Early warning, early action: The innovations changing food crisis management

Tetra Tech supports communities to conduct land use planning, reforestation and soil enhancement activities, giving communities the tools they need to withstand man-made or climate-driven disasters. Photo by: Tenure and Global Climate Change Project / Tetra Tech

Today, an estimated 795 million people are chronically undernourished. While undernutrition in developing countries has dropped significantly over the past 25 years, persistent and recurrent food crises continue in many countries around the world. The U.S. Agency for International Development’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network, or FEWS NET, predicts food crises during the first half of 2017 in all of the regions it monitors — East Africa, southern Africa, West Africa, Afghanistan and Central America. In northern Nigeria, Yemen and South Sudan, famine or near famine conditions are being reported.

There are many challenges to ending hunger and famine, but food security practitioners are developing innovative solutions that enable earlier and more evidence-based responses to food crises, and help communities build resilience to climate change and disasters. These promising innovations are revolutionizing the way we collect and analyze data, and allow people to access the information they need to make better decisions. While these tools have greatly improved our understanding of food security and our early warning systems, they have also revealed barriers beyond having adequate early warning that prevent us from taking early action.

Below are five areas of innovation and the lessons we have learned putting these ideas into practice.

1. Mobile and remote data collection.

Data collection and analysis are hotbeds of innovation. New sources of data are giving us a clearer, more dynamic and higher resolution picture of the state of food security around the world. The use of text messaging and interactive voice response technology, or IVR, to collect data is revolutionizing our ability to collect information and understand how people’s food security is evolving over time.

For example, FEWS NET was able to collect price and other food security data on a daily basis during the Ebola crisis using text messaging, which provided near real-time analysis of the crisis. The World Food Programme’s Mobile Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping program, or mVAM, uses remote data collection to gather and analyze information on food consumption, prices and coping strategies in 24 countries.

Other technological breakthroughs, such as crowdsourcing, machine learning and machine vision, allow us to monitor port traffic, road conditions and many other critical pieces of information at lower cost and greater frequency.

2. Understanding food security and resilience.

Over the past two decades, we have advanced in our ability to measure and analyze food security and poverty. In the past five years, these advances have enabled food security analysts to measure people’s capacity to deal with and recover from shocks — in other words, their resilience.

For example, WFP reanalyzed data from its food security monitoring system in Niger and found that, after a drought, the most food-insecure people took three years to return to pre-drought levels of food consumption and stop using distress-coping mechanisms, such as skipping meals or buying cheaper, less nutritious food. Similarly, a big data analysis of two decades’ worth of data in the Philippines found that typhoons destroy assets and lower incomes, resulting in reduced household spending on health and education. As a result, 15 times as many infants died in the 24 months following typhoons as during the typhoons themselves. Eighty percent of these deaths were infant girls. Analyses such as these have transformed traditional notions of how long it takes people to recover from disasters and give us insight into how different groups face different challenges.

Innovative uses of geographic information systems, or GIS, are allowing analysts to develop composite indexes to better understand multiple levels of risks and identify where the most urgent actions to reduce the root causes of food crises are required. In Mali, through USAID’s Support for African and Latin American Resilience to Climate Change project, or ARCC, an innovative analysis of 18 different social and environmental indicators provided decision-makers with greater understanding of where in the country people were most vulnerable to climate change.

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3. Using climate information to make better decisions.

Much better climate information exists today due to the increasing availability of satellite remote sensing, greater computing power, and improved climate forecasting models. But this information is often hard to access and even harder to understand. This is changing as many organizations are beginning to develop climate services focused on providing usable information to decision-makers, ranging from farmers to government officials.

In rural areas, climate services help farmers to both avoid risks and to take risks when their investments will have a higher chance of paying off. Project Concern International’s Satellite Assisted Pastoral Resource Management initiative, or SAPARM, supported by USAID and Google, helps communities map out traditional grazing areas, digitize those maps, and overlay them with satellite vegetation data derived from the Government of Ethiopia’s early warning monitoring system. These maps are printed out every 10 days at little cost and distributed to pastoralists who use them to make better decisions about where to trek and graze their livestock. Evaluations of the program show significant reductions in livestock mortality on trekking routes when these maps are used.

While our analytical tools and access to information has improved incredibly over the past decade, our ability to use this information for early and, where possible, preventative action to stave off food crises and famines has lagged. This has spurred a range of risk financing initiatives such as the use of insurance to increase the predictability of responses to food crises.

