Every year in the past two decades, more than 200 million people, on average, have been affected by natural hazards. Disasters have caused a massive loss of life and negative long-term social, economic and environmental consequences. Vulnerable societies have been deeply affected, particularly in developing countries with less coping capacity.
The threat of disaster to these countries triggered by natural hazards poses a serious obstacle to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. (1) Historical experience, such as the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, has demonstrated that, although the occurrence of natural hazards cannot be prevented, their impact could be decreased when resilience of communities is strengthened.
Following the ten-year review of the progress made in the area of disaster reduction, the World Conference on Disaster Reduction (WCDR) (2), held in Kobe, Japan in January 2005, adopted an important policy document, the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters. (3) The Framework highlighted early warning as one of the major elements of disaster-risk reduction, which could save lives and help protect livelihoods and national development gains. Early warning systems have been recognized as an effective tool to reduce vulnerabilities and improve preparedness and response to natural hazards.
The importance of early warning has been underlined in various UN General Assembly resolutions as a critical element of disaster reduction. When the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) was established in 2000 as the successor to the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (1990-1999), the promotion of people-centred early warning systems was clearly underlined and included in its mandate. The significance of early warning for disaster reduction has been repeatedly emphasized in major international agendas, including the Yokohama Strategy (4), Agenda 21 (5), the Barbados Plan of Action for Small Island Developing States (6), the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (7), the Mauritius Strategy (8) and the G8 Summit in Gleneagles (9), as well as major multilateral environmental agreements, including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention to Combat Desertification.
To promote the goals of the 1994 Yokohama Strategy, specific activities on early warning were undertaken during the International Decade. In 1998, the International Conference on Early Warning Systems for Natural Disaster Reduction was convened in Potsdam, Germany, with the focus on state-of-the-art knowledge of early warning systems. The Second International Conference on Early Warning (EWC II) was organized in Bonn in 2003 by the Government of Germany under the auspices of the UN/ISDR. It was linked to the efforts of the Working Group 2 on Early Warning of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Disaster Reduction. EWC II emphasized the need for integrating early warning into relevant public policy. After the adoption of the Hyogo Framework, the Third International Conference was convened in Bonn in March 2006, focusing on developing concrete measures and project ideas to implement the Hyogo Framework.
Early warning received very high attention after the 26 December 2004 tsunami, when it became clear that a tsunami warning system and associated public education could have saved thousands of lives. The UN Secretary-General in his report, In Larger Freedom: Towards development, security and human rights for all, proposed that the United Nations system should take a leadership role in developing comprehensive global capacities for systematic people-centred early warning systems, which would cover all hazards for all countries and communities. Subsequently, he requested that a global survey be undertaken, with a view to advance the development of a global early warning system (GEWS) for all natural hazards. The survey report, coordinated by the ISDR secretariat, concluded that while some warning systems are well advanced, there are numerous gaps and shortcomings, especially at the local community level in developing countries, for effectively reaching and serving the needs of those at risk. …