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Acting early to prevent food crises in Sudan and Madagascar

FAO’s Early Warning-Early Action programme mitigates the impacts of disasters
©FAO/Donald Andriasantarintsoa

In 2016-17, FAO rolled out the EWEA pilot programme in Paraguay, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Madagascar, the Pacific Islands, Sudan and Mongolia some of the countries considered high-risk for natural disasters and food insecurity. The EWEA programme supports FAO member countries to interpret forecast information and establish early warning thresholds, such as below average rainfall, unusual livestock movements and rising food prices. Once these thresholds have been surpassed, Early Action Plans are implemented with support from FAO’s rapid funding mechanisms. Rather than collecting funds after an emergency occurs, FAO has created the Special Fund for Emergency and Rehabilitation Activities (SFERA), which allows country offices to access funds based on the early warning triggers that indicate an impending disaster. Donors, like the Government of Belgium, have donated to this fund to support preparing for crises rather than only reacting to them.

Most recently, thanks to early warning systems established through the programme, Sudan and Madagascar successfully started the implementation of early actions before crises began.


Sudan is one of the driest countries in Africa. 70 percent of the rural population relies on subsistence agriculture for their livelihoods and rainfall can mean the difference between having and not having crops to harvest.

The EWEA system for Sudan was designed to monitor the risk of drought and dry spells in both the Kassala and North Darfur states.  With a view to strengthening the drought early warning mechanism at national level, the EWEA system draws upon a range of climate, seasonality and vulnerability data.

In countries where early warning data can be scarce, the success of EWEA systems relies on partnerships with local and state agencies in order to fill knowledge gaps and build a holistic understanding of the situation. FAO established critical links with state agencies such as the Food Security Technical Secretariat (FSTS) in Kassala who provided vital details on local livestock conditions, livestock movement, animal and plant diseases and water availability. This information helps to relate the situation on the ground and compare past and present local market prices and rainfall forecasts in order to pick up on unusual patterns and increasing vulnerability.

From August 2017, the EWEA monitoring started to flag worrying signs in Kassala state. During July, two indicators, unusual livestock movement and extended dry spells, surpassed various thresholds. When the September-October monitoring results revealed further deterioration, including the price of sorghum rising above the annual average, the first early action was rolled out in October – a needs assessment to understand which resources would be affected and potential interventions to help pastoralists mitigate the impact of the dry spells.

By December 2017, when other early warning outlets only began to raise the alarm about the situation, FAO had already begun its early action activities, pulling resources from the SFERA Early Action Fund to support 5 000 households and an estimated
30 000 livestock. Beneficiary communities are receiving supplementary animal feed, animal health treatments and water management systems. As a result of the dry spells, the lean season is expected to start three months earlier than usual. These early actions will be implemented before the peak of the dry spell to protect breeding and yearling livestock throughout the high-risk period.

Thanks to the EWEA system, FAO was one of the first agencies to raise the alarm about the situation in Kassala and the first agency to start intervening to protect livelihoods. As the situation deteriorated and the results of the rapid survey revealed concerning conditions in Kassala, FAO shared their results with key partners such as the World Food Programme and the United Nations’ Food Security and Livelihoods Cluster, thereby contributing to a wider awareness and recognition of the situation.


Since 2014, the south of Madagascar has received very limited rainfall. Over the past three years, drought conditions have reduced crop production leading to cumulative losses and alarming levels of food insecurity. In 2015, the situation was further aggravated as the El-Niño climate phenomenon reversed agricultural recovery efforts and an estimated 95 percent of harvests were lost. In October 2016, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), an early warning tool that measures levels of food insecurity, estimated that over 1.2 million people in southern Madagascar were still in need of urgent assistance. While ongoing relief efforts and weather conditions improved the situation in early 2017, the population remained vulnerable to these shocks.

To address the impacts of drought, FAO strengthened existing early warning and food security surveillance systems (such as the Integrated Monitoring System for Vulnerability and Food Security or SISAV) in areas vulnerable to natural disasters in Madagascar and established a system to mitigate potential impact.  By bolstering the existing food security system and coupling it with climate indicators that warn of potential new droughts and increasing vulnerabilities, early action interventions were more comprehensive in safeguarding the agricultural livelihoods of affected communities.

By August 2017, the EWEA system had detected some worrying signals. Delayed, erratic and poorly distributed rains were the main cause of another below-average harvest of staple crops.  The 2017 growing and harvest season had not escaped the effects of cumulative drought spells. With higher food prices and lower production of food, it became clear that vulnerable communities would have difficulty accessing even staple foods. This led to projections indicating that in early 2018, many households would not be able to meet their minimum food needs, resulting in very high malnutrition rates and extreme losses of livelihoods.

In response to these warnings, FAO is supporting 8 400 vulnerable and food insecure households to respond quickly to the cumulative effects of long droughts by providing seeds, small irrigation systems and technical support, including training on crop diversification and improved farming techniques. The supported households will be able to have two harvests in 2018, thus improving food availability, income and livelihood resilience.

Early Warning – Early Action approach - Madagascar

View the full EWEA approach in Madagascar gallery

FAO is continuing to further develop and roll out the EWEA approach in other high risk countries.

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