Chatham House report: Famine risks are badly managed
Famine early warning systems have a good track record of predicting food shortages but are poor at triggering early action, a report has concluded.
The study said the opportunity for early action was being missed by governments and humanitarian agencies.
It said the "disconnect" was starkly apparent in Somalia where no action was taken despite 11 months of warnings.
Up to two million people are estimated to have died in drought-related emergencies since 1970.
The report by UK think-tank Chatham House, Managing Famine Risk: Linking Early Warning to Early Action, looked at the issue of drought-related emergencies on a global scale but focused on the Horn of Africa and the Sahel regions.
"The regions are quite unique in a way because you have these droughts, where there are normally successive failed rains; then you have a process whereby you have subsequent harvest failures then people adopt coping strategies," explained report author Rob Bailey.
"They start selling off assets, running down food reserves, taking on credit - they get themselves into an increasingly desperate situation."
Mr Bailey, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, said that after a period of time the coping strategies became exhausted, triggering a famine.
"But the whole process can take 11 months from start to finish, and that is why there is an opportunity to intervene early," he told BBC News.
"Yet despite this very significant opportunity and despite analysis showing that when you do intervene early it costs less and you save more lives, it does not happen."
Gambling with lives
The main reason, he observed, why there was a delay, was a result of perceived political risk by governments.
"Ultimately, early action requires government action," he added.
"It requires donor governments - like the UK and US - to write a cheque early on before the crisis is at its worse phase, and that is a big ask for governments to do because governments are primarily concerned with managing the political risks to themselves.
"They see political risks in funding these sorts of things because budgets are tight and public support for aid spending is less than it used to be, so it is seen as a particularly risky endeavour at the moment."
If the early action by donor governments prevented the crisis, that could also cause problems as well because it could be argued that there was not a crisis waiting to happen in the first place.
Mr Bailey cited the 2011 famine in Somalia as an example where the issue of political risk shaped the global response to the humanitarian emergency.
"That was not a result of early warning information - it was probably the single most documented and monitored evolution of famine in history," he explained.
"But still no early action happened and probably the main reason for that is because the areas of Somalia that were at most risk where under control of a Jihadist militia, which the US and other western donor nations categorise as a terrorist organisation."
He added that there was concern among donor nations that carrying out humanitarian missions in those areas could strengthen the position of the militia, especially if aid ended up in the hands of the group.
Counting the cost
Early warning systems were first introduced in the Sahel and Horn of Africa regions in the early 1980s when it was first realised that it was possible to track the "chronology of famine".
"Since then, things have got a lot more sophisticated so now there are early warning systems that use satellite to estimate harvests more effectively, how much pasture is available. We have more much more sophisticated weather forecasting models." Mr Bailey said.
"They also use a lot more household-gathered data, where infants are weighed and malnutrition is quantified. Also, it is monitored whether certain coping strategies, that are recognised as pre-famine indicators, are becoming established."
He explained that a full-blown emergency response was very expensive, so there was a strong financial argument to act sooner rather than later.
"When you are at the situation where malnutrition rates are very high and people are dying then you need to be moving very large amounts of food, medicines and healthcare products through pipelines to areas where access is often very poor.
"Humanitarian agencies have often said that early intervention is cheaper. There was a study carried out recently that looked at the potential savings of acting sooner rather than later.
"This involved a range of initiatives, such as pre-positioning of food and medicine supplies so agencies are able to source them earlier, perhaps when prices were lower."
A recent study looked at intervention costs in Kenya and southern Ethiopia over two decades. It found that, on average, early intervention resulted in a saving of US$1,000 per person.
"This is serious money when multiplied by the number of people affected in these situations," Mr Bailey calculated. An estimated 18 million people were affected during the Sahel crisis last year, he added.
Drought-related emergencies, particularly in the Horn of Africa and Sahel regions, were unlikely to go away in the future, projected scenarios showed.
"I think there is a very strong case to be made that the agricultural trends, the demographic trends and the climatic trends are pointing towards a rapidly deteriorating risk outlook," Mr Bailey said.
"The key message is that early warning systems give us a real opportunity to manage that risk really effectively.
"It is very rare that you can have a risk that can be so well understood and predicted, and give us such an opportunity to intervene and mitigate it."