Famine early warning system gives Africa a chance to prepare

US government system, using ground sensors and satellite imagery, helped to predict this year's drought in Horn of Africa, allowing aid groups and governments to prepare relief.

As the world enters a new phase of politically charged climate talks, some scientists have focused on less-­contentious projects like a famine early warning system that can help poor nations adapt to the planet's changes.

Negotiators from around the globe reached agreement on Dec. 12 in Durban, South Africa, on a way forward in the effort to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. The deal extends the emissions targets set under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and calls for a new round of negotiations to hammer out a replacement treaty, one that would aim to legally bind the United States and fast-developing nations like China and India to meet emission-cuts pledges.

The new round of talks could take several years, but vulnerable populations in Africa need to adapt to climate change now.

As age-old patterns of rainfall and seasons change, drought and famine are becoming more common. The most recent example is the ongoing food shortage in Somalia, which many observers have described as Africa's worst food-security crisis in two decades.

Tens of thousands of people have lost their lives, and the situation remains serious. However, a project known as FEWS-NET, or the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, gave advance warning of the looming food crisis and ensured that thousands of other lives were saved.

"We monitor food security and vulnerable populations," says scientist Jim Rowland at the US Geological Survey (USGS), which is part of FEWS-NET. "We started to create alerts about the present situation in Somalia in August 2010 after the upheaval in weather conditions following La Niña [conditions]. We continued to send monthly updates until famine was declared in July 2011 based on much of our data."

Nowhere is the possible use of technology more important than in Africa, where scientists say climate change has taken its greatest human toll. Aid groups have used data from FEWS-NET to warn of another looming crisis, in West Africa, and encourage preventive action.

Challiss McDonough of the World Food Program confirms that FEWS-NET helped predict the Somali famine, adding that "the warning was instrumental in getting the attention of some donors before the crisis peaked."

While a worst-case scenario may have been avoided, international disagreement diminished the potential of the warning system. And a regional conflict made it often difficult for aid workers to intervene successfully.

FEWS-NET was created initially by the US after the 1984-85 famine in Ethiopia. It uses satellite technology to help predict famines and to see how their effects might be minimized. FEWS-NET is sponsored by the US Agency for International Development. Other major US agencies such as NASA, the USGS, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are key players.

FEWS-NET has evolved into a network that integrates information from a variety of sources, including remote satellite imaging and data gathered from local monitoring of conditions on the ground.

Emma Archer, a climate studies scientist at South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, cautions that a tool is only effective if it is used correctly.

"The best science and technology in the world can predict an appropriate response, but you need the political will to act," says Ms. Archer.

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