Early Warning Systems for the World

Extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change are becoming more routine. This year has seen unprecedented floods in South AfricaUgandaPakistan, the U.S., and elsewhere. Preventing harm and loss of life depends on more than just awareness of the threat. For example, effective early warning systems can significantly limit damage. According to the World Meteorological Organization, roughly one-third of the world’s population is not covered by early warning systems, and that proportion nearly doubles in Africa. This stark reality motivated the UN to set a bold target earlier this year: In five years’ time, everyone on the planet should be covered by an early warning weather system. 

Digitally enabled warning systems are a promising approach to extend their reach. For example, Google supports a flood prediction service that has pushed early warning flood alerts to over 200 million smartphone users in India and 40 million users in Bangladesh. By using a variety of data including historical rainfall, flood simulations, and contemporary weather station data, advanced algorithms can generate highly accurate and timely flood predictions. An external evaluation showed that even in areas of high poverty, most people receiving alerts were able to take some action, either by protecting their home, moving food, safeguarding livestock, or relocating vulnerable family members. However, smartphone-based alerts will exclude many of the world’s most vulnerable populations. Ensuring alerts reach local leaders, supporting radio and SMS-based alerts, and providing free alerts in local languages are all critical complements to digitally enabled early warning systems. To that end, the Bangladesh Water Development Board is taking steps to do just that, collaborating with local partners to expand the flood alert system to offer free, text-based alerts.

In 2019, the Global Commission on Adaptation estimated that spending $800 million USD on early warning systems in low- and middle-income countries would avoid losses of $3 to $16 billion per year, one of the highest returns on investment for any adaptation measure. Yet there is a long way to go. Covering the entire population will require diverse approaches that are fit for context. Efforts to close digital divides by increasing access to resilient networks, improving affordability and accessibility of digital devices, and strengthening digital and data literacy to support informed use of and trust in digitally delivered warnings can amplify the results of efforts to expand early warning systems. Ultimately it is the most vulnerable, and currently most excluded, who need the most innovative solutions. 

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