A dried up maize field in Mozambique
Weather-damaged maize field, Mozambique 2018 | Credit: FEWS NET

Climate Services for Famine Early Warning

By Kiersten Johnson, James P. Verdin

This article was written by Dr. James P. Verdin, senior agroclimatologist and program manager for USAID's Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) Management Team. Prior to his time at USAID, Dr. Verdin was a physical scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)Earth Resources Observation and Science Center. He worked in the National Integrated Drought Information System program office at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Boulder, Colorado. He led USGS remote sensing efforts for the Department of the Interior’s WaterSMART Program. He has supported FEWS NET and other USAID programs since 1992.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network

FEWS NET is the global gold standard for food insecurity early warning. Its primary objective is to ensure that USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA) has the requisite food security and climate-related decision support to ensure timely, efficient and appropriate humanitarian assistance to populations in greatest need. FEWS NET’s integrated food security analysis involves synthesis of data on agroclimatology; livelihoods and nutrition; markets, trade and prices; conflict; climate-related events such as drought, flood and other hazards; and infectious diseases such as COVID-19. This information is used to produce early warning forecasts of populations in need (how many people, where they are located and severity of need), which are used to support early decision-making and early action to save lives and livelihoods.

Using Earth Observations Data to Understand the Role of Climate in Food (In)Security

These food security assessments must incorporate consideration of the climate-sensitive aspects of livelihoods, agriculture, markets and trade, and nutrition into the analysis to ensure complete understanding of the food security situation in a given country. To meet the needs of food security analysts and end users, FEWS NET uses data from Earth-observing satellites to develop tailored climate services to monitor and forecast climatic conditions in the countries it covers.

By using climate services to monitor and forecast conditions in FEWS NET countries, the influences of climate variability and climate change are fully incorporated into FEWS NET assessments of current and future needs for humanitarian food assistance. These assessments are essential inputs for humanitarian assistance officers in BHA who program billions of dollars’ worth of food assistance to millions of recipients in more than 50 countries each year.

FEWS NET regional scientists, located in Guatemala, Niger, Kenya, Ethiopia, Botswana and India, continuously monitor and analyze climatic conditions and forecasts globally and for their respective regions. They are especially attentive to extreme events, including drought, flooding and tropical cyclones. The regional scientists are supported by U.S.-based FEWS NET science partners who facilitate access to, and assist with the interpretation of, Earth observation data and model output products. FEWS NET science partners include the Climate Hazards Center, University of California, Santa Barbara; NOAA Climate Prediction Center; NOAA Physical Sciences Laboratory; NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center; USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science Center; the Geographical Sciences Department, University of Maryland; and the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) International Production Assessment Division.  Collectively, they form the FEWS NET Science Team, which employs a variety of monitoring and forecast products. See Figures 1-4 for examples. The regional scientists are also regular contributors to the monthly, international consensus Crop Monitor for Early Warning (Figure 5).

Examples of FEWS NET Climate Monitoring and Forecast Products

Figure 1. Percent of seasonal average precipitation for East Africa, March 1-August 15, 2021, based on the Climate Hazards Infra-Red Precipitation with Stations (CHIRPS) data set.

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Map of seasonal average precipitation
Figure 1. Percent of seasonal average precipitation for East Africa, March 1-August 15, 2021, based on the Climate Hazards Infra-Red Precipitation with Stations (CHIRPS) data set.

Figure 2. USGS vegetation index anomaly image for East Africa based on data from NASA Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), an instrument on board the NASA Terra and Aqua satellites.

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Map of USGS vegetation index anomaly image for East Africa based on data from NASA
Figure 2. USGS vegetation index anomaly image for East Africa based on data from NASA Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), an instrument on board the NASA Terra and Aqua satellites.

Figure 3. Soil moisture map of East Africa, August 2021, FEWS NET Land Data Assimilation System (FLDAS), described in the literature here.

