The Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) is an activity of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) that provides timely food security information for 17 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. Analyses identify vulnerable populations and hazards that threaten their livelihoods, leading to early warning of potential food security emergencies. The activity dates back to the mid-1980s and makes extensive use of geographical methods to characterize populations, food economies, and hydroclimatology. Strengthening the ability of African institutions to perform these analyses is a major goal of FEWS NET. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has been an implementing partner of USAID from the beginning. Famine associated with drought is a slow onset disaster that presents a variety of early climatic and socioeconomic signs that dire conditions could take shape. Nonetheless, the drought of the early 1970s was responsible for 100,000 deaths in the Sahel and 200,000 deaths in Ethiopia, and was soon followed by drought in 1983-1985 that saw deaths in Ethiopia estimated from 400,000 to 1 million. These large-scale famines shocked the world and pointed up the tragic lack of timely information that might have served to head off human suffering of huge proportions. Responding to the concern of the American people, the U.S. Congress called on USAID to create the Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) in 1985. USGS and NASA were engaged as scientific implementing partners in recognition of the importance of remote sensing to the monitoring task in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is because conventional climatic data collection networks are sparse and subject to significant reporting delays. Vegetation index images were employed to reveal anomalous patterns of dry conditions threatening subsistence agriculture. Geographic information system (GIS) technology was also adopted for efficient integration of climatic, agricultural, market price, and demographic indicators.
FEWS has been implemented in roughly 5-year phases since its inception. The prime contract for implementation in each phase is awarded by USAID to a private sector firm through a competitive procurement process. Support in the form of remote sensing, modeling, forecasting, GIS, data archive, training, and product dissemination is provided by U.S. Government science agencies: USGS, NASA, and NOAA. They are engaged through interagency agreements with USAID. FEWS has steadily evolved away from being a Washington-based activity with a few expatriates in the field to one that is primarily African-based, with African professionals comprising the majority of the staff. The latest phase of the activity places an emphasis on networking among individuals and institutions (governmental, inter-governmental, and non-governmental) across disciplines at the local, national, regional, and continental levels, hence the new name: FEWS NET. The current prime contractor is Chemonics International, Inc.
USGS participation has evolved in step with the overall shift to African-based analyses. Regional scientists have been recruited for West Africa, the Greater Horn of Africa (GHA), and Southern Africa. They are African nationals with expertise in drought monitoring, remote sensing, and GIS. A regional flood hydrologist for the GHA has also been hired. These scientists work closely with FEWS NET (Chemonics) food security analysts, and network partners, to interpret the nature of drought and flood threats to livelihood systems (especially subsistence agriculture) and articulate their findings in bulletins and reports disseminated to the international community. The field scientists devote significant time to technical capacity building through formal and informal training on remote sensing, GIS, hydrology, agroclimatology, and other topics. They work with the following African regional institutions: Agronomy-Hydrology-Meteorology (AGRHYMET) Regional Center in Niamey, Niger; Drought Monitoring Center in Nairobi, Kenya; Regional Center for Mapping for Resource Development in Nairobi, Kenya; and the Southern Africa Development Community's Regional Remote Sensing Unit in Harare, Zimbabwe. They play a central role in research to improve techniques, algorithms, and methods of geospatial hydroclimatology. They are well positioned to provide scientific insights and local data that complement the work of U.S.-based colleagues. They also have invaluable links to African institutions of higher education.
In 2002, USAID reorganized and moved FEWS NET out of the Bureau for Africa and into the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance. The scope of activity was expanded beyond Africa to include Afghanistan, Haiti, and four countries of Central America.