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Science Helping to Save Lives in Africa

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Drought in Africa is of increasing concern as millions are suffering from malnutrition and difficulty growing crops and supporting livestock. Stunted growth in children due to malnutrition was also recently linked to climate change. Join us as we talk with USGS scientists Jim Verdin, Jim Rowland and Chris Funk about what is being done to help.




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Science Helping to Save Lives in Africa




Jessica Robertson: Hello and welcome to USGS CoreCast. I’m your host, Jessica Robertson.

Drought in Africa is of increasing concern as millions are suffering from malnutrition and difficulty growing crops and supporting livestock. Stunted growth in children due to malnutrition was also recently linked to climate change. As the climate gets warmer, drought is projected to continue into the future.

Today, we are joined by USGS scientists Jim Verdin, Jim Rowland and Chris Funk to discuss what is being done to help. Thank you all for joining us today.00:40

Jim Verdin: Thank you for this opportunity to talk.

Jim Rowland: Well, it’s nice to be here. And thank you for having us.

Chris Funk: Thanks, Jessica, for taking the time to talk with us today.

Jessica Robertson: Jim Verdin, can you first tell us what are some of the challenges and issues of concern in Africa right now.

Jim Verdin: Well, in Africa, there are many countries that have semi-arid climates. And they have large populations, world populations, who depend upon subsistence from agriculture and herding or pastoralism to earn their livelihoods. Climate change, which we see in certain parts of Africa, is increasing the frequency of dry spells and droughts. So a big concern is the year-to-year variability in climate that might adversely impact those livelihoods.


Jessica Robertson: What is the USGS doing to help those in Africa?

Jim Verdin: The USGS is an implementing partner of the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, which is an activity of the U.S. Agency for International Development and its office of Food for Peace. Food for Peace delivers food aid to people mainly in the developing world, typically on the order of $1.5 to $2 billion worth of food aid to more than 40 countries in any given year.

The role of USGS in Famine Early Warning is to achieve early detection and monitoring of agricultural drought. In the countries of concerned to FEWS NET, the observations on the ground of basic variables like rainfall and temperature are very few and far between. And for that reason, USGS has applied satellite remote sensing since the beginning of the activity in 1985 to fill in the gaps in coverage.


Jessica Robertson: Chris, are there any specific examples on how FEWS NET data has been used to help provide assistance in Africa?

Chris Funk: A really compelling example was last year when USGS information was used to provide early warning of drought and the potential for the outbreak of family conditions in Ethiopia and Kenya and Somalia. And the story began almost a year earlier when we were monitoring the climate conditions. And they looked really appropriate for future drought outbreak in two rainy seasons both in the winter of 2010 and then again in the spring of 2011.

And our recent research has suggested that drought in the springtime is becoming a lot more frequent. And so USGS monitoring and trend analysis hoped motivate the early prepositioning of food aid and hopefully helped save some people’s lives and to mitigate the impact of a drought.03:37

Jessica Robertson: Chris, you’ve also been actively involved in FEWS NET research and looked at a variety of topics, including a recent article on how stunting in children due to malnutrition appears to be linked to climate change. Can you discuss that new article?

Chris Funk: Sure, Jessica. One of the things that we’re interested in is trying to see the link between climate, how hot or how dry it is, and health. And this report showed that as conditions became hotter and dryer, childhood stunting rates increased in West Africa and East Africa. The reasons behind that are complicated, but part of it is just because they don’t get enough food to eat.

I need to credit this work. And we did it together with also Marta Jankowska, David Lopez-Carr of San Diego State University and UC Santa Barbara, good example of real interdisciplinary work.


Jessica Robertson: The United Nations’ 17th annual Conference of the Parties, known as COP17, is being held this week in Africa. And Jim Rowland is presenting on FEWS NET. Jim, can you give us an overview of the meeting and what you’ll be discussing in your presentation?

Jim Rowland: Sure. COP17 is part of the United Nations Climate Change Conference being held in Durban, South Africa, from November 28 to December 9 this year. As UN describes it, this meeting brings together representatives of the world's governments, international organizations and civil society. And the discussions that would take place really are intended to advance the implementation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol.

Our presentation on FEWS NET will be one of the side events at the U.S. Center of the COP17 meeting. I’ll be accompanied by colleagues in Kenya and Botswana who worked with our programs. We’ll present information on FEWS NET to inform and educate policy makers and other countries on our efforts on monitoring food security throughout Africa and other parts of the world.


Jessica Robertson: Besides Africa, what other nations are you working with through FEWS NET?

Jim Rowland: Well, climate change and climate variability and the ability for you to grow crops in such conditions are not only a concern in Africa but in many other parts of the world as well. The FEWS NET program currently works in Central America, Hispaniola, and that’s especially in Haiti, and Western Central Asia with the hope of expanding the global coverage in the near future. We really have to monitor the world in order to understand the food security assist that we face, for example in East Africa this year in 2011.

As a quick example of that, we know we need to monitor the rice production in Thailand because that affects the price of rice in East Africa and Senegal as well because both of those countries import significant amounts of rice in Thailand. So we become aware that we really need to monitor production throughout the world in order to understand food security locally.


Jessica Robertson: Thank you all for talking with us today. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. For more information on FEWS NET, visit FEWS NET partners include USAID, Chemonics International, USGS, NOAA, NASA and USDA. The Geography Department at UC Santa Barbara is a partner with the USGS in this effort. CoreCast is a product of the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior.


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