Use data to take pre-emptive action
Famines — when food becomes extremely scarce given the individuals in a community — can be triggered by manmade factors or natural phenomena.
But a group of UCSB researchers are working on curbing the detrimental effects that famines bring by detecting the early warning signs, such as water levels and temperature. The 20 UCSB scientists do so with the data system Famine Early Warning Systems Network, which was born about three decades ago.
“FEWS NET was a response to the food crisis in East Africa in the 1980s, which is still ongoing,” said Gregory Husak, one of the UCSB researchers.
FEWS NET monitors the location and causes of food insecurity. The UCSB Climate Hazards Center Infrared Precipitation with Stations — supported by funding from USAID, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — collect data on rainfall variations. Researchers can use the estimates to notify international agencies about oncoming famines.
FEWS NET has already issued notifications on several occasions.
In 2017, FEWS NET composed a report that warned about food insecurity in Somalia.
“Unfortunately, conflict obstructed an effective response, resulting in over 250,000 human deaths,” write Dr. Husak and his coauthors in a recent paper.
Dr. Husak and more than 10 UCSB researchers form about half of the coauthors of the academic paper that has been published by the American Meteorological Society. Other authors include NASA employees.
FEWS NET has also “predicted unprecedented severe 2016/17 drought, which resulted in about 27 million people (June 2017) requiring urgent food assistance. It also led to a United Nations’ appeal for $4.4 billion … in funding — twice the 2010/11 appeal,” reports the AMS paper.
Dr. Husak told the News-Press that predicting food insecurity and sending aid before a famine breaks out can curb the ravaging effects of scarcity.
“Whereas I think decades earlier the reporting would have looked something like, ‘There are people starving here now. Send relief,’ we can now provide advance warning of potential food crises months in advance,” said he said.
In the past five years alone, several famines of both manmade and natural causes increased the death toll around the world. Saudi Arabia’s blockade of Yemen set off a food scarcity that took the lives of an estimated 85,000 children younger than 5, according to U.K. humanitarian organization Save the Children.
Meanwhile, a combination of both natural and manmade factors have drained Somalia and South Sudan of food security: a February 2017 drought and ongoing tribal wars have placed 9 million people in the face of famine, according to New York-based International Rescue Committee.
The FEWS NET team at UCSB is working to minimize and, ideally, prevent the ravages of famine.
“We’re contributing to saving lives and helping those who are in really bad situations,” said Dr. Husak.
Thankfully, UCSB is not alone in tackling famine.. Working with the university’s Climate Hazards Center on FEWS NET are several other agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Geological Survey. The FEWS NET team, according to CHC Operations Analyst Laura Harrison, meets via teleconference every week to discuss agricultural circumstances and the latest climate patterns.
Recognizing the Famine Early Warning Systems Network — the AMS paper that outlines how FEWS NET works and gives an overview of the system and data — can be accessed at https://journals.ametsoc.org.