Regardless of the outcomes of climate summits and the efforts of nations, we are all facing the consequences of a warming planet. Among these are changing patterns of natural disasters, which are becoming more frequent and intense and which disproportionately affect developing countries. By 2030, climate change threatens to push over 130 million people into poverty and could displace 1.2 billion people by 2050.
But there is a silver lining: technological developments over the last decades have created tools that can help us to better understand, better predict, and better prepare for disasters. As laid out in detail in our recent piece on How Climate Vulnerable Countries Can Use Tech – which is part of a series on how technology can help developing countries better prepare and respond to climate-linked disasters – technologies for early-warning systems (EWS) such as satellite data, super- and cloud computing, as well as connected devices have the potential to mitigate the impact of disasters and provide reasonable lead-times to enable us to better prepare for and respond to pending crises. These technologies – and the data gathered and analysed from them – can transform disaster management systems, reducing damage and saving lives and livelihoods.
But in practice, less than 50% of the population in developing countries are protected by early-warning systems. Harnessing these technologies for early warning is not technically complex, but in practice there remain numerous barriers, challenges, and bottlenecks that governments face in accessing and integrating these tools into their early-warning and climate-information systems. To support developing countries overcome these challenges, our latest paper, How Climate Vulnerable Countries Can Access Tech, is focused on addressing these barriers and identifying how policymakers can access the wealth of existing technology to turn data into signals into action.
In particular, we identify three key challenges governments face: first, governments often lack clear governance frameworks for disaster management with precise responsibilities and standard operating procedures (SOPs), leading to fragmented disaster risk management spread across different national agencies with little cross-agency coordination. Second, crucial technical capacity support systems for countries provided by international networks like the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) or Regional Integrated Multi-Hazard Early Warning System for Africa and Asia (RIMES) are greatly underutilised by national hydrometeorological agencies, and many countries lack cross-border data-sharing arrangements, which are critical to help fill data or information gaps caused by sub-standard climate observation capacity at the national level. Finally, many developing countries have limited technical expertise dedicated to disaster management and patchy tech infrastructure, which hinders the interoperability of tech solutions and leads to weakened ability to make data- and risk-informed decisions. Each of these challenges means that governments struggle to adopt comprehensive early warning systems which drive a rapid and coordinated response.
Our answer to these challenges lays out three key steps:
Make a clear and comprehensive plan to turn warning into action: Policymakers must create a clear governance framework for disaster management which sets out precise roles and responsibilities and embeds the necessary tech skills and capacity. Disaster risk management is a multi-stakeholder effort and requires decisive and coordinated leadership. Building a comprehensive institutional framework maximises the potential impact of technology on disaster management, sets clear data-led triggers for action and assigns distinct roles and responsibilities across government.
Build a scalable tech infrastructure base: Early warning systems are strongest when informed by multiple data sources, and governments should create a centralised national data infrastructure that utilises support from organisations like the WMO and enables data sharing, access and participation across government agencies. Such infrastructure should be scalable and modular, enabling governments to strategically invest in technologies that can be built upon and scaled over time, as additional needs are identified.
Invest in the tech expertise to interpret and action the data: Governments should focus on investing in human capital (short-term) while building up their national tech infrastructure (long-term) by leveraging and establishing knowledge transfer mechanisms with regional and international knowledge and infrastructure networks and organisations.
We know that early warning systems are key to protecting life, property, and our environment, and 21st century tools must be used to address 21st century challenges. By strengthening a country’s governance framework, infrastructure, and technical capacity, governments, leaders, and international stakeholders are well positioned to leverage and integrate the remarkable technological advances of recent years into more coordinated, comprehensive and effective early warning systems.