Stepping Up Support to the UN and Humanitarian Partners for Anticipatory Action

The High-Level Humanitarian Event on Anticipatory Action: A Commitment to Act Ahead of Crisis in New York in September 2021 gathered senior officials from the United Nations, humanitarian and donors agencies, and government. It urged all to “act ahead of disaster” to mitigate and reduce impacts and thereby save lives and livelihoods. The vital importance of Anticipatory Action was made evident to all.

The landmark Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 clearly references in Target G the importance of the underpinning Early Warning Systems (EWSs) to substantially increase the availability of and access to multi‑hazard early warnings and disaster risk information and assessments to people by 2030. By 2015, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR, then UNISDR) had already developed the initial Early Warning System Checklist outlining the key elements required in developing people centred Early Warning Systems. The Checklist has since been updated through the joint efforts of UNDRR and WMO in 2018.

It could be argued that the concepts of Early Warning and Anticipatory Action have been recognized for many, if not thousands of years. Throughout history communities have looked to nature to predict and prepare for the “weather” ahead. This is still the case today, farmers or an indigenous community still look to harness all important local knowledge to help predict the weather over the next few days or hours. A study of archives has shown that some early weather forecasts were developed after a specific disaster. For example, in the United Kingdom the first storm warning forecast was produced following the sinking of the Royal Charter and the loss of over 400 lives.

Today, the hydrometeorological community continues to improve and enhance services by learning from each time it is called into action. A noteworthy example of this occurred in 1991 when a devastating cyclone hit Bangladesh, resulting in the loss of tens of thousands of lives. While the hydrometeorological community had forecast the cyclone, an important lesson was learnt: forecasts must drive action. As a result, forecasts processes were re-designed and coupled with actions, informing the eventual development of the Cyclone Preparedness Program (CPP), which today helps to protect vulnerable communities, saving many lives every year. (Haque, C.E., 1997. Atmospheric hazards preparedness in Bangladesh: a study of warning, adjustments and recovery from the April 1991 cyclone. In Earthquake and Atmospheric Hazards (pp. 181-202). Springer, Dordrecht)

Bangladesh1-USAF.jpegFlooded villages and fields the day after the cyclone struck Bangladesh in 1991. (Source: Staff Sergeant Val Gempis/USAF) Bangladesh2-USAF.jpegA damaged village surrounded by flooded fields, nearly three weeks after the cyclone. (Source: Airman 1st Class Cheryl Sanzi/USAF)
The 1991 Bangladesh cyclone  caused a 6.1 m (20 ft) storm surge, which inundated the coastline. The cyclone recorded an estimated 138,866 deaths and US$1.7 billion (1991 USD) in damage. Before the cyclone moved ashore, an estimated 2–3 million people evacuated the Bangladeshi coast. In a survey by the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the main reason more people did not evacuate was underestimating the severity of the cyclone. 

Having understood the principles of Anticipatory Action and developed an EWS tool set, where and how is the hydrometeorological community today supporting United Nations efforts as well as those of the humanitarian sector? How can the expertise within National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) be leveraged to support progress towards Anticipatory Action? And, how can climate and weather-related actions and decisions within the humanitarian sector inform future priorities of the hydrometeorological community?


Anticipatory Action – Globally

The United Nations Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) is the longest-standing and highest-level humanitarian coordination forum of the United Nations system where it leads policy formulation, priority setting and coordination of crisis response. One of the many workstreams of the IASC decision-making machinery is the Risk, Early Warning and Preparedness Group, which brings together diverse technical experts from across the UN and other humanitarian organizations to assess potential or escalating humanitarian risks. In support of the IASC, WMO harnesses analyses from NMHSs and feeds these into discussions with meteorological experts from International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), World Food Programme (WFP), Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) who assess the potential for hydrometeorological risks. This analysis is then combined with that from other sectors to inform Anticipatory Actions, preparedness, advocacy or specific interventions. Once complete, these multi-sector assessments are provided to senior IASC decision-makers and through them to UN country-level resident and humanitarian coordinators.

The IASC convening power also comes to the fore when La Niña or El Niño events threaten with detailed impact-based analytical and stakeholder engagement processes commencing once WMO and International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) forecasts reach a specific threshold. Outreach activities with regional partners, including experts from the WMO Regional Climate Outlooks Forums, are facilitated to ensure the required information reaches decision-makers responsible for triggering Anticipatory Action, if necessary.

