This is how early warning systems help us deal with extreme weather

In April 2021, the Southeast Asian island nation of Timor-Leste was hit by the worst floods in its recent history. Caused by a tropical cyclone, floods hit 30,000 households and killed 34 people.

Such events are becoming a sadly well-known story around the world where climate-related disasters are on the rise. But in Timor-Leste, a new climate adaptation project can help reduce this risk. The plan focuses on building an early warning system in the country that warns people in advance should a similar extreme weather event happen in the future. It could make all the difference – giving people the opportunity to protect themselves and their assets.

Such systems are increasingly seen as a key measure to adapt to climate change. “We are already locked into intensifying climate impacts for the next decades or longer,” said Stefanie Tye, an expert in climate resilience at the World Resources Institute. “So it’s just part of the reality now that we need these systems in place to protect humans and ecosystems.”

Early warning systems can alert local communities to things like hurricanes, cyclones or landslides due to extreme rainfall, where it can make all the difference to get ahead of events in just a few hours, Tye says. They can also provide knowledge about slower-occurring events, such as an impending drought several months away. “You use the system to inform people who will be affected by these events so they can take the right steps to prepare.”

In Bangladesh, for example, a country known for both its climate vulnerability and its sophisticated use of such systems, cyclone warnings have significantly reduced the number of deaths over the past two decades.

They are also effective, according to a 2019 report from the Global Commission on Adaptation, with their benefits far outweighing the costs. Only a 24-hour warning of an impending storm or heat wave could cut damage to people and property by 30 percent, the report said.

There are several aspects to making these systems work. One key is to ensure accurate observational data to produce accurate and timely warnings, says Jochem Zoetelief, head of the climate services and capacity building unit at the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), which runs the project in Timor-Leste. “People need to trust the forecasts and the warnings, because if they are not accurate and it happens too often, you will lose people.” Projects with early warning systems will therefore often install equipment such as automatic weather stations and radar systems and strengthen the country’s hydrometeorological services.

But another crucial part is to ensure that the resulting information actually reaches the individuals who are most likely to be affected. It actually does no good to send an email alert if no one has the internet. Tropical cyclones can also wipe out communications infrastructure, so backups may be needed even if people have cell phones. Each project must therefore look into the local context to decide on the best ways to spread the information, which can be anything from SMS alarms or radio broadcasts to someone making an announcement with a megaphone in the middle of a village.

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