In parts of eastern Africa, drought is of increasing concern, as poor families suffer from food shortages and the inability to grow crops and sustain livestock. Stunted growth in children due to malnutrition has also been linked to climate trends in Africa.

Drought conditions are expected to continue as global temperatures continue to rise and rainfall declines across parts of eastern Africa. This poses increased risk to millions of people in Africa who currently face potential food shortages.

What's being done to help?

The USGS is involved in a variety of research efforts to help understand current and future conditions in Africa, helping to inform plans to provide aid.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, or FEWS NET, is one endeavor that has already made great strides in helping to address this issue. FEWS NET helps target more than $1.5 billion of assistance to more than 40 countries each year.

FEWS NET examines the populations of the developing world with the most food insecurity, identifying critical situations in which food aid will be needed. These are populations whose livelihoods are typically tied to subsistence rain-fed agriculture and pastoralism.

FEWS NET is sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Office of Food for Peace and the USGS is actively involved.

Climate forecasts and remote sensing help spot future trouble

FEWS NET has developed its own climate services to provide decision makers with early identification of agricultural drought that might trigger food insecurity. Scientists use climate forecasts to develop forward-looking food security assessments that are based on expected agricultural outcomes for the season ahead.

Since networks of ground observation stations are often sparse or reported late in FEWS NET countries, satellite remote sensing of vegetation and rainfall fills in the gaps. Remote sensing from space allows for rapid, accurate assessments of a broad range of environmental and agricultural conditions. USGS scientists provide the technologies and expertise to support remote sensing for FEWS NET activities.

Early warning of famine in Somalia helps pre-position food supplies

On July 20, 2011, the United Nations declared parts of Somalia as a region of famine. The decision was supported by FEWS NET and USGS observational evidence of conditions in the area.

The declaration was the culmination of early warning communications encouraging -- months before the crisis -- that government and other agencies pre-position food and supplies in the region.

“None of the many uses of Earth-observing satellites is more vital -- or has as much potential for prompting timely humanitarian intervention -- as famine early warning,” said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. “Remote sensing from space allows USGS scientists to provide rapid, accurate assessments of a broad range of environmental and agricultural conditions.”

The eastern Horn of Africa, the continental region that encompasses Somalia, has experienced two consecutive seasons of very poor rainfall resulting in the worst drought in 60 years. Crops have failed, livestock deaths are widespread, and food prices are very high. While the rains this winter have been good, food prices remain high, and the food security situation remains insecure.