Transforming Disaster Preparedness: The Role of Tech in Responding to Climate Shocks

Technology Policy Net Zero

Transforming Disaster Preparedness: The Role of Tech in Responding to Climate Shocks

Commentary
Posted on: 24th August 2021
Devorah West
Policy Lead, Tech for Development Policy

We are developing a blueprint for policymakers in climate-vulnerable countries showing how technology can be leveraged to strengthen preparedness for and response to climate shocks. As we launch this work, we set out our starting point and key lines of enquiry, and call for your collaboration in answering these critical questions over the coming weeks. 

As the world grapples with how to rapidly curb CO2 emissions to avoid the worst consequences of a warming planet, outlined in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report, countries are already facing the consequences of climate change – from recurring fires in the U.S. and parts of Europe, to prolonged droughts across regions of Africa and Central America, to devastating yearly floods in countries throughout Southeast Asia. As noted by the IPCC, the effects of climate change are irreversible for centuries. While curbing CO2 emissions must remain central to national climate plans, governments, communities, and individuals need to also focus on the immediate consequences of climate change and prepare for what will be more frequent, and often stronger and more intense, climate-linked disasters.  

While the impacts of climate change are felt across the globe, climate-linked disasters have a disproportionate impact on poor and vulnerable populations particularly in lower- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Disasters triggered by natural hazards now occur nearly five times more often than 40 years ago, affecting 1.7 billion people around the world over the past decade and causing $137 billion in economic loss each year. By 2030, climate change threatens to push over 130 million people into poverty, and could mean 200 million people a year - twice as many as today - need humanitarian assistance as a result of climate change. By 2050, climate related crises could displace 1.2 billion people, most of these concentrated across the Sahel, Southern Africa, and the Middle East and Central Asia. Ignoring these impacts not only causes huge suffering, massive human and economic loss, and internal displacement: it also threatens to undermine and derail long-term development goals and mitigation efforts, including net-zero objectives and Nationally Determined Contribution goals as set out in the Paris Agreement.  

But while the devastating impacts of climate shocks grow in frequency and intensity, the ways we prepare for and respond to them have remained frozen in time. The technology and tools exist to make most climate shocks predictable and to strengthen our ability to prepare for and respond to them, limiting the impact on lives, livelihoods and reducing the costs of rebuilding. However, these remain underutilised by governments and the international community due to outdated disaster financing models, constraints on access to technology and interpretation of data, and the need for new ways of working across government. Only 40 per cent of countries globally currently have a robust multi-hazard early warning system, and fewer still have the capacity to communicate and act on these warnings – just 44 per cent of people in Africa in countries with early warning systems will receive an early warning of a climate shock. 

Financing for disaster preparedness and response, as well as for long term adaptation, is dwarfed by the scale of the challenge. Of the countries ranked most vulnerable to climate change, 63 per cent received less than $1 per person in adaptation funding and 25 per cent received no adaptation funding at all. And yet, investing $1.8 trillion in climate adaptation globally from 2020 to 2030 could generate $7.1 trillion in total net benefits; and in Samoa every $1 invested in early warning services for cyclone hazards gives a return of $6 in benefits. The case for investing in and supporting governments’ access to the tech solutions that can transform disaster preparedness and response needs to be clearly made. 

While there are a growing number of initiatives that are focused on providing more flexible and predictable funding before a disaster occurs, preparing for and responding to climate shocks remains largely slow, underfunded, and does not look much different than it did 20 or 30 years ago.  

Technology as a Game Changer

Over the past decade a wealth of technologies and tools have been developed that can be leveraged to make climate shocks more predictable, and enable governments, donors and communities to be better prepared and more empowered to respond ahead of time to protect lives and livelihoods. Satellite data coupled with real-time on-the-ground input from sensors, weather stations and from local communities via SMS-based platforms, for example, can be catalytic in modelling and quantifying the risks of climate-linked events in advance. From AI to next-generation earth observation and advances in GIS, to cloud computing, digital radio, SMS radio and USSD, these technologies can, in combination: 

  1. Provide early warning of impending shocks to governments and communities. 

  1. Enable pre-emptive or early response to cushion the impacts of shocks. 

  1. Ensure the most vulnerable people receive the right assistance at the right time. 

  1. Strengthen communication systems to warn those at risk, gather impact data and strengthen community resilience.  

But these technologies and their application to preparing for and responding to climate-linked disasters are under-utilised – either siloed or fragmented across disparate preparedness and response systems – and under-funded, and often inaccessible to policymakers who need them most. Furthermore, while a number of LMIC governments have included aspirations to leverage technology in their national climate plans, clear, concrete, cross-government actions are often not defined. Our emerging findings are that the technologies and data needed to revolutionise disaster risk management are readily available – the key challenge is with the adoption and utilisation of those technologies, the interpretation and application of data, and the coordination within government to link warning to response. 

