Early Warning System Through Mass messaging in Mongolia

Introduction

Mongolia is prone to natural disasters, as a country with huge territory of 1,565,000 square kilometres and underdeveloped infrastructure. Most common type of natural disasters for this landlocked country include dzud (extreme harsh winter with long-lasting cold weather often combined with heavy snow falls), dust and sandstorms predominantly, forest and steppe fires and summer flash floods. Country’s vast territory, low population density and harsh climatic conditions serve as constraints for efficient Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) System. Underdeveloped rural infrastructure and remoteness of herder communities make the search and rescue operations extremely challenging, as professional rescuers are present at the provincial centers only. Although made available by Meteorological agency, dissemination of weather forecast is made only at provincial level as well.

Highlights

  • More than 400,000 people engaged in nomadic livestock husbandry in Mongolia are extremely vulnerable to hazardous phenomena and climate change impacts
  • The system was introduced to all 21 provinces of Mongolia from January to March, 2015 and in total, 319 soum meteorological offices and 40 local emergency management units have been provided with the software programme and 3G modems; and over 540 meteorological staff and emergency personnel were provided training opportunities on the application of the system.
  • Right after introduction of the system, namely in February, April and May, 2015, severe snow and dust storms occurred and affected the most of the Mongolian territory. During these storms, early warning messages on hazardous events were delivered to approximately 75,000 residents of 232 soums in 16 provinces (NEMAs report).
  • During a heavy wind storm with speed up to 21 m/sec occurred through 19-21 February 2015 in Khentii province, a total of 32 set of warning text messages were sent to 8,916 individuals of 3,408 households at provincial level ensuring their safety and preparedness. As a result, there were no human casualties, and no search and rescue was needed in Khentii province, unlike the previous storms with the same wind speed (NEMA report).

In order to help address the above challenges, Early Warning System (EWS) through mass messaging was initiated and implemented within the NEMA/UNDP project “Strengthening Local Level Capacities for Disaster Risk Reduction, Management and Coordination in Mongolia”. The initiative aimed at: 1) providing remotely residing herders and small rural settlement residents of Mongolia with localized weather forecast and accurate information on hazardous phenomenon; 2) set-up a user-friendly (in local language) EWS focusing on natural hazards which can also be applied for other type of emergencies as well; and 3) promote community self-help principle in operational setting of the EWS. The document briefly describes the EWS, the process to set-up such a system and status of application. 

Findings and analysis

2.1. Needs for user-friendly early warning system

More than 400,000 people engaged in nomadic livestock husbandry in Mongolia are extremely vulnerable to hazardous phenomena and climate change impacts. Mongolia’s current 50 million heads of livestock range freely over the vast grazing land and therefore are easily lost in heavy wind, rain and snow storms and with them, the herders themselves. Therefore, preventive measures need to be enhanced specially at the local level and the establishment of well-functioning Early Warning Systems (EWS) has been identified as one of the priority measures in a number of policy documents including National Action Programme on Climate Change (NAPCC) and Community based Disaster Risk Reduction Programme (CBDRR) of Mongolia. Although the national meteorological agency make relatively accurate weather forecast using locally collected data and are able to disseminate weather hazard warning, those are disseminated as generalized at provincial level. This presents a significant gap in dissemination of localized or sub-district (soum) level hazard warning. Moreover, a mechanism to disseminate such warning to local communities is not in place, which exacerbates their vulnerabilities.

2.2. Review of existing early warning practices

With the purpose of introducing user-friendly EWS, a review of existing early warning practice was undertaken involving specialists from different sectors. An attempt based on FM radio was identified and studied in detail and considered unsuitable to mountain areas of the country. TV Broadcaster with widest rural coverage was considered, as the use of satellite dishes and solar panels is very common in rural Mongolia. Unfortunately, change in a system was at discretion of a foreign provider. At the same time mobile network coverage is relatively wide in Mongolia and there is almost no locality not covered by mobile network. Therefore, the team concluded the mass messaging through all available mobile network as the most suitable option in terms of feasibility, viability, applicability, user-friendliness and cost effectiveness. A total of four mobile phone operators provide services in Mongolia. The oldest service provider (Skytel Ltd) has agreed to disseminate early warning mass messages through its network as it has no limitation on sending mass messages and covers all soums in Mongolia by the 3G technology.

Early Warning Mass Messaging System

3.1.Description of the system

The project provided provincial and soum meteorological offices with a mass messaging software programme developed by Mongolian software developers and 3G modems which are the key elements of the EWS. After receiving weather forecasts and information on potential hazardous phenomenon from provincial meteorological office, a soum meteorological officer creates a short warning message (with up to 160 characters) and sends it using the mass messaging software programme by one click to the target numbers of local recipients from already established and maintained database. The emergency tree principle is applied for wider dissemination. The first level recipients of warning messages have obligations to further disseminate the warning to on average 5-10 people in their localities ensuring all herder households and rural settlement residents received warning messages. The system operation scheme is provided below (Figure 1). 

The system is only activated in view of weather hazards and other emergencies in order to avoid information overload. Early warning mass messaging enables every local residents including remote herders to receive a warning on hazardous phenomena from authorized and verified sources without a delay and without being limited to mobile service providers and help them to be better prepared and avoid from going into the field especially in view of upcoming extreme weather phenomena. Development of such software offers several advantages over regular mobile text messaging. Its additional functions allow grouping message recipients, sending a message simultaneously to many people and receiving message delivery reports that informs whether recipients received the message immediately or not.

3.2. National upscaling of the system

The system was introduced to all 21 provinces of Mongolia from January to March, 2015 and in total, 319 soum meteorological offices and 40 local emergency management units have been provided with the software programme and 3G modems; and over 540 meteorological staff and emergency personnel were provided training opportunities on the application of the system. Right after introduction of the system, namely in February, April and May, 2015, severe snow and dust storms occurred and affected the most of the Mongolian territory. During these storms, early warning messages on hazardous events were delivered to approximately 75,000 residents of 232 soums in 16 provinces (NEMAs report). For example, during a heavy wind storm with speed up to 21 m/sec occurred through 19-21 February 2015 in Khentii province, a total of 32 set of warning text messages were sent to 8,916 individuals of 3,408 households at provincial level ensuring their safety and preparedness. As a result, there were no human casualties, and no search and rescue was needed in Khentii province, unlike the previous storms with the same wind speed (NEMA report). The mass messaging has also been extensively applied to warn about the recurring steppe and forest fires of spring 2015 in eastern provinces as well as for prevention from icebreaking risks in country’s large lakes. Acknowledging the clear advantage of early warning mass messaging supported through the UNDP/NEMA project, NEMA and NAMEM apply the system on a daily basis and ensure the smooth operation of soft and hardware. In October 2015, the Deputy Prime Minister of Mongolia, who is the Chairman of the State Emergency Commission has issued a decree to provincial and sub-district (soum) Governors to ensure sustainable operation of the EWS and allocate the relatively low operational cost. 

Conclusions and Recomendations

Dissemination of localized weather forecast and warning messages on hazardous phenomena through mass messaging programme in view of emergencies, especially in natural disasters has proven to be highly effective and cost-efficient in a country with vast territory and very low population density (less than 2 persons per square km). Further attention should be given to a regular update of the phone number registry and keeping message senders charged and training all meteorological officers in application of the system.

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