Hundreds of millions of people in the world today do not enjoy food security—they do not have "access... at all times to enough food for an active and healthy life" (World Bank, 1986). Many of these individuals are among the quarter-billion people living in the climatically vulnerable drylands of sub-Saharan Africa (UNSO/UNDP, 1997). The drought of the early 1970s was responsible for 100,000 deaths in the Sahel and 200,000 deaths in Ethiopia (Sen, 1981) and was soon followed by another drought during 1983-85 that was responsible for 400,000 to 1 million deaths (Walker, 1989).
Famine is the most extreme food security emergency that occurs in the vulnerable areas of Africa. A practical definition of famine, offered by Cox, states that it is "the regional failure of food production or distribution systems, leading to sharply increased mortality due to starvation and associated disease" (quoted in Field, 1993). Famine's underlying cause is crop failure brought about by bad weather, armed conflict, or both (Mellor and Gavian, 1987). Famine is a slow-onset disaster, the culmination of physical and social processes occurring over two or more growing seasons. Thus, observation and detection of events leading up to famine can yield information needed to trigger preparation for famine and prevention of its worst effects. Even so, early warning of famine can come none too soon because "the time needed to get food to famine-stricken areas after an appeal for aid can stretch to six months or more" (Ulrich, 1993). Furthermore, early warning does not guarantee early response. The decision by relief organizations to commit large amounts of resources ordinarily demands clear evidence that, unfortunately, is often difficult to assemble in the early stages of the famine process.
Prevention of famine in vulnerable regions of Africa, then, requires early and unambiguous identification of unfolding food security problems so that mitigating action can be taken. Complicating the task is the fact that, over the years, the identities and numbers of those who are food insecure can shift in time and space. Relevant physical, social, and political forces are ever changing. In the face of this situation, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) created the Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) to obtain the information needed to prevent widespread human suffering due to lack of food availability and access. The FEWS (1999) mission is stated as: "To provide host country and U.S. decision-makers with timely and accurate information on potential famine areas." In 2000, USAID entered a new phase of support to monitor food security in Africa with the launch of the FEWS Network (FEWS NET). FEWS NET is a USAID-funded activity that "collaborates with international, national, and regional partners to provide timely and rigorous early warning and vulnerability information on emerging or evolving food security issues. The goal of FEWS NET is to strengthen the abilities of African countries and regional organizations to manage risk of food insecurity through the provision of timely and analytical early warning and vulnerability information" (FEWS, 1999). This chapter focuses on current FEWS NET methods for monitoring drought and famine conditions in sub-Saharan Africa, in particular for the following FEWS NET countries (by region): Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger; Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, southern Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania; and Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
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