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Soil moisture map of East Africa
Figure 3. Soil moisture map of East Africa, August 2021, FEWS NET Land Data Assimilation System (FLDAS), described in the literature here.

Figure 4. Precipitation tercile probability forecast map for East Africa, August-October 2021, based on NOAA’s North American Multi-Model Ensemble.

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Map of precipitation tercile probability forecast for East Africa
Figure 4. Precipitation tercile probability forecast map for East Africa, August-October 2021, based on NOAA’s North American Multi-Model Ensemble.

Figure 5. Crop condition map for maize in East Africa. (Crop Monitor for Early Warning, July 2021, www.cropmonitor.org).

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Figure 5. Crop condition map for maize in East Africa
Figure 5. Crop condition map for maize in East Africa. (Crop Monitor for Early Warning, July 2021, www.cropmonitor.org).

The Science Team works closely with the FEWS NET Early Warning Team (EWT), which authors and publishes FEWS NET’s regular monthly food security reports and maps, as well as topical alerts, special reports and in-depth thematic products. (To receive FEWS NET monthly reports and maps that detail current and projected levels of food insecurity, as well as special reports on factors that contribute to food security, including weather and climate, markets and trade, agricultural production, conflict, livelihoods, nutrition and humanitarian assistance, register on the FEWS NET website.) While mainly social scientists, EWT food security analysts are trained by Science Team colleagues on concepts of agroclimatology, including the significance of climate modes like El NiñoLa Niña, the Indian Ocean Dipole and others that influence seasonal precipitation performance in the countries and regions that they monitor. The training includes guidance on the interpretation of satellite remote sensing images and seasonal forecast maps. 

As intermediary users of climate services, the analysts are able to use seasonal forecasts and within-season remote sensing to draft agroclimatological working assumptions as inputs to food security scenario development. Every month, these draft working assumptions are reviewed by the Science Team and compared with the very latest monitoring and forecast evidence from multiple international sources. The working assumptions are revised accordingly, and the EWT is briefed on the revisions and the evidence supporting them. The finalized working assumptions are then integrated by the EWT with those for livelihoods, markets and trade, nutrition and conflict, in order to construct trimesterly near-term and long-term scenarios of food insecurity for the next eight months. 

FEWS NET projections (see example in Figure 6) are made using the tools and protocols of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification System (IPC), a five-phase scale intended to help governments and other humanitarian actors quickly understand a crisis (or potential crisis) and take action. End users of FEWS NET’s assessments of current and future needs for humanitarian food assistance include BHA humanitarian assistance officers, U.S. government agencies, other donors, humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGO), national governments and Public International Organizations (PIO). Thanks to FEWS NET’s climate services, end users of FEWS NET’s assessments of current and future needs for humanitarian food assistance can be confident that they take into account state-of-the-art, science-based climate information and forecasts.

Figure 6. IPC-compatible FEWS NET projection of food security outcomes in East Africa for the period October 2021-January 2022, made in June 2021.

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Map of IPC-compatible FEWS NET projection of food security outcomes in East Africa
Figure 6. IPC-compatible FEWS NET projection of food security outcomes in East Africa for the period October 2021-January 2022, made in June 2021.

This blog post was originally published on AgriLinks.  

Strategic Objective
Adaptation
Topics
Adaptation, Climate, Climate Change, Climate Science, Disaster Risk Management, Food Security, Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning
Region
Africa, Asia, Latin America & Caribbean
Kiersten Johnston headshot

Kiersten Johnson

Kiersten Johnson is a Monitoring and Evaluation Advisor at USAID. 

James P. Verdin Headshot

James P. Verdin

James P. Verdin is senior agroclimatologist and program manager for USAID's Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) Management Team. Prior to his time at USAID, Dr. Verdin was a physical scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)Earth Resources Observation and Science Center. He worked in the National Integrated Drought Information System program office at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Boulder, Colorado. He led USGS remote sensing efforts for the Department of the Interior’s WaterSMART Program. He has supported FEWS NET and other USAID programs since 1992.

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