Insights from Disaster Early Warning

The disaster and conflict early warning communities rarely share lessons learned and best practices. Why? Disasters are qualitatively different than armed conflicts. There are nevertheless clear operational parallels between disaster and conflict early warning systems—from risk assessment and monitoring to analysis, communication and response. Early warning systems generally share the same overarching goal, early detection, early response. Furthermore, over 150 natural disasters have occurred alongside complex political crises in the past seven years alone (UN 2006). This is why the undergraduate, graduate and professionals seminars I have tought since 2005 are entitled: “From Disaster to Conflict Early Warning and Response”.

Understanding how disaster early warning systems work, and in particular their link to response, can provide important insights for bridging the conflict early warning-response gap. What is especially telling is the disaster management community’s focus on mitigation, preparedness and contingency planning. Clearly, forecasting a hurricane is not tantamount to actually preventing the hazard from translating into a disaster. Response measures therefore need to be put in place regardless of the forecast’s accuracy. Moreover, the  discourse on disaster early warning is increasingly shifting towards “people-centered early warning,” the purpose of which is,

“to empower individuals and communities threatened by hazards to act in sufficient time and in an appropriate manner so as to reduce the possibility of personal injury, loss of life, damage to property and the environment, and loss of livelihoods” (UN 2006).

Forecasting conflict is clearly more difficult than forecating environmental hazards such as hurricanes. And our track record is far less impressive than our colleagues’ in the disaster early warning community. This begs the following question: why does our field not take a “people-centered” approach and provide training for conflict mitigation, preparedness and contingency planning? Surely, if the disaster community were to focus exclusively on forecasting, millions would die. We would be shocked at such a decision. And yet, we seem unphased by the fact that our community does not provide even the most limited tactical traning in civilian protection and conflict preparedness. Should we still be suprised that our field continues to struggle in trying to link warning with response?

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