WMO is now looking to further enhance and broaden this support to UN and humanitarian agencies. The WMO Coordination Mechanism will harness the important underpinning contributions from WMO Members to further support humanitarian action. A component of this work is receiving generous support from Switzerland through MeteoSwiss. The latter part of this article will look at how MeteoSwiss is collaborating with ETH Zurich to provide a prototype for WMO Coordination Mechanism.


IFRC at the heart of Anticipatory Action

IFRC is at the forefront of Anticipatory Action. It has a long history of harnessing expertise from civil societies, governments and other actors to build highly effective and efficient Anticipatory Action systems to prepare and protect those at risk. Below, Gantsetseg Gantulga from IFRC, and Andrew Kruczkiewicz (IFRC & IRI) and Lydia Cuminskey from the Anticipation Hub describe a number of successful Anticipatory Action initiatives.

Anticipatory actions in practice are realized and implemented by local actors. For the Red Cross and Red Crescent (RCRC) network, the staff and volunteers of National Societies are closest to, and sometimes part of, the communities they serve, equipped with local knowledge and practices at the forefront of disaster and crisis response. Since 2018, IFRC has allocated a funding mechanism, Forecast-based Action by Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (FbA by the DREF), to enable anticipatory actions for National Societies with approved and pre-agreed work-plans, known as Early Action Protocols (EAP).

First and foremost, accurate, available and accessible meteorological information, provided by WMO Members and other subject matter experts, makes it possible to plan the early actions. For example, in Vietnam, the Institute of Meteorology, Hydrology and Climate Change conducted a study which showed that the frequency and duration of heatwaves have increased in the last 58 years and are projected to further increase. To this end, Vietnam Red Cross is implementing a forecast-based financing project focusing on heat waves in Hanoi, with a two-component trigger based on the value of heat index with a 37 °C threshold. The early actions implemented were the establishment of community cooling centres to offer an air-conditioned place to vulnerable outside worker groups and providing water, cold tea and fresh towels to visitors.

In 2019, Ecuador Red Cross had their EAP for volcanic ash approved to be funded as a Forecast-based Action by the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund. This protocol seeks to reduce health impacts on vulnerable populations and damages to crops and livestock arising from exposure to volcanic ashes. The local RCRC volunteers work with the communities – including provision of training and awareness raising – to implement the required EAP up to 7 days ahead of a potential eruption, which together with the prepositioning of essential supplies enables communities to swiftly take the required action when needed. On 21 September 2020, the Ecuadorian Red Cross activated its EAP for volcanic ash in response to the significant increase in the level of eruptive activity of the Sangay volcano. A couple of days later, the National Society had managed to timely reach 1000 families in 7 different communities with health and livelihood kits and cash-based interventions, which were delivered using COVID-19 sensitive protocols. tropical cylcone practice drill (Source: IFRC)

In Bangladesh, an EAP for cyclones covering 13 sea-facing coastal districts was approved in 2018. In May 2020, when Cyclone Amphan reached the pre-agreed 30-hour impact threshold, it triggered outreach, communications and warning protocols. This provided an approximately 30-hour window to reach the population and support their evacuation ahead of impact. Early actions were implemented in 10 districts and the National Society managed to reach 36 000 people with evacuation support, food, water and first aid services in the evacuation centres. This was a notable success, reaching well in excess of the initial plan to target and support 20 000 people.

Equally important is capacity strengthening of local RCRC National Societies’ disaster risk management (DRM) systems, policies and strategies to enable the anticipatory actions. For instance, there is the case of the Forecast-based Financing (FbF) programme in Morocco supported by the German Red Cross. After establishing forecasts for early actions, it was essential to assess and develop a plan of action to strengthen the overall institutional preparedness of the Moroccan Red Crescent. This involved developing an overarching DRM strategy where anticipatory actions are an integral part, establishing procurement systems at the headquarters and branches, and training branch volunteers on community early warning systems for early actions.

To ensure the paradigm continues to shift from reactive emergency response to proactive anticipatory action, strong cross-sector and multi-stakeholder collaboration is needed between academia, humanitarian and development actors. As indicated in the examples, country level leadership from national hydrometeorological institutions, disaster risk management bodies, universities in-country and RCRC Societies is central to ensuring that anticipatory action becomes the new norm and is scaled-up to reach more people at risk. While integrating anticipatory action within standard operating procedures within organizations is a crucial step that is needed immediately, the enhancement of national level capacity should also include a longer term vision to enable future generations of anticipatory action personnel – across science, policy and practice. Doing so requires more direct engagement with national universities and other academic institutions to design programs, degrees and specializations related to the development, dissemination and translation of quality controlled meteorological data. Programs also need to include anticipatory action and its sub-elements such as activation triggers, the identification of the most effective early actions for specific hazards, development of monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, implementation of governance arrangements and agreements on the mandates for the production and use of forecast data. An example of a successful partnership between RCRC, an NMHS and national universities can be found in Mongolia where the Mongolian Red Cross developed an EAP for extreme winters, locally known as dzud, with the Mongolia University of Life Sciences providing vital analytical services. This example demonstrates one way to design collaboration, and should be used to have discussions around higher-order design of academic curricula involving applied climate and meteorological science more broadly.

