When Disaster Strikes: The Early Warning System

Written by Angela Michelle R. Alcaraz
Illustration by Rafaela Castro
Published 2021 June 26

Floods, Typhoons, Earthquakes, Volcanic eruptions. There are many more natural hazards that occur around the world all of which are unavoidable. In fact, the Philippine, located in the Pacific Ring of Fire and the typhoon belt, is one of the most hazard prone countries in the world.[1] However, natural hazards are different from natural disasters. Natural hazards are events that have the potential to be harmful to humans while a natural disaster is what happens after a natural hazard when it already caused harm to people.[2] We may not be able to stop a natural hazard, but we can reduce the effects of a natural disaster. This is where Disaster Risk Reduction comes in.

Disaster Risk Reduction protects those who are most vulnerable to disasters, limiting its negative effects on them. It aims to prevent new risks, reduce existing risks, and increase overall resilience.[3] But, what is “risk”?  Risk is the probability of an outcome having negative effects.[4] Understanding Disaster Risk Reduction can help us in lowering the negative impact of disasters. In the Philippines, typhoon Yoland was one of the most destructive and costliest disasters to have occurred [1], killing 6000 persons and displacing approximately 3 million more.[5] Because of corruption, implementation challenges, social and economic inequality, as well as the scale of the typhoon, the disaster preparedness and mitigation efforts of the Philippine government were weak in this case.[5] If there was a much stronger effort in disaster preparedness and mitigation, we could have lessened the amount of casualties and damages the typhoon caused.  

One important element of effective disaster risk reduction is the Early Warning System or EWS [6] that notifies people before a natural hazard occurs giving them time to move out of harm’s way.[7] Early Warning Systems should be able to effectively distribute messages and warnings and facilitate the public’s education and awareness of risks to ensure that they are constantly prepared for it.[8] An efficient Early Warning Systems consist of four elements, namely: Disaster Risk Knowledge, which are based on disaster risk assessments and data collection; Detection, monitoring, analysis and forecasting of the hazards and possible consequences; Warning, dissemination and communication; and Preparedness and response capabilities to the warnings received.[6,9]

A journal article authored by Ignacio Aguirre-Ayerbe, Maria Merino, Seinn Lei Aye, Ranjith Dissanayake, Fathmath Shadiya, and Crisanto M. Lopez evaluated the availability and adequacy of the Multi-Hazard Early Warning Systems or MHEWS in the following Asian countries: Maldives, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and the Philippines.[6]

In the Maldives, there are two main agencies related to the Multi-Hazard Early Warning System. The Maldives Meteorological Service receives data and Information about hazards and release an alert to the National Disaster Management Authority. This agency is responsible for coordinating early warning and for ensuring that it is disseminated to relevant authorities and the public. Their monitoring systems are fully developed and operational. The processes of organization and decision-making as well as early communication of warnings are not fully developed. The testing and evaluation of public awareness is fully developed although it is not operational. The element of Disaster Risk Knowledge, especially in the identification of hazards, assessment of exposure, vulnerability, and risks, and consolidation and incorporation of risk information into EWS are poorly developed.[6]

As for Sri Lanka, the Disaster Management Center is the main agency related to MHEWS. This agency first receives a warning message from technical agencies the Department of Meteorology and the Department of Irrigation. It then distributed a national level message to several institutions. Afterwards, it is disseminated to four levels which then reaches the affected community by different methods. The monitoring systems of Sri Lanka’s MHEWS are well developed but not fully operational. None of the four elements of MHEWS were assessed as fully developed.[6]

The main agencies in Myanmar that are related to MHEWS are the Department of Meteorology and Hydrology (DMH), the Department of Disaster Management (DDM), the General Administration Department (GAD), and the Myanmar Red Cross (MRC). The DMH is responsible for issuing early warnings about hazards to DDM, GAD, and MRC who will then distribute the warning message to the communities involved. When evaluating the adequacy of MHEWS, there were many inconsistencies within the agencies that may be interpreted as the lack of communication between the institutions. For the DMH, the less developed element is Disaster Risk knowledge, whereas for the DDM, it is Detection, monitoring, analysis and forecasting of the hazards and possible consequences. However, both institutions have Preparedness and response capabilities as its most developed element.[6]

