The United Nations recently concluded an international conference on early warning in Bonn, Germany. Over 1,200 participants from 140 countries participated in the gathering, that concluded that a "people-centered" approach was needed to build effective early-warning systems to prevent the loss of human life from natural disasters such as floods, tsunamis and pandemics.
As a preparation for the conference, a "Global Survey of Early Warning Systems" was prepared by the UN, that details what capacity already exists for early warning, what the major gaps are. It concludes that in general we are least able to prepare, warn and respond effectively to the slowest (drought) and the fastest (earthquake) types of natural disasters. In addition, inaction and inadequate action is the result of a confluence of factors including lack of local capacity, inadequate communications infrastructure, poor political incentives for build-out of early warning systems, and inter-state coordination problems among different national-based systems.
Developing effective early warning systems for various natural disasters seems like an obvious role for the United Nations. It is a clear area where national capacities are not enough to respond effectively to various regional and global calamities. Whether its sharing of seismic data, agreeing on clear and consise disaster warning messages, pooling scientific knowledge and networks, or bringing together NGOs and governments, the United Nations is in a privileged position to scale up existing capacities and save potentially millions of lives.
There are of course significant challenges to address. Often those most effected by natural disasters are the people that most countries would just as soon forget about — slum dwellers, the rural poor, the elderly, those on the margins of society. Politicians see little benefit in building possibly expensive early warning systems for people who aren’t contributing to their campaign coffers. As Hurricane Katrina in the United States demonstrated, natural disasters uncover dark truths about class and race divisions in a society that those in positions of privilege would rather not face.
But in the end, saving lives should be what the United Nations is about. And if the UN is not going to always be able to stop ethnic genocides or civil wars, it at least can keep people from needlessly dying in the next tsunami or cholera epidemic. That would be a cause worth fighting for.