian countries vulnerable to natural hazards, including floods, cyclones and tsunami.

Effective early warning systems (EWS) required a complete understanding of the populations and assets exposed to threats, Dr Fakhruddin told the meeting.

“Risk based early warning systems are essential. Practice shows that people and communities at risk need to be involved in the understanding of their exposure and the vulnerabilities of different groups, including the disabled, the elderly, children and pregnant women. “

Dr Fakhruddin said that an effective system also relied on expert risk assessment, interpretation and risk communication.  

Research shows that before deciding to take a disruptive - and often expensive - action such as evacuation, people must understand the forecast, believe it applies to them and, most importantly, feel that they and/or their loved ones are at risk. However, common practice has been to prepare and release forecast messages without adequately understanding how they are received, understood and/or interpreted. Accurate, appropriate information that translates early warnings into early actions at community level is essential.

“We’ve always been talking about reaching the last mile, and that means getting to the people who haven’t got the message we are relaying. We’re talking about people with disabilities as well. They need to be included in our conversations and awareness efforts too,” said the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme’s (SPREP) Climate Change Advisor, Espen Ronneberg,

“We do this to prepare those who are vulnerable to disasters as well and that includes people with disabilities.”

Disabled and elderly people are particularly at risk from natural disasters as, even with strong family and community support systems, it takes longer for them to reach designated safety zones. Likewise, extra forward planning is required for the evacuation of hospital patients and other health care facilities.

Ronneberg believed that the way forward lay in encouraging disabled people to join in on EWS discussions.

“I think the best way to include them would be through the People with Disabilities’ Forum, and it will be great if we can get them to take an interest in meteorology as well,” he said.

The PMC session included discussion on new forms of risk assessment, such as the shift from deterministic to probabilistic risk estimation.  Dr Fakhruddin’s decade-long research has been focused on the application of probabilistic early warning ensembles for community level applications using advanced science and technology.

Deterministic approaches are used to assess the impacts of a specific natural hazard scenario, whereas probabilistic methods use modelling to produce more refined estimates of how often a hazard is likely to happen and the potential damage it will deliver. Probabilistic assessments work with uncertainties, partly due to the random nature of natural hazards, and partly because of scientists’ incomplete understanding and measurement of the hazards, exposure and vulnerability under consideration (OECD, 2012).

 “As hazard information is always probabilistic, the risk information and risk communication also need to be probabilistic,” Dr Fakhruddin said.

 “When any new probabilistic forecast product is introduced, it can be miscommunicated to affected people.

“For people to make good decisions, the capacity to generate an early warning with an acceptable lead-time is essential. For example, advances in tropical cyclone (TC) forecasts using ensemble methods have been widely used for operational TC tracking. By using simple, weighted, or selective methods, TC tracking forecasts tend to have smaller positional errors than single model–based forecasts.”

The impacts of climate variability and change were recognised at the meeting as major challenges to island nations. Of particular concern to the Pacific region were sea level rise, salt water intrusion, drought, flooding, coastal inundation, ocean conditions (tides, swells, waves, acidification) and impacts on health (e.g. malaria and dengue), water resources, agriculture and fisheries (invasive species, etc.). 

Dr Fakhruddin’s presentation reinforced the World Meteorological Organisation's (WMO) approach to Climate Risk and Early Warning System (CREWS) initiatives and requirements for disaster loss data standardisation, which offers more accurate risk assessment.

The outcomes of both the Multi-Hazard Early Warning System and Disaster Risk Reduction Global Platform Meetings held in May in Cancun, Mexico, were also summarised in his talk. Dr Fakhruddin led the panel discussions and working group at the Mexico events.

The next PMC will be held in Samoa in 2019. The PMC consists of members of the Pacific National Meteorological and Hydrological Services supported by its technical partners, regional organisations, non-government organisations and private sectors.

The 14-17 August meeting, was co-hosted by the Government of Solomon Islands, the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) and World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).