Linking Technology to Early Warning and Early Action

As a complement to TBI’s net-zero agenda and work centred around scaling climate innovation, we are launching the Tech for Climate Disasters project. This aims to identify how climate-vulnerable LMICs can leverage technology and tech-centred information systems to lessen the impacts of and effectively respond to climate events – and how a fairer and faster global climate financing system can support these efforts.  

We will be developing a blueprint for governments and policymakers that lays out: 

  • A concrete action plan for policymakers and LMIC governments for accessing and utilising tech solutions to drive better preparedness and response to climate shocks; and  

  • A clear and focused call to action for donors and other funders (including the private and tech sectors), multinational development banks, and investors to urgently support governments in the most vulnerable countries access and use these tools to support effective disaster preparedness and response. 

In developing this blueprint, we will address three core challenges: 

  1. How LMIC governments can use the right kind of tech in the right ways to transform disaster preparedness and response efforts. As laid out above, a number of technologies and tools exist that can be leveraged to strengthen preparedness and response efforts, but what is less clear is where the uptake and use of technologies can have the greatest impact and how LMIC governments can best leverage those technologies to build and act upon comprehensive tech-enabled national climate strategies. We will seek to answer questions including:  

  • What are the tech-enabled solutions that facilitate faster, better, cheaper preparedness and response? What are the best examples of early warning systems, innovative targeting mechanisms and shock-responsive social protection in action? What challenges have they faced in implementing/ scaling and what lessons can be drawn for other contexts? 

  • How are national disaster management agencies (NDMAs) and cross-government structures currently using and acting on early warning information? Who agrees to triggers for anticipatory action and what does the chain of command look like across governments? 

  • How are governments centring at-risk communities in preparedness and response efforts and designing tech-driven solutions with end users in mind? 

  1. How LMIC governments can access the right tech solutions at the right time and the approaches they need to take to build and execute tech-enabled early warning and early action systems. LMIC governments recognise the critical role tech must play in making preparedness and response more efficient and effective, and while many are looking to leverage tech in their national climate action plans, they often lack a comprehensive overview of how best to access and integrate available technologies. This area is focused on finding the answers to questions like:   

  • What are the minimum datasets needed to make accurate predictions? What are the data sources – global, regional, national and local - that are most necessary? How are early warning systems and other data sources currently integrated at the government level? What is the scope and limits of regional bodies in processing and interpreting data? 

  • What actions are the international community taking to hand over early warning and early action efforts, including data processing, to national governments?  

  • How can the tech sector be incentivised to focus on solving the most critical early warning and early action problems, and how can local start-up communities be better integrated into the early warning early action ecosystem?  How can the private sector be incentivised to make data a public good?  

  1. Which financial models and/or price incentives are needed to increase international investment in these solutions as well as prioritisation, investment and demand from LMIC governments. Countries' ability to prepare for and respond to climate-related shocks is significantly underfunded, and the international financing that is made available for disaster preparedness, response and adaptation is not being channelled to the most vulnerable countries or released at the right time. More emphasis must be placed on this critical area. We are looking at questions like: 

  • Can we identify which investments have the greatest financial return for governments over the short, medium, and long-term? 

  • Can we determine the costs versus benefits of investing in preparedness and response efforts, while also taking into consideration political risk appetites for government leaders and policymakers? 

  • What are the legal and regulatory requirements needed to encourage investment and utilisation of technologies for early warning and early action? How can investor time horizons better align with climate change models and financial market activity? 

  • Are there pricing structures or market tweaks that have worked in other contexts that can be applied to leveraging tech for early warning and early action? 

Get Involved!

We recognise the enormous amount of valuable work already being done in this area, from policymakers leveraging tech in national climate plans, to international organisations seeking to broaden access to satellite data, to developers working on the tech solutions that will revolutionise this space. To ensure we are arming donors and policymakers with the tools they need to leverage these great ideas, we want to hear from you. 

If you have views on the questions above or case studies you would like to share we would love to speak to you. Please reach out at d.west@institute.global or reach out to us on Twitter using #Tech4ClimateDisasters

In the week of 13 September we will also be convening a series of expert roundtables - on use of tech, access to tech and financing of tech - to present our analysis so far and seek your feedback. If you would like to be involved please reach out to us at the contacts above. 

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