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Food security early warning systems in the Greater Horn of Africa

A review1

Denan, a rare well enables this nomad to soothe his goat's thirst

The May edition of the Greater Horn of Africa Food Security Update presents the findings of a review of early warning in the Greater Horn. The review examined the various actors, their objectives, coverage, information generated and how this information can be accessed. Gaps in geographic and thematic coverage of the early warning systems (EWS) are identified and outlined in this article.

Geographic coverage

Coverage of EWS in the Greater Horn is incomplete. In Burundi there is no EWS. In other countries government systems may exist on paper, but do not always produce valid or reliable information. Even under relatively well-developed systems, the intensity of early warning data collection and analysis is variable depending on a number of factors; the livelihood system, the existence of complimentary EWS, geographic remoteness of some zones and insecurity.

Thematic coverage

EWS needs to be adapted to pastoral economies. It is now fairly widely accepted that part of the reason food insecurity in the Ogaden last year escalated to a crisis was because the EWS in place were weak and not adapted to pastoral areas, i.e. did not monitor water, movement of livestock and people, livestock health, etc.

Limitations of current early warning systems

Early Warning Systems lack information about underlying livelihoods and assets.

The EWS do not monitor the existence, and potential effects of HIV/AIDS. This is an omission as the longer term effects are closely linked to chronic vulnerability while the short-term effects may lead to problems not usually monitored by traditional EWS e.g. household labour availability.

Sudan is a good example of where there has been a major effort to improve Early Warning Systems. Yirol cattle camp.

Conflict and macro-economic shocks are the root causes of a substantial proportion of both acute and chronic vulnerability in the region. Traditional EWS are orientated to climatic shocks. Conflict and macro-political or economic shocks may occur suddenly with little possibility for accurate prediction. Also, monitoring political and economic trends, particularly by external actors, is a much more sensitive issue than monitoring rainfall etc. IRIN2 provides some information on political developments in the region but this does not lead to analysis or prediction. Political and economic forecasts are routinely made by the private sector, e.g. for profit think-tanks such as the Economics Intelligence Unit, although these sources of information are expensive and not widely available.

EWS are almost always aimed at monitoring rural populations despite rapidly increasing urban poverty and vulnerability.

Concerns about EWS

Linkages of food security information to trade policy and private sector decision-makers are poor. This limits the potential for private sector mitigation activities and response to disasters.

There are concerns about the accuracy and reliability of some data.
EWS in the region are heavily dependent on external resources. Few examples exist of sustainable government operated systems in the region.

Positive developments

There has been improved cross- border information sharing and the development of cross-border systems. For example, the development of a pastoral early warning system for Ethiopia region 5 (the Ogaden) is being deliberately linked to the Somalia Food Security Assessment Unit, given the links in livelihoods, environment and economies between the two areas.

There has been increased effort to co-ordinate and collaborate on the development of EW information gathering and analysis procedures and on the sharing of information. A good example is in Sudan where there has been a major effort to improve EW collaboration among governmental agencies, WFP and NGOs

In many of the areas already noted, new approaches are being piloted and in a few EWS these changes have been institutionalised. New approaches include monitoring of: HIV/AIDS, livelihood systems, and conflicts.

Information and documents relating to the May 2001 update can be obtained from: Nick Maunder at or Dan Maxwell at

Show footnotes

1 The Greater Horn of Africa Food Security Update, May 2001. By Maunder N. and Maxwell D.
2 IRIN, the International Refugee Information Network

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Reference this page

Food security early warning systems in the Greater Horn of Africa. Field Exchange 13, August 2001. p2.



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