Famine Early Warning and Remote Sensing—A User Perspective

Richard Choularton

Contingency and Response Planning Advisor, FEWS NET


The principal objective of the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) is to provide actionable information to decision makers to prevent and respond to famines and food crises. Remote sensing has been one of the most important and successful tools used by FEWS NET to achieve this objective over the last 20 years.

Remote sensing provides a suite of invaluable tools for monitoring critical environmental processes that affect food insecurity. However, remote sensing products alone cannot tell the full story because food crises occur at the confluence of a complex web of interlocking environmental, political, economic, and social vulnerabilities.

Thus, a livelihood-based food security framework is used to interpret the potential impact of natural hazards on food and livelihood security. This type of analysis relies on baseline studies of how different populations are able to exploit the resources available to them. FEWS NET focuses on how populations in different areas access food and income and how they spend their income.

The combination of livelihood-based analysis, remote sensing, and other monitoring tools enables FEWS NET to interpret the likely impact of hazards such as drought or floods. This paper tries to illustrate how FEWS NET uses remote sensing to develop analyses to support decisions to combat food crises.

Recent literature stresses that famines and disasters are parts of broader processes. One such model is Turner’s stages of disaster model (Turner and Pidgeon, 1997). This model examines the aetiology of disasters and thus is useful for examining the role of remote sensing in famine early warning. Turner’s model defines six stages of disaster, as shown in Table F-1.

At each stage in this process, remote sensing tools are used to support food security analysis and decision support. This paper briefly illustrates how remote sensing is used with livelihood-based analysis to achieve FEWS NET’s objectives at different stages of disasters.



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