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While a deal sets up new climate talks, scientists help Africans adapt now

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For centuries, the patterns of rainfall and of the seasons have defined where people live on the continent and the security of their food supply These age-old ways are changing rapidly, leading to drought and famine. 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.  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.

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