Satellites, Other Means Help US to Detect African Famines Earlier with Its Budget Cut, AID Relies on High-Tech to Identify Food Need

Article excerpt

THANKS to a high-tech system that relies on satellites, the United States has begun to stay a step ahead of famine in Africa.

At present, more than 20 million people are threatened by famine in the Horn of Africa, according to data recently collected by the government's Famine Early Warning System (FEWS). The result: a large US aid program is poised to intervene.

Launched nearly a decade ago, after famine struck Ethiopia, FEWS relies on satellite imagery to measure vegetation and rainfall in Africa. And in an exercise called "grounding truth," experts then gather information on food prices, harvest yields, civil strife, and other conditions that often lead to famine. If a situation appears to be near critical, food supplies and other material can be made ready for delivery.

"You want to go before babies are seen dying on television," says J. Brian Atwood, administrator of the US Agency for International Development (AID).

In 1992, FEWS predicted famine in a half-dozen countries in southern Africa, sparking an effort by the US and other nations to ship grain to as many as 60 million people at risk of famine. It worked.

"The 1992 early food shipments averted displacement {of people}. It is a model," Mr. Atwood said. "The key thing is keeping people at home. People at risk will soon kill their livestock, move to other areas and destabilize them, creating bigger problems."

Compared to the effort in southern Africa, "the program to avert famine in the Horn of Africa will present 10 times the challenge because it includes civil conflict and ethnic tensions" and great lack of infrastructure and money, Atwood said. The US has pledged and already begun to move 900,000 tons of grain. An estimated 2 million tons will be needed for this program.

The early-warning system has become more valuable as AID's budget has been slashed after the end of the cold war. And FEWS helps to target assistance more effectively at a time when one crisis after another overwhelms many national and international aid agencies.

Increasingly, much of the world's aid to poor nations goes for emergencies with little left for the economic or political development of faltering societies. Atwood points out that this is the first year the budget for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is bigger than for the UN Development Programme. …