Early warning systems in Southeast Asia: saving lives, showcasing collaboration

Photo: ESCAP/Suwat Chancharoensuk

The Swiss government has pledged financial support for disaster relief and resilience across Asia. Southeast Asian nations will benefit from the commitment to enhance life-saving early warning systems.

By John Pennington

Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic has proved difficult all over the world, but in Southeast Asia, governments have faced the additional challenge of managing the impacts of natural disasters such as cyclones and tsunamis at the same time.

Some more welcome assistance in that regard is on its way thanks to a grant of $US300,000 from the government of Switzerland, made available to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) Multi-Donor Trust Fund for Tsunami, Disaster and Climate Preparedness.

Despite their potential for widespread destruction, some elements of extreme weather systems are predictable, such as their course and strength. That makes early warning systems (EWS) a crucial part of disaster relief efforts. For example, indications of where storms will hit allow officials to move people away from at-risk areas before weather systems arrive. They can ready shelters in other areas which they are confident will not suffer as much.

While it costs money to research, develop and refine EWS, the benefits are potentially enormous. One study calculated that they can save three times the money they cost to implement in the case of forecasting hurricanes, four times as much when it comes to tornadoes and 500 times as much in areas prone to floods.

“Multi-hazard early warning systems are a public good and continuous investments to ensure the long-term sustainability of these systems are essential in overcoming many transboundary challenges in Asia and the Pacific,” explained Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, UN ESCAP Executive Secretary.

“The Trust Fund has helped strengthen institutional capacity and enhanced understanding by tailoring products that fit regional, subregional and country contexts,” she added.

Any help is welcome for a region prone to natural disasters

While battling the coronavirus pandemic, Southeast Asia has been hit by several natural disasters which have complicated attempts to control the spread of COVID-19 and caused significant physical damage and loss of life.

In May, Typhoon Vongfong made landfall in the Philippines, killing five people and causing damage worth US$31.1 million. Soon after, Cyclone Amphan threatened Rohingya refugees close to the Myanmar border, damaging shelters and worsening living conditions.

Earlier this month, an earthquake in the Philippines killed one person and damaged two houses which were being used as coronavirus quarantine areas. Now, the country is in the midst of its typhoon season while COVID-19 cases rise, highlighting that although fighting the pandemic is vital, governments have to be ready to combat other disasters at the same time.

The latest UN ESCAP funding will go towards developing standard operating procedures for multi-hazard warning in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Helene Bulldinger Artieda, Ambassador of Switzerland, commented, “Our vision is to expand the experiences of this pragmatic, result-oriented work to other beneficiary countries across the region.

“Switzerland is keen to join partners and support ESCAP’s efforts in Disaster Risk Reduction by contributing to the Trust Fund towards strengthening people-centred early warning systems and disaster resilience in high-risk, low capacity countries,” she added.

The importance of collaboration when it comes to natural disasters

Like the pandemic, natural disasters do not impact one country at a time. ESCAP is committed to providing assistance across the whole region, recognising that, “these disasters strike without discrimination, but inflict the greatest damage in the poorest communities, including minority groups, people in remote areas and those on the margins of the region’s rapidly expanding cities.”

The Trust Fund was established in 2005—following the Indian Ocean tsunami—to design and implement EWS, also allowing countries to share data, resources and expertise. It has since supported 29 projects with $US15.5 million, directly benefitting 19 countries and saving countless lives.

Following the outbreak of COVID-19, collaboration between nations has been stressed time and again as being vitally important to getting economies and industries moving in the right direction again. From sharing information about the nature of the virus to teams from across the world working together to develop vaccines, the same principle applies to disaster resilience. The Trust Fund is a prime example of applying this notion and helping to make the region a safer place.

After all, countries cannot and should not be expected to deal with the misfortune of natural disasters alone. No economy is robust enough, particularly with the world in the grip of a global pandemic, to cope. Inevitably, it is the worst off who will suffer the most but as Alisjahbana put it: “If we are to fulfil the goal to leave no one behind, we need to work together.”

About the Author

John Pennington
John Pennington is an English freelance writer and a self-published author. He graduated from the University of Warwick with a bachelor’s degree in French and History in 2006. After spending time as a sports journalist, he now writes about politics, history and social affairs.