We have the technology to predict where the next famine is developing

This year has brought famine to parts of South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen.

According to the United Nations, a Yemeni child dies every 10 minutes due to preventable causes such as conflict, hunger and disease, and more than 275,000 children across Somalia face severe malnutrition.

In northeastern Nigeria, 1.8m people are in need of food assistance.

The famine officially declared by the UN in South Sudan in February is said to be the first famine in the world for six years, and it leaves about 5.5m people in South Sudan facing severe hunger.

Could these disasters have been spotted earlier, and nipped in the bud?

An early warning system to spot where the next food production problem is taking shape around the world was launched recently by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre science and knowledge service.

Called the Anomaly Hot Spots of Agricultural Production (ASAP) system, it will help detect agricultural production anomalies to enable early planning of aid interventions, or adaptation of rural development programmes.

The system covers 80 countries, and is based mainly on Earth observation and meteorological model outputs.

In addition to monthly warning reports, every ten days, it will issue automatic warnings at province level and make available crop monitoring indicators for technical experts.

New technology is seen as one of the best weapons to enable enough food production for the world’s expected population of 9.1bn in 2050, and it features prominently in the ASAP system’s armoury to give early warning of hunger.

It aims to fully exploit the global datasets of remote sensing (Irish farmers are familiar with how this satellite surveillance is used to check the land area they claim payments for) and weather information for monitoring agricultural production, and satellite data, which is rapidly increasing, thanks in part to programmes funded by the EU such as the Copernicus Earth observation programme.

With climate change and the increase in extreme events, the recurrence of droughts and the related crop failures is not expected to decrease: Hence the need for the ASAP system. The 2015-2016 El Niño phenomenon in Southern and Eastern Africa, and the current situation in Somalia, show that the climatic dimension remains a fundamental driver that should continue to be monitored and analysed.

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