08 April 2013

Early Warning Systems and Drought Action

Experts knew it was coming. In March of 2011 the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS Net) warned that low rains in the Horn of the Africa would make parts food insecure through June.

“A poor season could result in a major crisis. Therefore, these areas require especially close monitoring over the coming months,” warned the report.

Despite the warnings of a potential crisis, little action was taken. When the rains did not come and the drought led to famine in parts of Somalia by July it was too late for some people. Food and fuel prices spiked. An estimated 11.5 million people needed immediate humanitarian assistance, said the UN, and tens of thousands died.

In just a span of 90 days, an estimated 29,000 Somali children died.

“The greatest tragedy is that the world saw this disaster coming but did not prevent it. Across Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Somalia this crisis has played out very differently, but common to all of them was a slow response to early warnings,” said former UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland last year.

The England-based Chatham House took a closer look at how countries respond to early warnings of famine and found that the case of the Horn of Africa is generally the rule, rather than the exception.

“All too often the link between early warning and early action fails and the opportunity to mitigate a gathering crisis is lost,” writes lead author Rob Bailey.

“This disconnect was starkly apparent in Somalia during 2010/11, when increasingly urgent early warnings accumulated for 11 months before famine was finally declared in July. Only after that did the humanitarian system mobilize.”