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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.

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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."

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