Satellite famine warnings to be posted on the Internet

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The Independent Online
WESTERN governments and aid agencies now face an almost constant blizzard of dispatches from parts of the world threatened by food shortages. This confronts them with the dilemma of deciding where the risk of famine is highest - and who may be crying wolf.

In a part of Ireland which was among the worst affected by the potato famine 150 years ago, university researchers are turning to the Internet to set up an electronic famine alert. The team at University College, Cork, will compile monthly electronic updates for decision-makers in the developed world that will indicate how great the danger of famine is in different parts of the Third World, and what needs to be done to avert disaster. (A pilot edition is on http:// html).

The project is led by Stephen Jackson, a young Dubliner who has been a relief worker in Somalia, Rwanda and Angola. His team at the International Famine Centre will study satellite imaging of crop growth in drought-ridden areas and assess bulletins from people on the spot, along with forecasts of climate change and indications of food hoarding and market panic. The centre will also focus on the political and economic causes of famine. War and oppression remain prevalent in many undeveloped countries, while inequality and exploitation mean that what many people in the Third World produce is not theirs to eat.

"We start from the premise the famines don't fall from the sky, but are always man-made," said Mr Jackson. "Among the most horrifying aspects of famines today is that experts usually know about them in advance and yet the world does so little. That was certainly so recently in south Sudan, where NGOs [non-governmental organisations] on the ground started to send out distress signals back in January."

Early warning wasn't enough, he added, without "somebody to take those warnings and make a loud noise in the public arena, so action is taken. What we need now is early advocacy".

In 1991, a full year before the famine that devastated Somalia, killing 300,000 people, the important signs were there: looming war, diminished food production, unfavourable climate. Experts called for action, but none was taken until it was too late. "It was as though the victims of famine found no voice to speak for them," said Mr Jackson. "The vogue for early warning systems has produced a lot of high-quality information. We must draw it all together ... and distil it into a form which will stir a response from policy-makers and bureaucrats."

One of the most distressing sights the aid worker saw in Somalia was grain refineries which were carrying on a busy trade as women and children starved less than 100 yards away. In Ireland in the 1840s, grain continued to be shipped from Cork to overseas markets while local people were dying of starvation or crawling on to "coffin ships" bound for a hazardous transatlantic crossing.

The centre, which will have its own relief workers and will conduct conferences and seminars on famine, is the university's way of commemorating the 150th anniversary of the great potato blight, which killed one million people and forced another two million to emigrate.

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