"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. We continued to send monthly updates until famine was declared in July 2011 based on much of our data."
As climate scientists and policymakers look ahead to the next round of climate treaty talks, there is a growing awareness of the need for new technologies to deal with the devastating environmental effects of climate change. And nowhere is this more true than in Africa, the continent where scientists say climate change has taken its greatest human toll.
Challiss McDonough of the World Food Programme confirms that technology systems like FEWS-NET are useful tools.
"FEWS-NET was among the first to predict that some areas of southern Somalia could slide into famine conditions, and that warning was instrumental in getting the attention of some donors before the crisis peaked," says McDonough.
While a worst-case scenario may have been avoided, international disagreement diminished the potential of the warning system. A regional conflict made it often difficult for aid workers to intervene successfully.
FEWS-NET was created initially by the United States after the 1984-85 famine in Ethiopia using 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 (USAID) and other major US agencies such as NASA, the USGS, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOOA) are key players.