STEP 1: Setting Up Early Warning Systems

Effective early warning systems contain a set of systems to enable threatened populations and public authorities at the national and local levels to prepare to act promptly. For the agricultural sector, early warning systems enable governments and organizations to manage humanitarian crises such as severe food insecurity, and animal disease outbreaks caused by extreme weather events. At the community level, these systems advise individual producers and entrepreneurs on the likelihood of a threat and how to reduce its potential impact. Early warning is the basis for the broader concept of ‘early warning − early action’, which is a paradigm shift. A comprehensive early warning system contains the following:

  • The ‘warning’ system includes hazard information, monitoring and forecast, preferably with sufficient and consistent data.
  • The ‘information’ system analyses areas and populations likely to be affected and places this information into the warning messages. These are measures that community members could use to exploit the forecasted seasonal climate: for example, farmers could receive information on planting time, good farm management practices, choice of inorganic fertilizers and use of farm manure, suitable crop types and varieties, and available seed suppliers. For pastoralists, water and fodder availability, bushfire information, legal information and also a livestock-movement monitoring system would be useful. Analysis from the local level adds to a precise knowledge of the producers’ situation.
  • The ‘communication’ system allows timely communication on potentially occurring extreme weather events for quick decision-making and authoritative warnings.

The impacts of agricultural failure due to extreme weather events could be better managed with improved climate prediction and enhanced monitoring capabilities. The key components of an agricultural monitoring framework include seasonal forecasting, agro-meteorological monitoring and post-harvest assessments.

This monitoring provides an early estimation of the quality of the agricultural season and the expected production by mid-growing season. Baseline pre-season weather risk analysis combined with agricultural monitoring will provide a clear indication of who will be affected and what type of (humanitarian) response is required. It would help farmers to make informed decisions.

Significant parts of this information can be obtained from the insurance industry, hence benefiting the preparedness development process.

This information is further fed into food security early warning systems and can help decision-making bodies such as agricultural planners to advise seasonal agricultural strategy (planting schedules, fertilizer distribution, seed choice, etc.), future food and marketing needs, further grazing areas for livestock, etc. It will further help government officials, external humanitarian agencies and NGOs to assess food security and relief food requirements.

Box 10: Illustration of Early Warning Systems for Drought, Excessive Rainfall and Temperature

  • The ‘early warning − early action’ concept uses the time provided by reliable and specific early warning information for directing preparedness towards those at most risk, increasing the level of inputs to (development) programmes, and allocating additional resources (e.g. call-down contingencies, reallocate budget funds proactively, broaden food and cash safety nets). Many programmes go beyond traditional humanitarian activities and support community resilience (e.g. making repairs to water sources, mobilizing extension services and veterinary support, farmers selling their harvest prior to the extreme weather event occurring). This is especially successful with slow-onset events such as drought, allowing producers to make substantial adjustments.

Essential parts of the ‘early warning − early action’ structure are:

  • A legal base for the early warning system and the coordination framework.
  • National ownership of the coordination platform, with the Early Action agenda, formally included within its mandate and documented in a contingency plan for early action.
  • Transparency and trust, developing a shared vision among all stakeholders at all levels, a strengthened evidence base and a common commitment to open communication.

Box 11: Livestock ‘Early Warning − Early Action’ System in Ethiopia (IFRC/WFP/FAO, 2014)

The Pastoralist Livelihoods initiative used preparedness for improving the livelihoods and resilience with the following early action activities:

  • Emergency livestock health interventions.
  • Livestock supplementary feeding.
  • Water infrastructure rehabilitation.
  • Livestock diversification.
  • Commercial destocking using market approaches.
  • Slaughter destocking.
  • The ‘forecast-based financing’ insurance concept is particularly successful when the payout of innovative index insurance products are triggered by early warning information, enabling the insured to take corrective action with the funding received by the insurer (see Box 12, below).

Box 12: Insurance Example: Extreme El Niño Insurance Product, La Positiva Seguros

Early warning enables forecast-based financing that triggers funds to be paid prior to the extreme weather event to potentially affected population, e.g. the Extreme El Niño Insurance Product (EENIP), which is based on the sea surface temperature data gathered by the U.S. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). If sea surface temperatures exceed the temperature defined in the policy conditions, La Positiva Seguros pays the sum insured before an extreme El Niño weather event occurs. The insured know the amount they will receive and can begin the procurement at an early stage.

Tools and Guiding Questions

Guiding Questions

How to develop early warning systems?

Does the early warning system include the concept of ‘early warning − early action’?


Early Warning Conference (EWC) III (2006): Developing Early Warning Systems: A Checklist. Third International Conference on Early Warning, Bonn

IFRC/WFP/FAO (2014): Early Warning, Early Action − Mechanisms for Rapid Decision Making


FAO platform describing the concept, country experiences and the early action fund

Guiding Questions

Are early warning messages and their respective modes of delivery tailored to the different recipient groups?


Focus group discussions with all potentially affected groups. For the agricultural sector, especially farmers, herders and the agricultural value change enterprises.

Guiding questions

Is the early warning system linked to insurance policyholders?

Source of information

African Risk Capacity insurance pool

Example of forecast-based financing insurance: La Positiva Seguros, Peru