The positives of preparing for disaster

A guide to GCF’s support for climate change early warning systems

  • Article type Story
  • Publication date 11 Jun 2018

A guide to GCF’s support for climate change early warning systems

Knowledge is power. In terms of climate change, this translates into using a growing understanding of how rising global temperatures lead to localised weather disasters. This improved knowledge can help reduce the physical and social devastation of climate change by providing early warning.

Countries are increasingly using climate information systems, which consist of data collection points that are mapped and analysed, to provide communities with scientific estimations of future climate impacts. These systems are becoming increasingly sophisticated through ongoing improvements in meteorological monitoring and information sharing. This is timely as studies indicate extreme weather events are expected to occur more frequently – even assuming the Paris Agreement’s central goal of limiting global temperature rises to well under 2°C is met.

While we may not be able to turn off the climate change-fuelled wild weather, we can take steps to ameliorate its damaging impacts on life, national economies, and the stability of societies and ecosystems. Climate effects manifest in a variety of forms – ranging from the abnormally powerful hurricanes that smashed into the Caribbean in September last year to the insidious, and equally disruptive onset of drought in Africa, most recently in South Africa.

While climate impacts may differ, they share a common trait in that their destructive effects often resonate long after the event. This has certainly been the case with Cyclone Haiyan which killed more than 6,000 people in the Philippines in November 2013. The county is still dealing with the aftermath of the super storm, also known as Yolanda in the Philippines, which reportedly dealt the biggest blow to the agricultural sector in the country’s history.

Destruction left by Cyclone Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013. Photo by Russell Watkins/Department for International Development.

As weather disasters become more severe, the case for building early warning systems to deal with them is becoming stronger. Developing countries - particularly Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) – are inordinately susceptible to climate disasters because of the unreliability or sometimes lack of robust climate information and early warning services.

That is why GCF has been stepping up its support to countries to use climate early warning systems to reduce the impacts of extreme weather. These systems are designed to improve weather forecasting and, just as importantly, to disseminate climate information to ensure communities are informed and prepared.

Climate change early warning systems generally contain a number of elements. These include:

  • Assessing risks to physical and social infrastructure
  • Monitoring and warning – meteorological offices provide forecasting services
  • Communication – which focuses on how to disseminate information to targeted communities
  • Response capacity – how to mobilise government and communities to respond in time.

GCF’s support for early warning systems is part of its central mandate to respond to the needs of developing countries as they drive paradigm shifts to enhance low-carbon climate resilience. A number of countries have identified an improvement of their ability to predict the onset of extreme weather-related disasters as a climate finance priority. This is intended to make their societies more resilient and to climate proof hard-won progress in national development.

Early warning systems don’t just track weather patterns. They provide planning assistance as well as systems, processes and operational infrastructure to avoid the destructive impacts of climate change across a broad social spectrum. For instance, a GCF-funded project now being implemented in Vanuatu is expanding the use of climate information services in five targeted sectors: tourism, agriculture, infrastructure, water management and fisheries. This is based on a professed need by the Government of Vanuatu to undertake systematic efforts to inform and prepare its public to manage the projected impacts of climate change.

This project is building on technical capacities in Vanuatu to harness and manage climate data by developing climate information services, while also fostering further research and development. It will also provide an ability to expand outreach and communications to ensure communities benefits from improved actionable forecasts. The Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), a GCF Accredited Entity, is carrying out this five-year, USD 21.8 million initiative.

Simon Wilson, the manager of SPREP’s project coordination unit, emphasises the broad benefits climate information services can provide, right down to the grassroots level. “Tailored meteorological and climate services can have significant multiplier benefits for decision making on a daily basis,” he says. “This can also address long-term sea level rise, and mitigate flooding impacts through infrastructure and land-use planning. Ultimately, this will help save lives and reduce economic costs.”

The ability to provide early warning of impending climate disasters is particularly important for Vanuatu. For the past four years, this Pacific SIDS has been ranked the world’s most disaster-prone country. With more than 90 percent of Vanuatu’s infrastructure located no more than 500m from the coastline, it is highly exposed to destructive climate effects. This includes Cyclone Pam, which hit the island in March 2015.

That experience shows the value of future preparation in dealing with climate disasters. The way Vanuatu was able to weather Cyclone Pam has been cited as a good example of effective community-focused early warning. Reports indicate warning mobile texts at the time helped keep the number of deaths to 11, seen as relatively low considering aid agencies described Pam as one of the worst disasters to hit the Pacific region. The GCF-SPREP project is capitalising on lessons learnt at that time to ensure communities are well informed and prepared for future disasters.

Similarly, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) found accurate forecasts and warnings about wind, storm surge and flooding hazards and coordination between meteorological services and disaster management helped prevent the casualty toll from the Caribbean hurricanes last year from being much higher. Caribbean governments’ response to the effects of super-charged weather shows climate disasters can help galvanise calls to climate action. In the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria, Caribbean nations established what they termed to be the world's first climate-smart zone. This is designed to tap public and private support in carrying out a USD 8 billion investment plan to bring greater energy and infrastructure resilience to 3.2 million Caribbean households.

