U.S. and U.N. Experiment with High-Tech Ways to Predict Famine


Washington. -- Ever since Joseph interpreted Pharaoh's dream of seven lean cows eating seven fat cows to mean that a famine was coming, people have tried to predict the coming of such disasters.

Now the U.S. government and the United Nations have harnessed satellites and spies to provide images of the future, and scientists to predict when the years of lean and plenty will strike.

But events in Rwanda remind us that nothing is as unpredictable as the ways of humankind.

Just as Brian Atwood, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), announced with some pride that the United States had begun to act on a prediction by its Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) that 20 million people were at risk of famine in the Horn of Africa, Rwanda erupted.

A mysterious plane crash killed Rwanda's and Burundi's presidents in April, setting off ethnic slaughter in which 500,000 Tutsis were murdered, and then 2.5 million Hutus fled to refugee camps where cholera is killing 3,000 of them a day.

AID, the U.S. military and world relief organizations have launched a rescue operation expected to cost the United States alone more than $1 billion.

Meanwhile the United States continues to ship 900,000 tons of food to Ethiopia and the rest of the Horn based on FEWS, which was launched 10 years ago after the 1984-1985 Ethiopian famine.

"You want to go before babies are seen dying on television," says Mr. Atwood. "Our famine early warning capability is invaluable."

In 1992, FEWS predicted famine in a half-dozen countries in Southern Africa, sparking a large-scale U.S. and world effort to ship grain to as many as 60 million people at risk of famine. It worked.

"The 1992 early food shipments averted displacement. It is a model," Mr. Atwood said at a recent breakfast meeting at the Overseas Development Council. "The key thing is keeping people at home. People at risk will soon kill their livestock, move to other areas and destabilize them, creating bigger problems.

"Now the Horn of Africa will present 10 times the challenge because it includes civil conflict and ethnic tensions."

The early warning system reflects an attempt to target shrinking foreign aid budgets better. It also signals a new direction in aid as one crisis after another -- Yugoslavia, Somalia, Rwanda -- overwhelms national and international aid agencies. Increasingly, they must spend foreign aid on emergencies and little is left for the economic and political development that might enable faltering societies to deal with problems and avert crises.

Mr. Atwood points out that this is the first year the budget for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is bigger than for the U.N. Development Program.

The United Nations tried to set up its own early warning system 10 years ago, but because of "bureaucratic inertia and jealousy" it failed, according to a former staff member of the now-disbanded Office for Research and Collection of Information.

"The United States and the Soviet Union did not want the U.N. gathering intelligence, so we were limited to collecting publicly available data," said the official, who remains within the U.N. system and asked that he not be named.

However, the Food and Agriculture Organization, based in Rome, produces a Global Information Early Warning System said to be effective.

"U.S. AID and the FAO are the best partners in the early warning system," said the U.N. official.

Some U.S. officials find another roadblock to early warning: They say, privately, that European countries -- who are among the major aid donors -- still have a colonial mentality and won't believe data from African countries, preferring to have their own staff double-check them. This creates devastating delays in a system meant to be so fast it averts disasters.

FEWS creates a picture of the famine risks in troubled areas that is published in a weekly bulletin, available to journalists, governments and private charity organizations.

According to Greg Gottlieb, project manager of the FEWS Project, the high-tech satellite images are useless without experts who conduct "ground truthing": They go into a country and check for clues to impending famine such as sharp increases in the market price of food, women selling jewelry, farmers slaughtering their livestock and civil strife.

For example, the June 10 FEWS Bulletin reports that in Somalia, many irrigation canals are damaged (severed or silted) and "favorable water levels from abundant rains cannot be utilized."

Even green vegetation in satellite photos might turn out to be weeds. And images of Zaire, clothed in jungles and greenery, can't indicate crop success or failure.

A former high official in AID, who also requested he not be named, says that the CIA has provided super-sharp military intelligence photography of mass movements in a civil war and of damage at a key port meant to bring in relief supplies.

This remains a controversial aspect of early warning.

"There have been suggestions . . . that the CIA run the thing. I am against that," said the former head of AID's Office of Foreign XTC Disaster Assistance (OFDA), Andrew Natsios.

"I understand the CIA wants a raison d'etre now and has resources. But they have no expertise. And with their Cold War spy image, if you tell a developing country the CIA is to do early warning, they will go crazy. If the CIA has information on population movements, turn it over to AID."

Nan Borton, current head of OFDA, said in an interview "early warning is working. But we need not just early warning but early listening.

"I'd like to not just look at economic indicators but at political ones such as civil disorder and wars. But I'm not even sure it's possible to predict the potential for something like Rwanda."

Even as early warning gets more accurate, the crises are growing in number due to economic collapse, population or environment pressures and civil or ethnic wars flourishing in the post-Cold War era. OFDA reported the number of "complex emergencies" quadrupled from five in 1985 to 20 in 1993.

2& Ben Barber is a free-lance writer.

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