The art and science of early disaster warnings
By Nalaka Gunawardene

Monday, 5 January 2015

Post-tsunami South Asia has better early warning systems, but reaching remote communities is still problematic.

Managing disaster early warnings is both a science and an art. When done well, it literally saves lives — but only if the word quickly reaches all those at risk, and they know how to react.

We have come a long way since the devastating Asian Tsunami of December 2004, which caught Indian Ocean countries by surprise. Many of the over 230,000 people killed that day could have been saved by timely coastal evacuations.

The tenth anniversary of that mega-disaster is a good time to take stock of what has been accomplished since.

The good news is that advances in science and communications technology, greater international cooperation, and revamped national systems have vastly improved tsunami early warnings during the past decade. However, some critical gaps and challenges remain.

Early warnings work best when adequate technological capability is combined with streamlined decision-making, multiple dissemination systems and well-prepared communities.

Rapid onset disasters — such as tsunamis and flash floods — allow only a tight window from detection to impact, typically 15 to 90 minutes. Other hazards, such as cyclones and floods, may occur within a few hours or days of detection.

Even the most advanced early warning systems are only as good as their ability to disseminate warnings efficiently and through multiple pathways.

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene has covered disasters for over 20 years as a journalist, and co-edited ‘Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book’ in 2007. He is also a trustee of SciDev.Net.

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