Climate and hunger, a painful link
In the developed world, the effects of climate change often seem theoretical, with the worst effects set in the future: Will New York City need a sea wall? Will insect pests in Missouri move into Iowa?
In Africa and central America, climate change is already exacting a heavy price, according to sometimes grim statistics compiled by the famine early warning system network (FEWS NET), an international service supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Between October 2010 and April 202, drought claimed the lives of 258,000 people in Somalia, including one in ten children under five, according to a study done by FEWS NET and an agency of the United Nations.
Thursday, at the World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue in Des Moines, Iowa, staffers for FEWS NET shared evidence that a changing climate is causing more food insecurity and famine in some regions of the world.
Parts of Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya are seeing a "significant decline in rainfall," caused by warming water in the Indian and Pacific oceans, said Gideon Galu, a FEWS NET meteorologist based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Galu has been able to compare current weather with 60 years of records, and the region is becoming both drier and hotter. The Horn of Africa region was already one of the areas with the highest rates of food insecurity in the world, Galu said, with about 12 million people needing assistance, a number that jumped to about 16 million during the drought of 2010 and 2011. The United States provided some $3 billion in food aid at that time.
Providing an early warning of impending famine and food shortages is one of the services that FEWS NET offers leaders in government. FEWS NET was created in 1984 in response to famines in East and West Africa.
Galu is also studying changes in the region's agriculture. In Kenya, the best land for farming lies south and east of Nairobi
"When we project these trends into the future, we notice that area is starting to shrink," he said.
Some governments in the region are trying to adapt. The government of Kenya is investing in irrigation. The Ethiopian government is putting 10% of its resources into improving agriculture, he said.
Climate is also affecting the coffee crop in Central America, said Lorena Aguilar, a regional technical manager for FEWS NET based in Guatemala.
The climate is becoming both warmer and wetter, "which helps to favor the coffee rust," she said. The disease Rust has been in the region since the 1970s but until recently it stayed at lower altitudes.
The disease kills coffee bushes and new plantings take four to five years to produce a crop of coffee. The 2014 crop could be off by 30% to 40%, she said.
That will result in a loss of 650,000 seasonal jobs in the coffee industry next year, she said. The countries hardest hit will be Guatemala and Honduras.
"I thilnk we will see more cases of acute food insecurity next year," she said.