There is also a need to share knowledge and learnings so that the Anticipatory Action community can learn from good practice elsewhere. The recently established Anticipation Hub serves that purpose.

p-MNG0260_MongoliaRedCross_jpg.jpegIFRC dzud response in Mongolia (Source: IFRC) NPR-Dzud.png

Anticipation Hub

Anticipatory action is being embedded in the humanitarian system, particularly within the programmes and plans of the RCRC) Network, UN agencies, WMO Members and NGOs, who work in close collaboration with government agencies, universities and research institutions, and other stakeholders. Since 2014, these actors have been generating extensive knowledge, lessons and expertise on the design, implementation and review of anticipatory action initiatives. Implementation has proved successful when forecast-based triggers and EAPs are co-designed with the NMHS and other government agencies.

Global and regional dialogue platforms on anticipatory humanitarian action have brought this community together to exchange knowledge and collaborate on anticipatory action. In 2020, Anticipation Hub was launched to further nurture this community by continuously facilitating knowledge exchange, learning, guidance and advocacy around anticipatory action both virtually and in-person. Anticipation Hub is a joint initiative between the German Red Cross (GRC), IFRC and the RCRC Climate Centre with 80+ partners across the RCRC Movement, universities, research institutes, non-governmental organizations NGOs, UN agencies, governments, NMHSs, donors and other network initiatives. Anticipation Hub seeks to engage with, learn from and inspire actors across sectors to bridge the humanitarian, development and climate sectors, and to capture synergies between investments in disaster risk management, early warning systems and anticipatory action.

To stimulate collaboration, innovation and co-creation around different thematic topics, Anticipation Hub hosts global working groups. As an example, the Earth Observation (EO) for Anticipatory Action working group brings together the producers and users of forecasts to better understand users’ needs and to create opportunities to inform the testing of ideas generated in projects. Furthermore, the Hub connects learning and experiences captured through multi-stakeholder national and regional technical working groups on anticipatory action, for example in the Asia-Pacific Region. Such working groups are vital for facilitating multi-stakeholder coordination between humanitarian and hydrometeorological actors. For example, they can be used to co-develop Impact-Based Forecasts (IBF) and harmonize triggers for early action, as recommended by the WMO Guidelines on Multi-hazard Impact-based Forecast and Warning Services (WMO-No. 1150), Part II, the RCRC and the Met Office (UK). National societies, NGOs and other local actors can support government efforts to ensure warnings are disseminated, understood and used for early action. The Anticipation Hub can help to strengthen local actors' access to knowledge, guidance and expertise, for example through blog posts, training materials, and databases of early action and triggers.

Research partnerships are also successfully supporting the co-creation of triggers and early action protocols, as well as building the evidence-base for early action. In the Forecasts for AnTicipatory HUManitarian action (FATHUM) project, for example, scientists from the University of Reading worked with government agencies in Uganda to capture local knowledge to enhance the skill of global flood forecasts as an interim solution to trigger early action. In the Forecast-based Preparedness Action (ForPaC) project, Kenyan and UK based researchers analysed the skill of seasonal forecasts and its potential for anticipatory action. While an interdisciplinary academic consortium between universities in the Bangladesh, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Philippines, Uganda and US aims to generate more evidence of the benefits of anticipatory action. The Anticipation Hub is uniquely positioned to host the growing knowledge and learning emerging from such partnerships, which bridge science, policy and practice.


MeteoSwiss Weather4UN Pilot Project

The Weather4UN project aims to contribute to the establishment of the WMO Coordination Mechanism, which will enhance WMO support to UN and other humanitarian agencies. The project itself consists of two complementary Work Packages. The first one seeks to improve access to products, information, expertise and added-value advice provided to the humanitarian community by harnessing authoritative products made available by WMO Members. The second Work Package facilitates collaboration between academia (ETH Zuerich in particular), the IFRC and WMO Members to enhance impact analysis ahead of potentially destructive hydrometeorological events. Both packages aim to rely on authoritative products, to use probabilistic weather forecasts and to follow a globally consistent approach. The project will capitalize on NHMSs capacities and enhance the close collaboration between WMO Members, the Secretariat, and UN and other humanitarian agencies.

