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Eyes on Earth Episode 9 – Famine Early Warning

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Detailed Description

Nearly 85 million people around the world are currently considered “food insecure,” and that figure continues to grow. Remote sensing technology enables scientists to feed data into the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), which in turn can issue alerts that guide the distribution of humanitarian aid. In this episode of Eyes on Earth, we hear from an EROS climate scientist who works with the Network to predict drought and famine.





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You know if you get to the situation where youíve got a bunch of 3 year oldís that need to have life saving therapeutic rations, itís hard to bring them back. On the other hand if you couldíve gotten that kid a few dollarsí worth of food the week before that, that could make a huge difference.

Young: Hello everyone. Welcome to this episode on Eyes of Earth. We are a podcast that focuses on our ever-changing planet and on the people here at EROS and across the world who use remote sensing to monitor and study the health and well-being of earth. Iím your host, Steve Young. Todayís guest is Chris Funk, a research geographer who works for us at the Earth Resources Observation and Science Center. He is also the research director of the climate hazard center at the University of California in Santa Barbara, which along with EROS is involved in monitoring, modeling and predicting food insecurity among drought afflicted people across the planet. Welcome, Chris.

Funk: Thanks for having me.

Young: How serious is food insecurity on our planet?

Funk: Itís a much bigger problem than you would think and itís actually been getting quite a bit bigger, just in the last few years. Between 2015 and 2018 the number of really, really food insecure people group grew about 80%. It is currently about 85 million people. If 85 million people were to hold hands and circle the globe, they would go around 13 times. Another way of thinking about it is itís about 1 out of every 100 people on the planet. Despite our incredible wealth and the fact that as a whole the planet Is getting a lot wealthier, there are still a lot of people left behind facing severe food insecurity.

Young: Do we have an understanding of why itís getting worse?

Funk: First of all, it is obviously related to poverty. If you have poor households in a lot of the countries, that are facing food insecurity, they may be making 70, 150-200 dollars a year, spending 70% of their income on food. When food prices spike, they often just have to simply go without. So, obviously, poverty is a big factor. Also, conflict is a major driver. We are seeing severe conflicts in eastern Nigeria, South Sudan, Yemen. But surprisingly droughts continue to be a major source and driver of food insecurities as well.

Young: You and EROS are a part of this initiative of the US agency for international developments Famine Early Warning Systems Network. Tell me what FEWS Net does?

Funk: FEWS NET tries to identify essentially where are the people who are facing, or likely to face in the near future, really, really severe conditions, such that if they donít get humanitarian assistance, they could die due to famine.

Young: You are in the business with FEWS NET of projecting or predicting where drought and famine may occur. And you do that several weeks, months in advance. How are you able to do that, can you walk us through how you do that?

Funk: Sure. It involves using a suite of different information sources appropriately at different parts of the season. Landsat is an excellent tool to use at the end of the season. You know that itís been bad and you want to zoom in from space and really look at this dry area in detail, really access how bad that is.  So Landsat is really good for that. Then if we want to back up in time a little bit, we are developing ways to, we have actually implemented this, ways to combine weather forecast information with satellite observed precipitation. In the middle of a season, this is a super effective tool to look at mid-season droughts. We can say, ìgeeî, if we are talking about a corn field here near Sioux Falls, we can say, ìWell, you know, it had a poor start to the season. It was dry all the way through July. And August is forecasted to be dry too.î So, we are almost certain itís going to be bad. So, we are not quite as sure with the Landsat, but we are pretty sure now that itís going to be bad. And then, we can back up a little bit more and we may talk about the situation in mid-July. Where we can say, ìGee, our satellite observations have shown us that itís been a really wet spring and maybe thatís going to affect planting.î And then we can back up even further to before the season where we might want to use our climate information to say, ìGee, we are seeing these El Nino like conditions, maybe thatís related to above normal rains over the great plains.î So, there is no 1 information source that is the best. But the art is really putting the pieces together as effectively as you can.

Young: It sounds like FEWS NET relies in part on satellite systems like Landsat. How can something flying 400 miles above the earth tell you about crop conditions across the planet?

Funk: Really, just the same way as if you are looking out of your car, like driving out here this morning looking out of my car, I noticed that there are a lot of fields that didnít have corn in them. I guess itís because the rains have been exceptionally wet this year. Satellites like Landsat give us an amazing ability to literally see like we would with our eyes almost, the land surface of the earth. If you are skillful at working with that data and know where and when to look, thatís part of the secret, you can almost always tell when there has been a really major disruption in crop growing activity. 

