One of the worst droughts in history hit the Horn of Africa in 2011 where more than 12 million people faced starvation and over a quarter million died in Somalia alone. Although the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) predicted the disaster through its monitoring program, it was by then too late to effectively supply communities with aid. Relief agencies couldn’t mobilize in time and were eventually impeded by conflict in the area.
Six years later, the system forecasted a second far-reaching drought set to affect twice as many people. Fortunately, this one had very different results thanks to an updated alert structure. FEWS NET sent multiple alerts which put large-scale humanitarian assistance in Somalia by February 2017. “When the rains failed in April, [the aid in place] prevented a famine,” said Chris Funk, research director at UCSB’s Climate Hazards Center and participant in the improved warning network.
In partnership with several other institutions, Funk’s team runs the FEWS NET to predict when, where, and how severe the next drought will hit Africa, Central America, parts of Central Asia, and the Caribbean. They recently released a paper at the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society documenting how the network has improved since its inception in 1987 by the Agency for International Development (U.S. AID). The authors attribute success to better technology, advanced data systems, and a more effective communication network.
The effects of famine linger beyond simply providing food and water. Communities that migrate for food displace thousands, who often leave their livelihood behind. Family structures break down, and children become especially susceptible to abuse, trafficking, and military recruitment, according to ReliefWeb.
The stakes are so high that UCSB stays in regular communication with FEWS NET members — among them NASA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Geological Survey — monthly or weekly to discuss conditions and potential future outcomes. “It basically boils down to paying attention. Paying attention to the relevant variables so that we never again see famine occurring in the world,” said USGS member Jim Verdin.