Early warning systems (EWS) are widely recognised as worthwhile and necessary investments. Coupled with better preparedness and response mechanisms, they have proven to be very effective in reducing disaster risks. Globally, drought and storm death tolls are being reduced through EWS and the recovery programmes implemented in their aftermath.
While EWS strive to improve and develop, levels of vulnerability are rising. Many population groups are increasingly at risk as a consequence of mounting poverty, failed development, economic shocks, protracted conflicts, market failures, and the effects of HIV/AIDS. Due to climate change and degraded environments, the impacts of natural hazard are also growing. In many circumstances livelihoods, and the ability of households to cope with shocks, are deteriorating rapidly. Risk and vulnerability patterns are therefore increasingly multifaceted. EWS must therefore integrate hazard surveillance with a better understanding of the political, socio-economic and environmental aspects of vulnerability. In addition to strong technical foundations and good
knowledge of the risks, effective EWS must be strongly ‘people centered’. They should issue clear messages that reach those at risk, and link to knowledgeable responses used by risk managers and the public. Failure in any one part can mean failure of the whole system.
Accordingly, EWS need to combine 'bottom-up' and 'top-down' elements. A community approach is essential to identify needs and patterns of vulnerability, and to develop the legitimacy required to ensure that warnings are acted upon. In both Lesotho and Malawi, a participatory bottom-up approach has been absolutely crucial in profiling local-level livelihoods, and socio-economic
or wealth-based differences in capacities to respond to shocks. Information needs to flow from global, regional and national monitoring systems. This requires support at a high level through information systems, scientific analytical capacity and policy frameworks.
In southern Africa the approach has been labelled ‘Vulnerability Assessment and Analysis’ or VAA. Ideally this type of technical monitoring service should be an integral part of a wider EWS, spanning knowledge of the risks faced, monitoring and forecasting, dissemination and response programmes.
Fundamental development problems usually explain why hazard events culminate in human and economic disasters. They include:
Until relatively recently, disaster-related policies largely focused on emergency response, leaving a serious underinvestment in hazard prevention and mitigation. Disaster risk management thinking highlights the need to co-ordinate emergency response with wider development goals. Rather than treating symptoms when disasters happen, the disaster risk management approach aims to break the cycle of loss and recovery by addressing the root causes of vulnerability. From this perspective, development activities should be designed to compliment disaster prevention and disaster mitigation objectives. Simultaneously, emergency response, relief and recovery operations need to address the structural causes of vulnerability. In southern Africa, this shift in focus is clearly expressed in the calls to link VAA work to Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs), emerging social protection agendas and innovative agricultural and livelihood programmes. This has important implications for the broader conceptualisation
of response programmes which can span institutional arrangements, market instruments, food aid, cash transfers, social protection and livelihood development.
the persistence of widespread urban and rural poverty;
the degradation of the environment resulting from the mismanagement of natural resources;
inefficient public policies;
lagging and misguided investments in infrastructure; and
the added problem of a continuing lack of comprehensive knowledge of HIV/AIDS prevention methods.