Young: How do you verify that those Landsats are accurately seeing whatís happening?

Funk: Since 2011, the FEWS NET team has published over 100 papers and reports. And this is where you put on your science hat. You do your comparison to crop yield statistics or different kind of data sets. There is a lot of work that we do like that. Our early warning information data sets are really credible and accurate. Thatís the process of science.

Young: Is this a big guessing game?

Funk: Well, youíre wrong sometimes, but the value of this kind of integrative drought early warning system is that, one of these things may fail, but not all of them will. So, maybe your climate forecast was off, but then your satellite precipitations should see the drought. And if your satellite precipitation doesnít see the drought, for sure youíll catch it with Landsat. So, thatís the whole point of using a convergence of evidence approach.

Young: What happens if you are right? Do you save lives?

Funk: We save lives. I really can say confidently that the information we provide is used by others to send life saving aid to people, and some of whom would perhaps die without our help.

Young: Who sends it? You send information to who and Ö.?

Funk: Well, most directly, Food for Peace. I donít have the exact number but the budget for humanitarian assistance I think is something like on the order of 4 Billion dollars a year. Itís our job though to make sure that money is spent as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Young: How do you do that?

Funk: Well, being early is a big part of the thing. It is really expensive for example if you get to the situation where youíve got a bunch of little kids, 3 year oldís that need to have lifesaving therapeutic rations. Youíve seen the terrible pictures, right? You get to the kid at that stage, itís hard to bring them back. There is often life long debilitating effects from that. On the other hand, if you couldíve gotten that kid a few dollarsí worth of food the week before that, it could make a huge difference.

Young: So, the food that is going to them through Food for Peace, is it going to them early in the projected drought or famine stage or is it going to them in the middle? How do we know when to interject ourselves into that equation?

Funk: Iím really not an expert at that, but there are some case studies that Iíve looked at from my own interest. In early 2017, this Landsat information was used to really highlight the severity of the conditions in Somalia and trigger international assistance. And, so I have dug into the numbers of the aid going into Somalia in that year and it was something like in December of 2016 food aid for one-half a million people arrived. That number doubled in January of 2017 and I think doubled again in February. So that by March and April, food aid for millions of Ethiopians was already arriving. And then in April of that year, we saw almost a complete failure of the rainy season. The effects of that typically are felt strongest just after the rainy season. At that point, there was already a lot of food aid arriving in the country. Ideally, that is when you like to have it to happen, early. Thereís a big difference in food aid arriving in Somalia in February, March, or April as to seasons failing then arriving in September, when people have been hungry for 6 months.

Young: Having that food aid there available before September keeps markets stable and prices low. All of that comes into play. 

Funk: Exactly, exactly.

Young: I understand there has been a fairly significant improvement in FEWS NETíS ability to do what it does from 2011 to today. How so?

Funk: Yes, thereís been a pretty amazing amount of work that has been done since then. Weíve published more than a hundred papers and reports looking at different aspects of the science of early warning. Here at EROS there has been incredible improvements in the drought monitoring portals. And we have new tools like the early warning explorer that let people access the data. We have new remote sensing data sets like the emotus normalize difference vegetation (10:32) index data set. And the actual evapotranspiration anomalies that are produced here. With UC Santa Barbara, weíve produced this climate hazards infrared precipitationÖÖÖÖand climate hazardÖÖÖtemperatureÖÖdata sets.(10:42-10:47) We have these really exciting new approaches for integrating the satellite observations with weather forecasts. And finally we have a really systematic food security outlook process where we get together every month with partners from NOAA and NASA and basically try to come up with really well organized and accurate descriptions of the climate and drought conditions in different countries and kind of how theyíre going to evolve in the near future that we give to the folks in Washington DC to try to identify the humanitarian aid emergencies.

Young: Can FEWS NET get better?

Funk: Absolutely. There is a lot more that we can do. There is exciting opportunities in terms of how we can use some of these really high resolution data sets better and better. There are lots of challenges in how we can we can link together the pieces in terms of satellite observations, weather and climate forecasts. Thereís lots of in terms of how we can better use information about conflicts, poverty, household income, kind of the human side of the equation. All that can make huge strides in the near future.

Young: Weíve been talking to Chris Funk a research geographer who works for EROS. He is also the research director of the climate hazard center at the University of California Santa Barbara. Itís been a fascinating conversation, Chris. Thank you.

Funk: Thanks a lot. Itís been great.

Young: We hope you come back for the next episode of Eyes on Earth. This podcast is a product of the US Geological Survey Department of the Interior. Thanks for joining us.


Show Transcript