Scientific contributions to effective early warning in an environmental context

Alexander L. Alusa
Atmosphere Unit, United Nations Environment Programme, P.O. Box 470743, Nairobi, Kenya.
Tel. : +254-2-623455; Fax: +254-2-623410,
E-Mail: alex.alusa@unep.org

Whenever there is an environmental disaster, efforts are made in every direction, largely to manage a crisis situation. Often there is no time to attribute blame or indeed to determine where the system went wrong. But ultimately, when the crisis is over, it helps to take stock of what happened, what should have happened and why it did not happen or why it was not effective if it happened. Then the finger pointing starts. Both the policy makers, scientists and public begin to blame each other, but in the end, the public is left bewildered and compromised.

This paper seeks to highlight the role of science in early warning systems for environmental disasters. It will flag the problems in, and indeed barriers to, communications between scientists, policy makers and the public. The paper starts off on the premise that science needs to inform most policy responses to environmental disasters. It then attempts to identify communication barriers between the policy maker and scientist; and public and policy maker. It is suggested that impact and vulnerability assessments could constitute a possible avenue to bridging the gap between the scientist and policy maker, the policy maker and the general public and, the scientist and the public. The capacity to respond to a given environmental disaster is also an essential ingredient for effective use of early warning systems. It is argued that in many cases the finger pointing is the result of a system that lacks the resources to respond to a disaster and would wish to ascribe inability to be proactive to limited or unavailable information from the specialist. The need for political will, proper governance and accountability are also identified as barriers to effectiveness of early warning systems.

Examples, largely from weather/climate related disasters, are cited to support some of these hypotheses.