Satellites, Other Means Help US To Detect African Famines Earlier

With its budget cut, AID relies on high-tech to identify food need

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THANKS to a high-tech system that relies on satellites, the United States has begun to stay a step ahead of famine in Africa.

At present, more than 20 million people are threatened by famine in the Horn of Africa, according to data recently collected by the government's Famine Early Warning System (FEWS). The result: a large US aid program is poised to intervene.

Launched nearly a decade ago, after famine struck Ethiopia, FEWS relies on satellite imagery to measure vegetation and rainfall in Africa. And in an exercise called ``grounding truth,'' experts then gather information on food prices, harvest yields, civil strife, and other conditions that often lead to famine. If a situation appears to be near critical, food supplies and other material can be made ready for delivery.

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``You want to go before babies are seen dying on television,'' says J. Brian Atwood, administrator of the US Agency for International Development (AID).

In 1992, FEWS predicted famine in a half-dozen countries in southern Africa, sparking an effort by the US and other nations to ship grain to as many as 60 million people at risk of famine. It worked.

``The 1992 early food shipments averted displacement [of people]. It is a model,'' Mr. Atwood said. ``The key thing is keeping people at home. People at risk will soon kill their livestock, move to other areas and destabilize them, creating bigger problems.''

Compared to the effort in southern Africa, ``the program to avert famine in the Horn of Africa will present 10 times the challenge because it includes civil conflict and ethnic tensions'' and great lack of infrastructure and money, Atwood said. The US has pledged and already begun to move 900,000 tons of grain. An estimated 2 million tons will be needed for this program.

The early-warning system has become more valuable as AID's budget has been slashed after the end of the cold war. And FEWS helps to target assistance more effectively at a time when one crisis after another overwhelms many national and international aid agencies.

Increasingly, much of the world's aid to poor nations goes for emergencies with little left for the economic or political development of faltering societies. Atwood points out that this is the first year the budget for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is bigger than for the UN Development Programme.

The UN tried to set up its own early-warning system 10 years ago but due to ``bureaucratic inertia and jealousy'' it failed, according to a former staff member of the now-disbanded UN Office for Research and Collection of Information in New York.

``The United States and the Soviet Union did not want the UN gathering intelligence, so we were limited to collecting publicly available data,'' said the UN official, who remains within the UN system and asked not to be named. With the cold war ended, however, some confidential intelligence is being shared. The early-warning function has been dispersed to several UN agencies dealing with politics and humanitarian affairs.

According to Greg Gottlieb, manager of FEWS, the satellite images are useless without ``ground truthing.'' This entails going into a country and checking such clues as women selling their jewelry for food or farmers slaughtering livestock.

Even green vegetation in satellite photos might turn out to be weeds. This means that images of Zaire, for example, clothed in jungles and greenery, cannot indicate crop success or failure.

In Somalia, FEWS found many irrigation canals to be damaged (severed or silted), and that favorable water levels from abundant rains cannot be utilized.

A former high official in AID, who requested he not be named, says that the Central Intelligence Agency has provided super-sharp military intelligence photographs of mass movements of people in a civil war in one country and of damage at a key port meant to bring in relief supplies. CIA involvement remains a controversial aspect of early warning.

``There have been suggestions ... that the CIA runs the thing - I am against that,'' said the former head of AID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), Andrew Natsios.

An OFDA study showed an average of five ``complex emergencies'' a year worldwide from 1978 to 1985, involving refugees and famines. In 1989, there were 12. In 1993 there were 17. Now there are 20. This increase is due in part to more civil and ethnic wars flourish in the post-cold war era.

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