Climate Change / Drought / East Africa / Eritrea / Ethiopia / Food Security / Geodata / Kenya / Pastoralism / Somalia / Vulnerability

We had effective famine early warning systems in place in the Horn: So what went wrong?

Village scene with goats - Gash Barka

Village scene in Gash-Barka, a region of Eritrea considered a breadbasket and with some 3.5 million head of livestock (photo on Flickr by Charles Fred).

Scientist Chris Funk, who is part of a Climate Hazard Group at the University of California at Santa Barbara and also works with the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), provides useful explanations in NatureNews as to why, even with early warning systems in place, the Horn of Africa is experiencing a hunger and famine crisis, and why, without a focus on improving small-scale food production in this region, climate change is likely to continue to lead to food insecurity here.

Better regional climate-change and forecast models, combined with more effective agriculture in drought-threatened areas, will make the difference, Funk says.

‘Not since a million people died in Ethiopia and Sudan in 1984 and 1985 has the world seen such a potential for famine as it does now, with food emergencies occurring in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. But although the ongoing disaster in East Africa is dire, it was not unexpected. In fact, I am part of a group of scientists that successfully forecast the droughts behind the present crisis.

‘I work with the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), which was set up by the US Agency for International Development to help policy-makers prevent such humanitarian disasters. The network identifies where food aid is needed by the most food-insecure populations of the developing world, whose livelihoods are tied to rain-fed subsistence agriculture and pastoralism.

‘Last summer, our group was meeting when a La Niña weather system was forecast. We knew that such an event could bring trouble, and we issued an alert that East Africa might experience severe droughts. We based this conclusion on information from three sources. . . .

FEWS NET runs a food-price tracking system that showed that the price of maize (corn) in Kitui, Kenya, had soared by 246% in 12 months. And the value of a goat in Bardera, Somalia, usually sold to buy grain, had halved. Satellite measurements of vegetation health tracked the emerging drought in disturbing detail. FEWS NET put out a second alert on 7 June that warned: “This is the most severe food security emergency in the world today, and the current humanitarian response is inadequate.”

‘Two months on, the grim statistics show that the massive crisis is outstripping the international resources available to address it. . . . ‘

What went wrong? First, Funk says, is that some agencies are inadvisably making plans based on climate models that predict that East Africa will be getting wetter rather than drier, a prediction disputed within climate change modelling circles, and this is encouraging an expansion of rainfed cropping onto drying marginal lands, a practice that not only is unsustainable over the longer term but also leads to land degradation and the fragmentation of once productive pastoral rangeland ecosystems.

More climate science based on regional observations could be helpful in addressing these challenges,’ Funk says.

Second, says Funk, is that agricultural progress is not keeping pace with population growth and the more frequent droughts in this region.

Emergencies such as the one in East Africa will become more common unless there is a focus on improving agricultural production. Ironically, the fact that crop yields are low creates a tremendous opportunity for improvement. A 50%, or even 100%, increase in yields is feasible . . . . In the long term, a more resilient system is needed, rather than an increase in the number of emergency grain shipments. Then, when disaster strikes, surplus food can be moved around the region—from Tanzania to Somalia, say.’

Read the whole article at NatureNews: We thought trouble was coming, 3 August 2011.

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