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Integrating Scientific Information into Humanitarian Response

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11 September 2015

Traditionally humanitarian aid comes into play as an immediate response to provide lifesaving assistance in a natural or man-made disaster situation. Whereas, development practitioners work on increasing resilience to reduce the risk of disasters. But what about the middle ground? Dr Thorsten Klose [TK] of the German Red Cross discusses how scientific information can be incorporated into the humanitarian system to better prepare for disasters.

C4D: The common humanitarian response to a crisis is to react when it happens, but you’re exploring a different approach?



TK: Yes exactly. If you think about the humanitarian system what comes into your mind is the response to immediate disasters. So an earthquake in Nepal is happening, or a flood in Bangladesh, and then humanitarian organisations respond to that disaster.

And then on the other hand there is also the development cooperation focusing on long-term disaster risk reduction; taking into consideration the different existing long-term risks in countries. But if we focus on climate change we know that extreme weather events will occur more often and more intense. And there are already a lot of different extreme weather forecasts available that indicate that extreme weather events might take place in the coming months or weeks.

A good example in 2011 was the strong ‘La Niña’ phenomena in the Pacific Ocean. When a ‘La Niña’ or ‘El Niño’ occurs, the global rainfall patterns are changing. But scientists are able to predict quite accurately in which areas we might expect to see droughts or increased rainfall – leading to floods – over the coming months. So instead of only responding to a disaster, what we need is to incorporate this scientific information into our humanitarian approach, and respond to existing extreme weather forecasts in a more systematic way.

C4D: Who oversees this, individual governments or a global body?

TK: There is a global network of meteorological institutions called the World Metrological Organization. Also, inside the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, we have a special reference centre, called the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre. They cooperate with International Research Institute for Climate and Society, IRI, in New York and produce seasonal rainfall forecasts. The IRI is analysing the weather forecast globally and pointing out the areas where we can expect more or less rainfall and then this information needs to be combined with information from local weather institutions. The Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre is in contact with local weather experts, climate scientists, and cross-checks the global results of IRI with local forecasts. This allows us to often have a lead time prior to a disaster of days, sometimes even weeks to respond to this information.

C4D: Is there an infrastructure in place to react to the problems that we know are coming?

TK: Very often no. Because what you need on the ground is of course a proper disaster risk management system to be able to respond to that information. This is something we would like to establish, and we are working on this at the moment in several countries. We are cooperating very closely with the German Federal Foreign Office, which is focussing on humanitarian assistance including improved disaster preparedness. As part of this preparedness for response, we are cooperating with local disaster management stakeholders, with National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies in pilot countries, to establish real expertise on the ground in order to be able to react to these extreme weather forecasts.

C4D: Can you share any good practice examples of disasters that were averted because of good preparation?

TK: Actually there are already quite a number. For example in Togo, West Africa. It’s quite a small country with only one major river. Yet when the rainy season starts, there is very often a flood stemming from the northern part of the country, running across the country to the downstream communities. So we have been working since 2008 with the Togolese Red Cross, establishing early warning groups along this river. As soon as there is a flood in the northern parts of the country, the upstream communities inform the downstream communities, who are then able to prepare for evacuation.

C4D: And how much time do you have after receiving the evacuation notice from someone up river to respond?

TK: A couple of days. This system works in the context of floods, but also in other situations. Early warning early action systems for cyclone preparedness usually gives notice up to five days. Often we have a lead time that is even longer. For example a seasonal ‘El Niño, La Niña’ forecast is not very specific on a local level, but it is on a regional level; and that gives you a lead time of up to three months.

C4D: What about insurance companies – this information must be very useful for them?

TK: It is. If you look at insurances like the Munich Reinsurance Inc. they are heavily working on this kind of data analysis. Of course also to reduce their premium claims. It’s extremely important for them.

C4D: And you collaborate with them? You’re all after the same end goal in some sense.

TK: Yes, we are incorporating their data. The Munich Re Georisk department, for example has a very good data set of information on disasters worldwide and disaster history. This is important as we need to identify the disaster history of a specific country in order to be able to differentiate between how many forecasts have been carried out in the past and how often did they really lead to a disaster. Because then when we get another forecast we can calculate that there is a 75 or 80 % chance that there will be another flood or storm and so forth. So this is very important.

C4D: And they’re forthcoming with sharing the information with you?

TK: Yes they have a data set which we can access. But also, of course at the local level the information about past disasters is extremely important. At the end of the day we need the local expertise in countries to be able to provide data to local stakeholders like the National Red Cross or Red Crescent Society. And then local action teams are needed to be able to interpret this kind of data, and finally of course to carry out preparedness actions.

C4D: Is this something that the European Union can look into funding?

TK: I think they need to because we are having a humanitarian funding gap at the moment. It is relatively easy for humanitarian organisations to get funding after big disasters. DG ECHO [the European Commission Directorate General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection] for example is of course very supportive when it comes to funding of immediate disaster relief. The development cooperation ministry of Germany is also supporting longer term development issues, like long term disaster risk management. But between a scientific extreme weather forecast and the actual disaster there is still a funding gap: we get information about increasing risks for a specific time but very often we don’t receive any funding to be able to act. Therefore we are cooperating with the Federal Foreign Office in Germany. They are testing this kind of forecast-based financing right now and they are investing in this kind of paradigm shift for improved preparedness. They are providing funding to humanitarian partners to be able to react to this extreme weather forecast information in specific countries, as well as reacting to disasters. This is a brand new and very innovative approach actually.

For more information on Capacity4dev about the issues discussed in this article:



This collaborative piece was drafted with input from DG ECHO and with support from the Coordination Team. Photo Credits: EU/ECHO Samuel Marie-Fanon

DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

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