International IDNDR-Conference               IDNDR


Declaration of the Potsdam Early Warning Conference

11 September 1998

The International IDNDR Conference on Early Warning Systems for the Reduction of Natural Disasters was held at the GeoForschungsZentrum in Potsdam, Germany from 7-11 September 1998. The meeting brought together 370 scientists, public officials, and representatives of the United Nations system, non-governmental and international organizations and diverse professional, commercial, and civic individuals from 86 countries. Together they comprised a wide and multidisciplinary range of experience, both as providers and users, of early warning and preparedness responsibilities related to natural disasters. The Potsdam Early Warning Conference represents the first major thematic component of IDNDR's concluding evaluation and provides recommendations to ensure disaster reduction into the 21st Century.

The conference was organized, with the support of the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany, within the framework of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR 1990-1999), established by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1989. The subject of the conference dealt with an essential goal of the decade, expressed as a major priority of the Decade's Scientific and Technical Committee. It was included in the Plan of Action adopted at the 1994 World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction in Yokohama, Japan, and was the subject of three subsequent UN General Assembly resolutions (between 1994 and 1997) on the improved effectiveness of early warning.

The conference was opened by the German Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Klaus Kinkel, as an expression of Germany's support for disaster reduction in line with his initiative delivered at the UN General Assembly session in 1993 calling for improved early warning capacities for disasters which have an adverse effect on the environment. The subsequent discussions and presentations at the conference confirmed early warning as a core component of national and international prevention strategies for the 21st Century. The conference was closed with the issuance of this declaration.

The frequency and severity of natural disasters have increased in recent years, and these trends are expected to continue well into the next century. There is therefore a strong need to strengthen disaster reduction policies around the world to ensure that natural hazards do not result in economic and social disasters. Natural disasters have significant impacts on the economic development, physical sustainability and social well-being of all countries, particularly developing countries. They cause the loss of lives and human resources and threaten individual livelihoods. Disasters interrupt economic activity and destroy economic assets and financial investment. They also reduce private and corporate income, diminish job opportunities, cause declines in trade and commerce, and disrupt markets and business continuity. Disasters can result in the reorientation of public investment from economic development to the needs of urgent rehabilitations of infrastructure and other immediate emergency requirements. Consequently, disaster reduction measures, including effective early warning, contribute to the creation of a low risk environment, thereby becoming a positive factor in international economic competitiveness and the maintenance of productive partnerships. Economic losses can be reduced considerably if a culture of prevention is introduced within a society at all levels - and particularly when local communities understand that response is not the only strategy when disaster strikes.

Participants shared their experience and identified opportunities provided by modern technology and scientific knowledge in conjunction with demonstrated commitments of public policy and local community endeavor. This has contributed to a concerted international framework for improved early warning capacities. They also made recommendations about information exchange, research priorities, technological applications, and institutional relationships that could result in the development of improved local capabilities. Many tragic events in recent years have demonstrated the cost of inadequate warning systems. By contrast, the successful application of local preparedness initiatives, such as those made possible by the effective communication of scientific analysis prior to the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, among others, emphasizes both the feasibility and the value of early warning.

The successful application of early warning is among the most practical and effective measures for disaster prevention. It is a process that provides timely information so that communities are not only informed, but sufficiently impressed, that they take preparedness actions before and during the anticipated hazardous event. It depends on practical relationships between science and technology, and the understanding of social and economic implications of disasters in the context of sustainable development. Building on this foundation there is now a need to ensure that early warning of natural disasters becomes an integral part of government policy in every disaster-prone country, and that it forms an effective instrument for their preventive strategies. Ultimately, it must be comprehended by and motivate communities at greatest risk, including those disenfranchised and particularly disadvantaged people, who must take appropriate protective actions. In all of these cases, established organizational structures and already existing technical capacities should be considered first, rather than the assumption being made that new and possibly unproven systems may be best suited.

The Potsdam Early Warning Conference has identified major strengths and weaknesses in early warning capacities around the world. Participants repeatedly emphasized the multidisciplinary and multi-sectoral character of the early warning process. Although based on scientific and technology, early warning must be tailored to serve people's needs, their environments, and their resources. Successful early warning requires unrestricted access to data that is freely available for exchange. Ultimately, all resulting information must be credible, and emanate from a single officially designated authority.

Participants emphasized that early warning is effective only to the extent that policy makers at national levels of authority have the will, and make a sustained commitment of resources that will establish protective measures. It is crucial that these measures support the development of early warning capabilities at the community level and that they be based on local vulnerability and risk assessments. In all of these respects, the importance of training was stressed, as was the requirement to provide resources for ongoing training activities, public education and the development of both technical and operational capabilities essential for early warning.

Public authorities and private organizations concerned with early warning and related practices should realize the benefits of partnership in the development of technological innovation and related commercial opportunities. This may include the expanded use of technologies related to earth observation, telecommunications, and other information technologies, including geographical information systems. Equally important partnerships are those that match the needs of people exposed to natural hazards, with the information and technical capabilities provided through the cooperative efforts of public authorities and the private sector. It is particularly important to include disadvantaged groups of society as well as individuals having special needs.

In order to extend the benefits of current applied research on early warning there is a need to promote continued development and practical use of commonly accepted standards for data acquisition, management, and exchange. Additionally, research is required to improve prediction capabilities and other methods which can reduce the consequences of natural hazards. Finally, it important that data and other scientific information which is available is adequately translated into early warning systems and forecasts of potential natural disasters, so that protective action can be taken by concerned authorities.

Presentations at the Potsdam Early Warning Conference demonstrated significant improvements in long-term forecasting of climate anomalies, such as El Niņo episodes, which enables more rapid and extensive warnings pertaining to climate variability. Through its International Framework, the IDNDR can bring early warning activities, such as this, to the forefront of global and national disaster reduction policies. An immediate example where this may be valuable is to bring the results of the Potsdam Early Warning Conference to the attention to the first intergovernmental meeting of experts on the El Niņo (ENSO) phenomenon. This meeting has been called for by the fifty-second United Nations General Assembly and is being organized in Guayaquil, Equador, from 9-13 November 1998 specifically to enable the conclusion of early warning issues in the review of the 1997-1998 El Niņo event.


Considering the preceding discussion of the deliberations which took place at the Potsdam Early Warning Conference, the participants have drawn the following conclusions which must be seen in a larger context than this meeting. They can only achieve their true value by being translated into concrete actions.

  1. Early warning represents a cornerstone of disaster reduction. It should, therefore, become a key element of future disaster reduction strategies for the 21st Century that are to be formalized in the conclusion of the IDNDR.

  2. Effective early warning depends upon a multi-sectoral and interdisciplinary collaboration among all concerned actors, as demonstrated during the Potsdam Early Warning Conference.

  3. While early warning capabilities must continue to be strengthened at the global level, it is important that greater emphasis be given to developing capacities that are relevant, and responsive to, the needs of local communities.

  4. The issues of early warning for natural disasters (and similar disasters which have an adverse effect on the environment) should be brought to the highest levels of deliberation within the United Nations system and intergovernmental fora at regional and international levels.

  5. Before the conclusion of the decade specific successor arrangements for the continued promotion of disaster reduction should be made in order to ensure, inter alia, the continuing integration and evolution of early warning at the local, national, regional, and global levels of responsibility.

  6. Prepare an action plan resulting from the conclusions and recommendations of the Potsdam Early Warning Conference, within the IDNDR International Framework of Action, that will serve as the basis for the final IDNDR recommendations on improved early warning into the 21st Century. This should be presented to the IDNDR Programme Forum in Geneva in July 1999.