Most WMO Members already work in partnership with stakeholders to combine hazard, exposure and vulnerability data to estimate the impacts of hydrometeorological events to inform forecast-based financing, decisions and Anticipatory Actions. Thus, a common understanding and definition of these three components (hazard, exposure, vulnerability) are needed to harness impact forecasts to support Anticipatory Actions. To this end, Work Package II aims to deliver a multi-hazard, multi-sector risk outlook prototypes using probabilistic and authoritative hydrometeorological forecasts. The prototype will be implemented within the globally consistent probabilistic open-source risk model CLIMADA (Aznar-Siguan and Bresch, 2019), developed at ETH Zurich.

Hydrometeorological forecasts as well as exposure and vulnerability information come with high degrees of uncertainty. Work Package II will therefore harness probabilistic forecast information to quantitatively assess uncertainties in exposure and vulnerability to facilitate a structured decision-making process, building on an existing first version of such an impact-based forecasting system (Röösli et al. 2021).

During the development and prototyping phases, Work Package II will target the needs of the IFRC in particular, enabling IFRC to integrate this information into their existing decision support tools. Over time, as the system matures, the intention is to catalyse discussions with other humanitarian agencies and WMO Members to make this information, tools and the underpinning knowledge available to the wider WMO family, the UN and other humanitarian agencies.

W4UN Pilot Project Overview - MeteoSwiss.png

WMO and Anticipatory Action

Anticipatory Action touches many aspects of society in one way or another, however, the underpinning support provided by WMO Members is the foundation stone upon which weather, climate and water-related Anticipatory Action is built. WMO support to Anticipatory Action starts at the very beginning of forecast production as Members produce the vital observations, both terrestrial and space-based, required to feed the modern forecasting engine, which is built on years of scientific research and innovation and is framed under the WMO Global Data-processing and Forecasting System (GDPFS).

GDPFS is a three-level system with various functions carried out at the global level by the World Meteorological Centres (WMCs), at the regional level by Regional Specialized Meteorological Centres (RSMCs), including Regional Climate Centres, and at the national level by National Meteorological Centres (NMCs). WMCs produce high quality data and products, which are shared with all Members for assimilation into their own forecasting processes. RSMCs and NMCs then work with stakeholders and communities to understand specific vulnerabilities and risk appetites to inform the development and production impact-based forecasts. Thereby, NMCs ensure forecasts catalyse actions – that is to say, they are “useful, useable and used”.


Next steps

Anticipatory Action should be a routine – almost a sub-conscious thought in all our lives. For Anticipatory Action to be integrated into community level policy and decision-making, governments and development partners should prioritize mainstreaming Anticipatory Action across all elements of their portfolio. To do so, engagement and support to the hydrometeorological community must be increased. Concerted efforts are needed between humanitarian, climate and development actors to break down silos and ensure that more at-risk populations act ahead of disasters.

The hydrometeorological community must also develop and enhance links with academia as its often said that while governments change, policy moves on and society evolves, academia provides a constant space for innovation and discussion. It is vital, to embed Anticipatory Action principles in the next generation of leaders through curriculum development in climate, meteorological and disaster risk related disciplines, and to incentivize substantive connectivity between universities. The hydrometeorological community also needs to constantly review operational and research activities to seek out areas for improvement. For example, during El Niño and La Niña events, seasonal forecasting in certain parts of the world has more skill, meaning that this information has perhaps a higher degree of reliability than it does at other times of year. Might further research and innovation identify other forecast-to-impact linkages to exploit?

One final thought: Should Anticipatory Action only be about mitigating impacts from destructive meteorological and climatological events? Can we also exploit this expertise to take advantage of predicted favourable conditions and therefore realize additional opportunities perhaps not currently considered? Maybe that could be a topic for a future edition of the Bulletin.



Alicia Pache, Pamela Probst, Isabelle Bey and Thomas Röösli, MeteoSwiss; David N. Bresch, ETH Zurich and MeteoSwiss; Andrew Kruczkiewicz, Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre; Ege Seçkin and Ruth Hanau Santini, PhD, World Food Programme (WFP); Kara Devonna Siahaan, Lydia Cumiskey and Gantsetseg Gantulga, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies; and Gavin Iley, WMO Secretariat

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