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Early warning systems and foresight: from ancient wisdom to modern practice


The Amman Citadel. Photo: D. Bjorgen via Wikimedia Commons


Aninia Nadig’s * recent visit to Jordan made her think about how early warning systems and Sphere standards can work together to temper the impacts of crises. 

A few weeks ago, I visited the Amman Citadel. As I explored the temples and ruins in the historical heart of the Jordanian capital, I learned how its early residents used to survive the dry spells that were an inevitable part of life. There were no natural water sources in the citadel, so they captured rain and waste water, which they then rationed and recycled. They anticipated drought and learned how to make the most of what little they had to survive in chronic scarcity.

Today’s humanitarian crises tend to last ever longer. After years of recurring disasters or conflict, situations that started out as short-lived emergencies become the norm for entire communities. They become what humanitarian professionals call protracted crises. In these cases, our familiar way of working – with fast and time-bound interventions – will not suffice.

The Sphere standards provide guidelines on prompt actions to be taken in the early stages of a humanitarian response. They focus on how to ensure that communities survive the onset of a crisis and recover with dignity. But this alone is not enough. We also have to prepare for potential crises by learning from what’s happened in the past and anticipating what’s likely to come. This way, we can shore up communities against the risks they face and make them more resilient those that materialise.


Today’s humanitarian crises tend to last ever longer.  In these cases, our familiar way of working – with fast and time-bound interventions – will not suffice

In this sense, the wisdom of those inhabitants of the ancient citadel is still highly relevant today. And in applying it, we have tools at our disposal that would have been beyond their wildest imagination. Modern technology allows us to monitor situations with great care and to predict when things are likely to happen with some precision. But even though we can tell pretty much when and how many disasters and other crises will strike, we don’t always have the structures and systems in place to be able to take preventive action.

The combination of the Sphere standards, their indicators and existing early warning systems provides a great tool to plan ahead. They can help communities to save lives and protect their livelihoods and belongings, and authorities and agencies to respond quickly when needed (see, for instance, the Core Humanitarian Standard Commitment no. 2 on effective and timely response).

Let’s consider a couple of examples. Famine early warning systems have an important role to play in mitigating food security or nutrition crises. Undernutrition often has underlying structural causes, and an effective response will need to understand them. Early warning information should be used in food security and nutrition assessments, planning and programming. The Sphere Handbook specifies that, where possible, it should be made available to those likely to be affected (see the Food security chapter, standard 7.2, Guidance Note 5).


Modern technology allows us to predict when things are likely to happen. But we don’t always have the structures and systems in place to be able to take preventive action

Similarly, the Sphere Handbook’s Health chapter addresses communicable diseases in densely populated areas such as cities. It states: “Rumours and misinformation spread quickly in cities. Use technology to immediately supply accurate information on healthcare and services.” Humanitarian responders, the handbook continues, should seek the support of specialised healthcare providers active in early warning and response systems for communicable diseases and increase their capacity (see the Health chapter, Essential concepts; and in more depth, the health systems standards 1.5 and 2.1.2). Various responders must work together, and it’s usually better if local or national authorities take the lead.

The Livestock Emergency Guidelines and Standards (LEGS), one of the Sphere partner standards, also discuss early warning in detail. The LEGS Handbook provides guidance on emergency feed and destocking in the early warning stages of a crisis.

So it’s not as if we don’t know how to prepare and respond based on early warning systems. We also know that the earlier we act, the more effective our interventions are likely to be. But still, responses sometimes come too late or are inadequate. We should have the courage to act on foresight of a crisis, rather than waiting for it to hit.

Let’s re-embrace the ancient wisdom of managing scarce resources; let’s use modern technology and collectively-agreed best practices, codified in humanitarian standards such as Sphere; and let’s apply it in today’s crises. These are the three ingredients for success.


* Aninia Nadig is Sphere’s Policy and Practice Manager.