Weather-Ready World

Why settle for a Weather-Ready Nation?

Last week’s press release from the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, reprinted here in its entirety, says it all:

USAID, NOAA, AND WORLD METEOROLOGICAL ORGANIZATION ANNOUNCE NEW WEATHER-READY NATIONS INITIATIVE

News

16 March 2015

SENDAI, JAPAN – This weekend, at the 3rd UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction the U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the World Meteorological Organization announced the creation of Weather-Ready Nations, a new program to improve the understanding of high impact weather, water, and climate events.

The devastating effects of extreme events such as cyclones, floods, and tsunamis can be greatly reduced through improved communication of expected impacts and risk, better delivery of warning information to communities under a threat, and clearer actions that individuals, businesses, and communities can take to be more resilient. Even in places where the crucial step of establishing early warning systems has been completed, advanced warnings are only beneficial if they lead to a public response that moves people out of harm’s way. The basic need is for more actionable information to reduce the number of weather, water, and climate related fatalities and improve the economic value of weather, water, and climate information.

Weather-Ready Nations, relying on best practices developed in many countries–including the United States–will address this by offering to combine and share countries’ experiences in developing initiatives that shift toward an impact-based forecasting and warning system which informs people about what impact the weather will have on users, rather than just expected conditions. The goal is to provide tangible actions that people and communities can take to increase their resilience.

First steps in launching Weather-Ready Nations will be to host seminars for experienced and interested countries to share best practices and then agree on capacity development actions. The next program action will be to offer demonstration programs to selected countries.

We welcome the participation of interested partners in this Initiative. Together we can empower emergency mangers and others to make smart decisions to save lives and reduce the economic impact of natural disasters.

A great vision, well-directed! Its framers – at the NOAA, at USAID, and at WMO are to be congratulated and encouraged. Some comments:

Timing. This initiative has been some time in the making, but it was announced just a day or two after Cyclone Pam slammed into the nation of Vanuatu in the western Pacific, even while reports of the scale of the impacts were still coming in. Few events could better paint a picture of the challenge posed in making all nations of the world weather-ready. At one end of the scale are large, developed, rich nations, including the United States. Weather disasters rarely impact more than a small fraction of the geographic area; the impacts year-on-year amount to a percent or so of GDP. By contrast, Vanuatu, a nation of small islands extending over perhaps 100,000 square miles but providing less than 2000 square miles of actual land, offered its 250,000 residents no place to hide. At least half the population, including more than 50,000 children, was directly impacted by Cyclone Pam. Critical infrastructures – power grid, water supply, communication, schools, and hospitals – were devastated. On some islands, 90% of the buildings were damaged or destroyed. Other islands saw their entire forest ecosystems denuded. For a largely rural, subsistence-lifestyle nation, this impact was particularly devastating. (Ironically, Vanuatu’s president Baldwin Lonsdale was in Sendai, Japan attending the WCDRR.)

Context. Speaking of WCDRR, that NOAA, USAID, and WMO would make their joint announcement at this venue is significant. The press release focuses on improvement of warnings: building the international and in-country capacity needed to extend the time horizon and improve the treatment of uncertainty in weather forecasts and outlooks; enhancing the emphasis on impacts in the forecasts and warnings; making the forecasts and warnings actionable. All this is laudable and necessary. However, the rest of the World Conference proceedings, the Sendai framework, and ongoing risk management efforts all make clear that warnings and emergency response are only the last resort of any effective weather-readiness strategy. From a community- or national standpoint, disaster risk reduction is largely a question of land use, building codes, the uninterruptibility of critical infrastructure, and public awareness. This test is difficult enough for the developed nations (witness the impacts of Hurricane Katrina); for the developing world the challenges are greater still. As NOAA, USAID, and WMO move forward, they should make it clear to the larger world that at best their combined efforts can save lives, reduce injuries, and make small, incremental contributions to saving property. In the face of weather hazards, nations of the world need to do much more to make the lives of those who survive worth living.

A key difficulty posed by weather hazards is the mismatch between the risk and the time horizon and geographic scale of economic investments to build the needed resilience. Weather hazards are inherently acute, local and uncertain. By contrast, for any given location, investments made today might pay off next year, but they might not be needed or yield any return for decades. It’s impossible with today’s science to tell.

Private-sector opportunity. The world’s financial sector has been remarkably clever for centuries in devising financial instruments to handle such discrepancies in time horizons, but they have struggled in this instance. Insurance provides partial cost-recovery for catastrophic loss after the event, but to date there are no corresponding instruments providing incentive and means for investments in land use, building construction, and infrastructure to provide for increased resilience over time. (This reality points to the difficulty of the problem rather than any lack of trying.) Nevertheless, the private-sector (writ large, not just the private-sector weather-service providers, insurers, and the Home Depots and WalMarts) is best positioned here to identify targeted opportunities for improving resilience that have a pay-as-you-go and stream-of-benefits dimension to them. There’s room for private enterprise to do well by doing good.

U.S. Department of Commerce. Domestically in the United States, and with respect to international marketing and business opportunities for U.S. firms as well, there’s opportunity for the Department of Commerce to play a vital supporting role. Expertise on hazards, (NOAA); wind-, fire-, and seismic engineering (NIST); vulnerable populations (Census); rebuilding local economies (EDA); international markets (ITA); and links to the entirety of American business – all under one roof?

Magic.

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