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Guidance From Above on Food Insecurity

• October 17, 2009 • 5:00 AM

An American-led famine early warning system uses satellite technology to predict where best to stave off future starving in the rest of the world.

When Kenya’s twice-yearly rainy seasons failed to materialize in early 2007, the shortfall plunged a quarter of the country’s 39 million inhabitants, some 10 million people, into food insecurity — the state when food, or access to it, isn’t available. Beyond the drought, the world financial crisis has led to a doubling in basic market commodity prices — a big problem in a country that needs to import grain and livestock as it is.

Compounding the crisis, said local meteorologist Gideon Galu, is a lack of quantifiable information. “In this area we have a very sparse observational network of meteorological and climatological data.” Fortunately, satellite technology can fill in the gaps to help those suffering on the ground.

In fact, this situation could have led to devastating famine if it weren’t for FEWSNET, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network. Funded by U.S. Agency for International Development, the $20 million-a-year network collaborates with international organizations and American institutions like the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA to provide information on emerging food security threats in 23 countries.

Galu, who works as a FEWSNET regional scientist in the Nairobi office, said that for Kenya, the system helps fill in the gaps in both analytical approaches and data sets lacking for the dry pastoral regions of his country. Along with Somalia and Ethiopia, these places comprise FEWSNET’s primary “hotspots.” Other target areas include Central America, Haiti and Afghanistan. (Beginning next year, FEWSNET will add Mongolia, India, North Korea, Malaysia and Indonesia to the list.)

But no matter where it operates, the goal is the same: to supply locally based analysts with a combination of satellite imagery and the latest climate computer models so they can conduct “targeted livelihoods-based assessments” that provide information about how a typical household produces and consumes food, earns and spends its income (including assets) and how it manages these resources in good and bad years to enhance its food security.

History of FEWSNET
Close to 70 million people died of famine in the 20th century, and it was a particularly awful crisis — the drought-fueled, 1984-1985 food crisis in west, east and southern Africa — that saw FEWSNET’s precursor, the Famine Early Warning System, created. (That famine also spawned pop-culture responses like Live Aid benefit concert and USA for Africa’s We Are the World charity single.)

Molly Brown, a research scientist at NASA, said that beyond the hundreds of thousands who perished, millions of people were affected in the region for years afterward through mass migrations and disrupted development.

“The only food in the market was 10 times or more its usual price — no one had the money to purchase it,” she noted. “What’s more, aid was slow in coming and highly inadequate due to the lack of information systems that linked conditions in those countries to international aid organizations.”

An illustration of how poorly equipped the aid community was at dealing with the issue is offered by Gary Eilerts, the USAID program manager for FEWSNET, recounting the bad old days before the network. “There were reports coming in from western Sudan and other places saying that people were starving. And when people responsible here for responding asked where exactly they should send the goods, they were told ‘western Sudan, of course.’ Peter McPherson, the AID administrator at the time was shocked to see how little specific information there was about where in western Sudan there was famine.”

Back then, the main “early warning” consisted of national-level indicators like “cereal balance” (food available from all sources nationally, divided by the number of people). Unfortunately, this was hardly enough information to present a comprehensive picture of what was really going on.

Today, FEWSNET digs much deeper by conducting village-level field work to gather first-hand accounts of household income, expenditure patterns, which are analyzed against both local economic growth and global market trends as well as health and conflict issues.

Also in the mix, various indexes derived from NOAA satellite imagery that provides real-time data for food security analysts. This includes the “normalized difference vegetation index,” which tracks the amount and vigor of vegetation by assessing photosynthesis levels. “Rainfall estimation” imagery uses infrared data from the European Union’s Meteosat weather satellites, rain gauge reports and microwave satellite observations to compare current rainfall with historical precipitation trends.

And though remote sensing is only part of what FEWSNET does, since the economies of many of these countries are dominated by food production, reliable and quantifiable weather and soils data are critical. Drought not only reduces a farm family’s ability to make a living, it also affects how much they can hope to eat. If they’re unable to grow enough food to sustain themselves, they’re forced to purchase it at prices up to 10 times higher than normal.

Perhaps more importantly, besides presenting a far more accurate picture of a country or region’s food security, this hard data also serve to motivate governments and food donors to respond to impending crises.

Eilerts offered an example of acting before the crisis fully bloomed: “USAID food aid was recently sent toward the Horn of Africa where we now expect another long and difficult period of food insecurity and rising malnutrition.”

FEWSNET alerts can also help food aid organization decide when not to send help, which happened recently in Afghanistan where high food prices were stressing household budgets of the poor. “Looking ahead, FEWS saw a high likelihood of a very good Afghan wheat harvest this summer, which has now come to pass,” Eilerts said.

Complicating Factors
Much has changed during the past 20 years thanks to the globalization of food markets and technological innovations, but Brown and Eilerts both agree that today’s food insecurity is less a problem of environmental conditions than the money to afford to buy what’s in the market. It’s known as “food access,” a concept developed by Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen. Beyond access, there’s “food availability” in a given region and “food utilization,” the ability to actually get the nutrition in that food and turn it into energy at the individual level.

Complicating all of this is political instability resulting from incompetent and hostile regimes.

Said Brown, “When we have droughts here in Virginia where I live, no one is food insecure because we have a functioning government that provides safety nets like welfare and insurance. In places like Niger, the government is extremely tiny and totally incapable of providing those safety nets, so when you have a weather crisis, you get famine because of the context in which it occurs.”

An equally daunting problem: the climate fluctuations brought on by global warming. According to Brown, because FEWSNET was designed in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the objective was to use the data to restore local areas to “normal” conditions. “There are places like Somalia, which haven’t had a government in 18 years. Every year, it gets less rainfall because of climate change, so the question is how can [we] even think of returning that kind of situation to normal since there is no normal.”

This has caused FEWSNET’s team members to rethink the program’s approach to food assistance. Instead of restoring systems to pre-crisis conditions, FEWSNET will look to advance an area to become more sustainable and resistant. “It doesn’t make sense to save people’s lives and have to come back next year and do it again,” said Brown.

The Future
One tool in preventing that is more sophisticated technology.

Despite advances in remote monitoring, Brown says soil moisture measurements are very poor. That’s why FEWSNET is anxiously awaiting a new satellite called SMAP — for Soil Moisture Active & Passive — to launch in 2012. A combined radiometer and high-resolution radar, it will be able to penetrate the tree canopy and yield high-resolution images of how moist the ground is to as deep as 30 centimeters below the surface, data critical for both farmers and the food aid community. Three years later, the Deformation Ecosystem Structure and Dynamics of Ice mission will provide height information of the vegetation canopy. It will help FEWSNET determine the location of crop fields for better monitoring and provide another tool for assessing the impact of climate change.

Despite the importance of remote-sensing data, as the meteorologist Galu suggests, one must separate scientific data (merged with livelihood data) from response time and kind. In Kenya, FEWSNET has played a decisive role in getting the government to address the current crisis. Just last month [on Aug. 18] it launched a multimillion-dollar initiative to replace “rain-fed agriculture” with a more efficient and reliable irrigation-based system.

Says Galu, “I do not wish to say that FEWSNET takes sole credit, but it has been part of the process of needs assessment and recommendations.”

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Arnie Cooper
Arnie Cooper, a freelance writer based in Santa Barbara, Calif., covers food, travel and popular culture, as well as architecture and the sustainability movement. He is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal's Leisure and Arts page; his writing has also appeared in Outside, Esquire, Orion and Dwell. He's working on a memoir about his childhood experiences in New York City.

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