While initially focusing on individual projects, GCF support for early warning systems is designed to create broad benefits in this growing field. This includes supporting the global modelling of climate effects with better data, improving the standards of information gathering and sharing, and driving down the cost of IT systems - which can then be replicated across a variety of different sites.

Joseph Intsiful, a GCF senior climate information and early warning systems specialist, says while prompt responses to climate disasters are essential, early warning systems are far more than just storm alerts as they can also act as useful planning guides to boost long-term resilience. “While freak weather events grab the news headlines, we also need to think how early warning systems can help address slow-moving climate effects such as drought,” he says. “This is particularly important in Africa. Climate systems in the region show precipitation patterns are becoming increasingly erratic, while 95 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s agriculture relies on rainfall.”

More accurate predictions of rainfall in the long term can also help to avoid the manifestation of human-induced disasters in the form of intercommunal conflict, adds Mr Intsiful. “One of the biggest security challenges in West Africa is climate related, as cattle herders move into farming lands because pasturelands they have been using become untenable with changing rain patterns,’” he says. “With climate information and conflict early warning systems, it is possible to head off conflict before it occurs, for instance by advising that water reservoirs are installed in areas where rainfall is predicted to decline.”

Mr Intsiful also points to the negative, kick-on effects where climate change can sabotage countries’ major economic drivers. Drought was seen to be the major cause in knocking out Malawi’s electricity supply at the end of last year. Malawi relies on hydroelectricity for nearly all of its energy needs. In April 2016, the southeast African nation declared a state of emergency after severe drought, including a 12 percent decline in maize productions, forced 20 percent of the population to face food insecurity.

While the landlocked nation of Malawi is highly susceptible to droughts, it also provides an example of how flooding can pose a problem for a number of African countries – even those located far from coastlines. Lake Malawi, one of the largest lakes in the world, is a central geographical and economic feature of the country. A GCF project in Malawi being implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), a GCF Accredited Entity, is installing automatic weather stations and lake-based weather buoys to increase the capacity to identify and forecast flood risks.

A major component of this USD 16.3 million early warning project is ensuring that climate information is transmitted to vulnerable farming and fishing communities around the lake. The sharing of climate information to the right people is a key part of all effective early warning systems. In the case of the Malawi project, this will include making sure affected communities know what to do with enhanced weather information. The capacity of local communities, district councils, and national agencies to respond to emergencies will be strengthened through training and improved emergency services.

SPREP’s Simon Wilson points out that early warning systems represent good value for money.

“Various studies show that early warning systems have a very high rate of return on investment,” he says.

“They help to avoid the drastic costs to societies if no preparatory measures are taken. And when designed to meet local needs, they have a high degree of sustainability through ongoing local ownership and management of the early warning systems long after the life of the project itself.”

The importance of early warning systems is expected to grow, along with the increasing manifestations of climate change. While extreme weather events hit localised areas, the World Economic Forum has identified their increasing prevalence and cumulative effect as a major risk to global stability and economic growth. Ways of minimising the destructive effects of climate change then are likely to become more popular, not just with aid agencies but with businesses seeking to protect their investments.

Reinsurance group Swiss Re has found that insured losses from natural and man-made disasters worldwide in 2017 were the highest ever recorded in a single year at USD 144 billion. The main cause was the series of record-breaking hurricanes that smashed Caribbean and U.S. coasts. German reinsurer Munich RE also found that natural disasters caused more damage in 2017 than in the previous five years, with much of the damage caused by extreme weather events being linked to climate change, above all severe hurricanes, flooding and fires.

Some see climate considerations as an increasingly essential element in making major business investments. This could lead then to enhanced funding by businesses to support climate early warning systems as part of a country’s suite of adaptation measures. This aspect alone is likely to increase private sector investment in climate resilience – which currently lags far behind private sector investment in clean energy. If an increasing need for business to invest in early warning systems leads to increased private sector funding for climate change adaptation, this might be a silver lining in the gathering clouds of future extreme weather.

You can find out more about GCF’s support for projects reducing climate risks through early warning here:

  • Project FP002 in Malawi, installing water stations together with weather buoys and lightning detection sensors to provide better early warning systems for fishing and farming communities (Accredited Entity UNDP)
  • Project FP013 in Viet Nam, improving data analysis techniques examining coastal inundation risks (Accredited Entity UNDP)
  • Project FP018 in Pakistan, installing 50 automatic weather stations and 408 river gauges to measure the risk of flash-floods caused by Himalayan glacier melt as global temperatures rise (Accredited Entity UNDP)
  • Project FP021 in Senegal, helping boost the government’s flood management strategy through better flood risk mapping (Accredited Entity AFD)
  • Project FP035 in Vanuatu, including building technical capacity to harness and manage climate data and disseminate tailored climate information (Accredited Entity SPREP).