Tetra Tech supports pastoralists in rural Ethiopia — an area where climate risks are constant threats to livelihoods. Photo by: Morgan Hillenbrand / Tetra Tech

4. Weather index insurance.

Case study: Drought insurance in 7 African countries

The African Union has established the Africa Risk Capacity agency, which now offers African governments drought insurance to enable them to respond to a potential food crisis as soon as an agricultural drought is detected. ARC insured seven African countries in 2016, with many other countries expressing interest in using insurance to improve their ability to respond to droughts, floods and health crises. For every dollar governments invest in ARC, one study shows they will save four dollars in emergency relief costs.

Weather index insurance has raised a great deal of interest as a tool to get funding quickly to farmers and governments when a climate disaster occurs. It essentially uses weather stations and satellite data to predict potential agricultural losses and extend insurance to vulnerable people who didn’t have it previously. While it is not new, we are seeing a significant increase in the use, size, and scale of these programs.

WFP and Oxfam America have expanded the R4 Rural Resilience Initiative — a program that allows farmers who are too poor to pay for insurance in cash to work for it instead. Farmers work on disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation activities in their communities in exchange for drought insurance in a program that has scaled up from 200 farmers in 2011 to nearly 40,000 in 2016, in four countries. Impact evaluations show that farmers who access insurance remain more food secure after a drought, have much higher savings and household food stocks, and are more likely to repay loans, invest in their farms, and keep their children in school after a bad year.

5. Forecast-based financing.

Case study: Be PREPARED

Building on the lessons from these and other programs, USAID’s Planning for Resilience in East Africa through Policy, Research, Adaptation and Economic Development program, or PREPARED, implemented by Tetra Tech, is working to improve the effectiveness of weather-index crop insurance in Kenya through Kinga Kilimo (“Protect Farming”), which combines historical and forecasted climate data derived from GeoClim, a software designed for meteorological data mapping and climatological analysis of historical rainfall and temperature data to trigger insurance payouts. The Kinga Kilimo product has been launched in Embu and Machakos counties, in partnership between USAID, the Kenya Meteorological Department, Ministry of Agriculture, Jubilee Insurance, U.S. Geological Survey/FEWS NET, and IGAD’s Climate Prediction and Applications Center.

While insurance programs provide funding in the event of a natural disaster, forecast-based financing programs seek to address this challenge by triggering action before a disaster hits. Forecast-based financing is an exciting new tool that uses probabilistic climate forecasts to trigger financing to mitigate the potential impact of the disaster.

In November 2015, the Uganda Red Cross distributed jerry cans, hoes, chlorine tablets, sacks and soap in flood-prone communities. Previous efforts to distribute these essential supplies had only been financially possible after flooding had occurred at a high cost. This time the Red Cross prepositioned the supplies based on a long range flood forecast, thanks to a forecast-based finance fund provided by Germany, saving money, time, and lives when flooding occurred shortly afterward.

At the same time, WFP worked with the Zimbabwean Ministry of Agriculture to help farmers switch to drought-tolerant seeds and improve on-farm drought management ahead of the 2015/16 El Niño drought. These anticipatory actions were taken three to six months before traditional humanitarian response mechanisms could be activated and helped farmers avoid significant losses when the drought occurred. WFP was able to trigger this anticipatory action through its Food Security Climate Resilience Facility, or FoodSECuRE, the first institutional forecast-based financing mechanism.

But innovation is not enough to keep food crises from emerging.

Preventing famine and ultimately ending hunger has become more challenging in many ways, despite these innovative advances. Climate change, population growth, environmental degradation, urbanization, and conflict are putting increasing pressure on global food systems. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, climate change could increase the number of people living in poverty by up to 122 million by 2030, largely due to the negative impacts of climate change on the agricultural sector.

The global state of food insecurity and food crises tells us that we need to be strategic and invest at scale in things that work. This investment needs to be balanced. We need to continue to cultivate the revolution in data collection, analysis and dissemination. We also urgently need to address the gap between our analysis and early warning, and our ability to trigger meaningful early responses to prevent food crises and famines from undermining hard fought development gains.

Efforts such as the Global Resilience Partnership supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, USAID, and Sweden, as well as the U.K. Department for International Development’s Building Resilience and Adaptations to Climate Extremes and Disasters, or BRACED, are promising global initiatives contributing to this objective. Ultimately, the scale of the problem is massive and the current forecasts of food crisis around the world are a clear early warning sign in themselves. We will need constant, coordinated and large-scale investment in better managing food security risks, in parallel with long-term investments in building food security and economic prosperity over the coming decades.

Learn more about what can be done to strengthen food security around the world here.

Please join us on Jan. 26 for a panel discussion and live webinar on innovative approaches that increase food security and bolster resilience to disasters in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Register here.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Richard Choularton

    Richard Choularton is the director of agriculture and economic growth at Tetra Tech International Development Services. He is a recognized expert in food security, agricultural technology, climate change adaptation, risk finance, resilience, emergency preparedness, and early warning.