In the Philippines, there are a few main agencies related to MHEWS. One of them is the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration who have the responsibility to issue warnings about hydro-meteorological hazards such as tropical cyclones. The other would be the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology who issue warnings about geotectonic phenomena such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. These warnings would be distributed to the public and to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council who communicates it to the local DRRMCs who will then relay it to their communities. The MHEWS is mostly well-developed in three elements. However, the element of Warning dissemination and communication is not as well implemented.[6]

All of these countries have adopted the multi-hazard approach but in varying levels of development and operationalization. These countries are still in the first stages of development in dissemination and communication. It is important that their coordinating institutions involved in the distribution of warning messages, emergency coordination, or promotion of preparedness strategies should have a clearly defined function and structure of coordination between the agencies. There are also several aspects that need to be developed in all the countries such as integrating local knowledge and existing socioeconomic circumstances into the EWS, considering the vulnerability of human and infrastructure for risk assessments and communication strategies, and implementing public awareness campaigns. One strength of the countries’ EWS is that regional cooperation is given importance.[6]

The Early Warning Systems in these Asian countries have their own strengths and weaknesses. Understanding that can help in improving and enhancing the current EWS [6], so we can save as many lives as we can when disaster strikes.


  1. Iuchi K, Jibiki Y, Solidum Jr. R, Santiago R. Natural Hazards Governance in the Philippines. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Natural Hazard Science. 2019 [cited 2021 May 23]. Available from: https://oxfordre.com/naturalhazardscience/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199389407.001.0001/acrefore-9780199389407-e-233#acrefore-9780199389407-e-233-div1-3 
  2. Nelson SA. Natural Hazards and NAtural Disasters [Internet]. [place of publication unknown]: Tulane University; [date of publication unknown] [updated 2018 Jan 10; cited 2021 May 23]. Available from: https://www.tulane.edu/~sanelson/Natural_Disasters/introduction.htm 
  3. Concern Worldwide US. What is Disaster Risk Reduction, and Why Do We Need It? [Internet]. [place of publication unknown]: Concern Worldwide US; 2020 [update date unknown; cited 2021 May 23]. Available from: https://www.concernusa.org/story/what-is-disaster-risk-reduction/ 
  4. United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR). Understanding Risk [Internet]. [place of plublicaiton unknown]: UNDRR; 2020 [ updated date unknown; cited 2021 May 23]. Available from: https://www.undrr.org/building-risk-knowledge/understanding-risk
  5. Walch C. Typhoon Haiyan: pushing the limits of resilience? The effect of land inequality on resilience and disaster risk reduction policies in the Philippines. Critical Asian Studies [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2021 May 24];50(1):122-135. Available from: http://www.tandfonline.com.oca.rizal.library.remotexs.co/doi/full/10.1080/14672715.2017.1401936?src=recsys DOI: 10.1080/14672715.2017.1401936 
  6. Aguirre-Ayerbe I, Merino M, Aye SL, Dissanayake R, Shadiya F, Lopez CM. An evaluation of availability and adequacy of Multi-Hazard Early Warning Systems in Asian countries: A baseline study. IJDRR [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2021 May 24];49:101749. Available from: https://archium.ateneo.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1076&context=biology-faculty-pubs
  7. U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Disaster Risk Reduction [Internet]. [place of publicaiton unknown]: USAID; [publication date unknown] [updated 2019 May 7; cited 2021 May 24]. Available from: https://www.usaid.gov/what-we-do/working-crises-and-conflict/disaster-risk-reduction
  8. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR). EWC III Third International Conference on Early Warning From concept to action [Internet]. Bonn, Germany: UNISDR; 2006 [update date unknown; cited 2021 May 24]. Available from: https://www.unisdr.org/files/608_10340.pdf 
  9. United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR). Early warning system [Internet]. [place of publication unknown]: UNDRR; 2020 [update date unknown; cited 2021 May 24]. Available from: https://www.undrr.org/terminology/early-warning-system 

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