Community perceptions of risk – Their impact on the effectiveness of early warning systems

John Twigg
ITDG, Myson House, Railway Terrace, Rugby CV21 3HT, United Kingdom.
Tel. : +44-1788-560631, Fax: +44-1788-540270,
E-mail: johnt@itdg.org.uk

In recent years considerable scientific, technical and managerial effort has gone into improving early warning systems for a range of natural hazards. As a result, many early warning systems are now much more accurate than they have ever been, and they can deliver information more quickly than ever before. However, this does not – in itself – ensure that communities are made safe from disasters. There is often what has been described as a ‘missing link’ when it comes to making effective use of early warning information to protect people at risk.

More recent work is attempting to overcome some of these problems, particularly by developing improved or alternative methods of communication that make early warning messages more accessible to vulnerable communities. This if often seen purely in terms of making messages simpler or producing more comprehensible information materials. But this remains a top-down perspective. To be truly effective, early warning communication needs to be a two-way process: those who issue warnings must be more aware of the needs and priorities of communities, and be more responsive to them. This means they must acquire more information themselves about how communities perceive risk, and the reasons that underlie their behaviour when hazards threaten.

The paper will outline some of these issues more fully and provide illustrations of good and bad practice, drawing on recent research and on field projects with vulnerable communities. It will also make recommendations for future action.