Every year, natural disasters take a heavy toll on human lives and households, affecting immensely vulnerable communities and economies. Weather and hydrological hazards, such as storms, floods, droughts, heat and cold waves, have been responsible for almost 80% of disasters and over 50% of disaster-related deaths between 1980 and 2011. Forewarned is forearmed: setting up effective weather, climate, and hydrological services—together constituting ‘hydromet’ services—and early warning systems (EWS) allows governments and communities to minimize the damage caused by natural disasters and speed up the recovery and reconstruction.

Japan is a global frontrunner in developing comprehensive hydromet and disaster risk management (DRM) systems. The country has a long history of combatting devastating events like the Hanshin Kobe Earthquake in 1995, or the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. Its multi-hazard approach, which covers weather, climate, ocean-related, and terrestrial services, has been applied towards and constantly developed through numerous experiences of disastrous events, enabling the country to accumulate exceptional knowledge and expertise.

“Japan has lessons learnt from challenges faced in modernizing hydromet systems over the last 50 years. Indeed, the key of Japanese experiences is the collaboration among residents, businesses, and government,” said Naoki Yamashita, Deputy Director of the Multilateral Development Banks Division at Japan's Ministry of Finance.

The government, in collaboration with key partners, including the Disaster Risk Management Hub (Tokyo)—managed by the World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR)—and the Tokyo Development Learning Center (TDLC), recently hosted a knowledge-sharing event on hydromet services with countries from around the world. The “Technical Deep Dive on Hydromet Services for Early Warning” (TDD) is a demand-driven knowledge program with a particular focus on problem-solving to address specific technical issues and client objectives. The TDD, which took place in Tokyo, gathered close to 60 specialists from national meteorological and hydrological services (NMHS) and disaster management agencies from 11 countries (Afghanistan, Bhutan, Ethiopia, Honduras, Lao PDR, Nicaragua, Tonga, Sri Lanka, Uruguay, Vietnam and Zambia), experts and practitioners from Japanese technical agencies, and international partners including the Bureau of Meteorology of Australia and the World Meteorological Organization. The goal of the TDD was to build capacity amongst developing countries to identify the key aspects of modernization for NMHSs, share lessons on challenges and obstacles, learn of Japan’s experience with its modernization processes, and connect with experts and solutions that could contribute to the improvement of the hydromet and DRM practices in their respective countries.

"After learning from Japan's experience and from other countries, we were able to evaluate our work from a new perspective. We found both weaknesses and strengths we had not previously identified and hope to keep working to address our challenges upon our return to Uruguay," stated Gimena Bentos Pereira, one of the TDD participants and Director of Studies and Sanitation Services at the Intendencia de Montevideo in Uruguay.  

The TDD served as a platform to share the views on a set of issues pre-identified by participants. As the number of projects that aim to modernize existing hydromet services is growing, the struggle for funding is still critical in many developing countries. Over US$1 billion is committed to investment projects in participating countries, and yet this is far from being enough to address their needs of basic infrastructure, modern observation networks, and enhanced service delivery aggravated at times by conflict or shifts in government priorities.

Very often, the modernization of equipment and infrastructure are not the only obstacles to building sustainable early warning systems. Fragmentation of institutions and lack of clear roles and responsibilities are big challenges for building communication channels between governments and communities, as well as integrating DRM into development agendas. This topic led to rigorous discussions at the TDD, with a focus on key institutional considerations for effective EWS, informed by Japan’s experience.   

Dzung Huy Nguyen, a Disaster Risk Management Specialist with the World Bank in Vietnam, underscored this: “Our hydromet services are highly fragmented with no interlinkage – different donors, different systems and technologies, and different institutional setups. The key to addressing this is actually not only about the lack of financial resources, but also the need for institutional reform.”

Most developing countries are facing additional challenges with information and data exchange, and setting up reliable communication channels. Translating hazard information into actionable messages to communities, as well as the role of public and private partnerships, were some of the topics where the experience of countries like Japan and Australia are relevant when building comprehensive monitoring and forecast systems, strengthening legal frameworks and improving impact forecasting.

The TDD also saw release of a new report: "Modernization of Japan’s Hydromet Services: A Report on Lessons Learned for Disaster Risk Management," developed by the DRM Hub, which helps build collaboration between the World Bank’s DRM program and the Japanese government, business, academia, and civil society experts. The report provides insight for policy and decision makers that will allow them understand the fundamental operations of hydromet services and consequently target effective funding, in particular to developing countries. In addition, drawing on Japan’s experience in modernizing its NMHSs, it presents lessons learned over a century of changes in legal and institutional arrangements, advances in technology, and responses to major natural disasters. The report concludes with recommendations on how developing countries can undertake modernization processes and projects.