How Cuba turns early warning into joined-up action

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Courtesy of SciDev.Net

Cuba's early warning approach holds lessons for other countries, write disaster risk reduction specialists Veronica F. Grasso and José Rubiera.

Advances in the early warning of natural hazards could bring great benefits to countries and communities. But early warning needs early action: if political will and coordination are lacking, the advantages could be lost.

What a country needs is an early warning system that can provide reliable predictions of a disaster's size, location and impacts — and costs of both action and inaction. [1] This information has to reach, as quickly as possible, an educated population able to act on the data by following effective preparedness plans.

Achieving this requires a coordinated network of institutions able to put early warnings into action. [2] Cuba , despite its lack of resources , is showing how with political will it is able to protect its citizens with such coordination.

Cuba rides the storm

Cuba has one of the lowest death rates from hurricanes among all countries exposed to hurricane risk. In 2001, tropical storm Michelle swept through Central America killing about 36 people, and then it hit Cuba as a category 4 hurricane, taking the lives of just five. [3] This is one of many such examples.

But Cuba does not have great financial means or technological resources. For example, its weather radars — provided as part of a UN project — date from the 1970s, with additional equipment donated in the 1980s by the Soviet Union.

More recently, with little money, these were transformed by Cuban engineers into modern digital radars. But technological improvements can do only part of the job; effective disaster risk reduction is then in the hands of decision makers.

So what is Cuba's secret? It has both political will and coordination. Mobilising resources to reduce disaster risk is recognised as a national priority and is reflected in policies, planning and legislation at national and local levels. [4] And the country has the coordination to make national systems work efficiently and consistently.

All levels work together

Cuba's early warning capability, operational since 1995, comprises systems for forecasting and Civil Defence, telecommunications infrastructure, the media and the Cuban people themselves.

The chain of responsibility begins with the Cuban meteorological service, which is responsible for providing warnings to Civil Defence, an executive body headed by the country's president that deals with all aspects of disaster risk reduction and coordinates local governments.

By law, governors and leaders at provincial and municipal level are also heads of the Civil Defence. In addition, all leaders of industries, businesses, schools, hospitals, banks and shops are responsible for Civil Defence in their organisations.

In an emergency, the heads of these organisations and civil society institutions coordinate their staff to implement instructions from Civil Defence. This is a unique system that provides a coherent approach to disaster response at all levels.

The media also has a role. Warnings are disseminated through radio, TV and newspapers, with the support of local social associations such as the Cuban Red Cross, the Cuban Women's Federation, and various religious organisations. In case of these channels going down, messages about what to do in a disaster can be heard by calling the 'weather phone', a free telephone number. Plans include the wider use of text messaging, now used only experimentally.

Moreover, in Cuba people work together to prepare for and respond to disasters. When hurricane Michelle hit Cuba in 2001, about 750,000 people were evacuated, with the support of 70,000 citizens and 5,000 vehicles. More than 740,000 livestock were brought to safer areas and students helped to harvest crops; fishermen brought their boats to higher ground; and supplies were distributed so people could survive in their homes for about a week. [5]

A model for others

In times of financial constraint, coordination and cooperation can make better use of existing resources to ensure communities stay safe and healthy in a disaster.

Cuba's approach, with wide participation of all organisations and citizens, might not be transferable to other countries. But a system based on coordination and cooperation can be applied elsewhere.

A well-organised government body, such as Cuba's Civil Defence, is needed to ensure effective early warning based on solid scientific information. Supported by a framework of laws, this body would take a leading role to coordinate a network of institutions and local governments to carry out disaster risk reduction measures.

Local governments have the advantage of being closer to communities; they know their needs and are there to respond when a disaster comes.

Community participation is also critical and can be integrated through volunteer associations. Finally, to empower people and organisations to work together effectively, exercise drills, outreach and education campaigns are necessary to prepare for a disaster.

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