The WMO says such systems save lives and provide at least a tenfold return on investment - but only half of countries have put them in place so far, with coverage especially low in small island developing states, least developed nations and Africa.
Early warning for all
The UN chief has announced a goal of ensuring everyone on earth is protected by early warning systems by the end of 2027, through an initiative being implemented by UN agencies, development banks, governments and national weather services.
The programme is seeking new investments of about US$3 billion - a sum the WMO says would be dwarfed by the benefits.
Mami Mizutori, head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), said the rollout of early warning systems around the world so far had been key in lowering mortality from disasters this century - a rare success as threats spiral.
A mid-point review of goals set in 2015 under a global pact to avert disasters by 2030 said “progress has stalled and, in some cases, reversed”, despite more countries creating disaster loss databases and adopting national risk reduction strategies.
“We can definitely say that action has not caught up with awareness - and risk is ahead of us,” Mizutori said in an interview during a UN meeting on the global pact, called the Sendai Framework, in New York last week.
“If we don’t manage to prevent (disasters), we pay a very, very huge price in lives and livelihoods,” she added.
The review of the targets adopted in Sendai, Japan, revealed the number of people affected by disasters each year - through harm to their health, homes and incomes - has fallen since 2015.
But, it noted, economic losses caused by disasters remained high at an average of above US$330 billion per year between 2015 and 2021 - or 1 per cent of gross domestic product of the reporting countries - an amount estimated to be significantly undervalued.
The WMO’s new analysis of weather, climate and water-related disasters pointed out that more than 60 per cent of economic losses over the past five decades occurred in developed countries, yet the poorest nations and island states took a much bigger blow in terms of the share of their GDP.
In many cases, such as Cyclone Mocha, losses are uninsured and barely register in terms of dollar value - but can be devastating for people who have almost nothing to fall back on.
For example, those most affected by the recent storm in Bangladesh were Rohingya people displaced by successive waves of political violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and who now live in crowded conditions in camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.
Aid assessments showed the cyclone wrecked more than 8,000 flimsy bamboo huts there - about one-fifth of shanty homes.
The shelters cannot withstand even modest wind speeds, said Ashish Damle, country head for aid group Oxfam International - adding that if a cyclone were to hit directly, the bamboo huts would be blown about, resulting in “terrible fatalities”.
“(Mocha) was more like a teaser for Bangladesh that reminds us that we need to be prepared for future events,” Damle said.
Globally, a major obstacle to building more robust homes and infrastructure such as disaster-resilient power lines and transport is a lack of financing, governments and experts say.
In a political declaration issued in New York last week, countries expressed concern that investments in disaster risk reduction and development aid allocated to prevention remain inadequate, and vowed to do more to fill the gap.
One idea backed by UNDRR is to work with the private sector to issue “resilience bonds” whose proceeds could be used by countries or cities to bolster infrastructure and ecosystems that can help protect against flooding, storms or drought.
‘Build back better’
Aid agencies argue that, with budgets stretched, it makes more economic sense to invest in reducing risks for vulnerable communities than helping them rebuild after weather disasters.
Yet despite the reasoning - with US$1 spent on risk reduction and prevention estimated to save up to US$15 in post-disaster recovery, according to UNDRR - the money is still not flowing in anything like the quantities needed.
Only about 5 per cent of disaster-related foreign aid was spent on prevention and preparedness from 2011-2020, UNDDR data shows.
“That continues to be a real bottleneck in terms of progress generally - and it’s part of a wider political lack of attention to preparedness versus response,” said Sophie Rigg, head of climate and humanitarian policy for charity ActionAid UK.
One solution is to “build back better” when recovering from a disaster, so individuals and communities are less vulnerable to future climate change impacts, said Rigg, who is also a board member for the Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction.
To reinforce this approach, recent progress on incorporating disaster prevention into the UN climate negotiations could open up expected new streams of finance for tackling loss and damage caused by climate change, she and other experts said.
Meanwhile on the ground, struggling communities could benefit from innovative approaches to help them access funding.
For example, Gawher Nayeem Wahra, founder and secretary of the Disaster Forum in Bangladesh, said microfinance institutions could be used to disburse small sums of resilience aid for rural cyclone survivors to rebuild homes and restart their lives.
And on a longer-term basis, low-cost loans could be offered for private two-storey homes on the condition that their owners allow them to be used by evacuees from cyclones and flooding, easing pressure on crowded public shelters, he added.
Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy for Climate Action Network International, said governments, aid agencies and others who have worked separately on disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation should unite “towards a common goal”.
“We need to work very closely to make sure that we have the best interests of people in whatever we do, because they are suffering and they need our urgent support,” he said.
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