As climate change causes more frequent, extreme, and unpredictable weather events, investment in early warning systems that target multiple hazards is more urgent than ever. Since the unprecedented volcano and tsunami disaster of 15 January 2022 in the Kingdom of Tonga, and the subsequent nearly year-long State of Emergency, the people of Tonga are tragically aware of the dangers and risks they face. This is especially true as recent scientific surveys by the National Institute of Water and Atmosphere (NIWA) indicate that the volcano is still active below the sea surface and further eruptions with tsunami risk remain.
Through the Tonga Meteorological Services (TMS) and Permanent Representative to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the people of Tonga have demanded for an improved system for rapid and mass dissemination of warnings to communities. The Tonga MACRES will be developed to deliver on this demand through the Climate Risk and Early Warning Systems (CREWS) initiative Accelerated Support Window (ASW).
“The MACRES is an information system looking to vastly improve early warning and early response to hazard and disaster events. It is my sincere hope this initiative can be replicated and contribute to the development of Early Warning Systems, particularly in vulnerable regions of the globe. We welcome a positive consideration by the CREWS Steering Committee of this request.”,” said ‘Ofa Fa’anunu, the Permanent Representative of Tonga.
“The initiative will build on existing platforms to improve Tonga’s capacity in the dissemination and sharing of, and responses to, risks information, advisories and warnings among the people of the Kingdom of Tonga including women, men, young people, people with disabilities in near-real time for all hydro-meteorological and geological hazards especially for rapid onset events,” said Henry Taiki, WMO Representative for the South-West Pacific.
The CREWS ASW is a new financing mechanism dedicated to Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS), allocating funds towards short-term, targeted expert analyses, assessment, and advisory services to strengthen early warning systems. The ASW was approved by the CREWS Steering Committee at its 12th meeting in November 2020. It is now fit-for-purpose to contribute to the call by the United Nations Secretary-General to have all people protected by early warning systems within five years – an effective climate change adaptation measure.
The importance of such efforts is also highlighted in the recent UNDRR Report, the Global Status of Multi-Hazard Early Warning System – Target G, which was launched on International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction (IDDRR) 2022 on 13 October.
In another region also greatly affected by hazards and benefitting from early warning systems, the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) and UNDRR are hosting a webinar on early warnings. The webinar, “Early warning and early action for all: Focus in the Caribbean region” will be held from 10:00-11:30 Panama Time on 13 October. Those interested can follow this link to register.
The Tonga MACRES will be established so that most smartphones can be used and warnings will need no internet data to reach the people. Alerts or sirens and warning messages or flashing screens will attract users’ attention (particularly for people living with disabilities). This also allows for two-way communication of reports from communities (crowd sourcing) connected to a database to allow the TMS and the National Emergency Management Office, for both to receive both hazard and damage information for quick and targeted response.
The project will build on TMS existing community Facebook pages (CFBP) for disseminating warnings to communities with the help of TMS’s authorized officers assigned in each community, having direct access to CFBP and assist to disseminate warnings to communities. CFBP require TMS’s authorized officers to monitor CFBP warnings and inform communities they belong with working with their District and Village Committees. This approach works well but experiences from 15 January 2022 disaster proved its limitations during quick onset events where communities need to be warned with far lesser lead time than usual. Currently, Tonga has limited warning dissemination capacity to warn large number of communities in near real-time for quick onset events. It also has greater limitations in its ability to quickly receive disaster information for communities to assist with response.
Tonga’s mobile telephone geographical coverage about 92%. The project will assist to disseminate and enable all UoMT to have direct access to warnings. Applications’ features will allow 5 types of smartphones to be used, no internet data requirement for warning reaching UoMT, a siren alert to indicate warning messages for UoMT with eyesight disability, flashing screen for UoMT with hearing disability. It will also enable UoMT to prepare and send reports to TMS and NEMO.
Tonga is one of the first to benefit from the ASW but it will not be the last. With IDDRR 2022, the Target G Report, and the Early Warnings for All initiative all focusing attention on early warnings, more efficient funding like that granted to Tonga MACRES will become even more crucial to globally protect more lives and livelihoods.