The purpose of early warning systems (EWS) is simple. They exist to give advance notice of an impending flood, allowing emergency plans to be put into action. EWS, when used appropriately, can save lives and reduce other adverse impacts.

Warning systems can be used to alert relevant authorities or the public or both. The scale of a warning system can be national, based on a river basin, or local and run by volunteers. Most are stand-alone national operations, but warning systems have been developed covering several international rivers, such as the Rhine, Danube, Elbe and Mosel in Europe, the Mekong, Indus and Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basins in Asia and the Zambezi in Southern Africa (United Nations 2006). However, the utility of EWS is crucially dependent on the underlying forecasting system, the quality of emergency plans and the level of preparedness of the community at risk. The quality of forecasting is also dependent on the nature of the hazard. Warning systems related to river flooding have a longer lead time than those for cyclonic events; seismic induced tsunamis may have very short warning periods. Forecasting flash flooding is also very problematic; this has implications for developing nations which are more exposed to such risks, due to the prevalence of monsoon type flooding. Whilst there is general agreement about the desirability of EWS, the implementation of such a system is necessarily subject to local factors.

Essentials for an effective EWS

The four main essentials for any flood warning system are:

  • Detection of the conditions likely to lead to potential flooding, such as intense rainfall, prolonged rainfall, storms or snowmelt
  • Forecasting how those conditions will translate into flood hazards using modeling systems, pre-prepared scenarios or historical comparisons
  • Warning via messages developed to be both locality- and recipient-relevant and broadcasting these warnings as appropriate
  • Response to the actions of those who receive the warnings based on specific instructions or pre-prepared emergency plans

Failure in any one of the four key elements of an EWS will lead to a lack of effectiveness. Inaccurate forecasts may lead to populations ignoring warnings issued subsequently.

The lack of clear warning and instruction may have resulted, for example, in the deaths of people escaping the Big Thompson Canyon flood in the US in the 1970s. Without clear instructions many people were killed trying to drive out of the canyon rather than taking the safer option of abandoning cars and climbing to higher ground.

Finally, the case of Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the scenario where clear advanced warnings failed to protect the population because the evacuation planning was inadequate.

Organizational aspects of flood warning dissemination

There are multiple communication channels by which a flood warning may be broadcast and the choice of media will vary depending on the intended recipients. It is also essential to consider the use of media that will be robust to the impacts of a flood.

The most successful warning services use a combination of media, ideally with consistent messages and timescales, as well as the response the message hopes to initiate. For example, an individuals whose home is likely to be flooded will probably react best to a personal message either via phone, fax or in person; people who should avoid travelling to or through an affected area may prefer a news bulletin backed up by an internet or press map of the affected area.

Costs and resources

Setting up a warning system may be a low cost option for countries and is often seen as the first line of defense for that reason. The cost will be lowest in nations with existing and adequate forecasting and monitoring services. In this case the setting up of a warning center can be a very low cost process and this can be quickly established during consultation and stakeholder identification.

Setting up adequate forecasting and monitoring serviced can require much larger investments in expertise, software and hardware for modeling and monitoring equipment. The lead time to establish forecasts of the required reliability and timeliness may be a deterrent.

Key lessons learnt

Once established the service will require continuous investment in manpower, data and other resources in order to be functionally useful. Recruitment and retention of qualified personnel, continuity of funds and operations and maintenance of monitoring, modeling and dissemination equipment can be key challenges in the long term sustainability of systems. This can be particularly acute for low frequency events.

Relevant case studies and examples
Literature sources
United Nations. 2006. Global survey of early warning systems. UN.
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