Early warning and geography: Space, time and user needs (examples from famine early warning)

Charles Kelly
Disaster Management Consultant, Suite 211, 7758 Wisconsin Ave, Bethesda, Md. 20814 USA.
E-mail: 72734.2412@Compuserve.com

Early warning receives a lot of attention but produces mixed results. The successful warning of drought in Southern Africa in 1993 contrasts with inaccurate warnings of drought due to the current El Niño event in the same area. The floods further north in East Africa suggest early warning systems were focused on the wrong problem in the wrong place. Warnings about El Niños impact on Indonesia's agriculture and food security had little impact until an unrelated (but compounding) economic crisis developed.

Like the child crying wolf, systems which provide inaccurate warnings loose credibility. The problem can be blamed on poor data and limited analytical capacities. But part of the problem also arises from systems which do not reflect or respond to the needs of users. The paper discusses how to address this difficulty.

The paper focuses on the geography of early warning. It looks at how distance, time and user needs define the nature and operation of an early warning system. Famine early warning is used to highlight how systems need to take geography into account to operate effectively.

An effective early warning system is one which provides sufficient information to initiate actions to avoid the negative impacts of the threatened disaster. Early warning and response planning are linked, with effective early warning permitting pro-active response.

The five critical elements for an early warning system are: (1) defining data and analysis based on time and space defined requirements, (2) separating early warning and response information needs, (3) creating feed-back to provide timely information for adequate planning, (4) focusing early warning on the potential disaster victim, and (5) producing warnings which are understandable and useful to the intended audience.