African herdsmen use mobile phones for drought alerts

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East African livestock herders are using mobile phones to send early warnings of drought, part of a new effort to avert disasters like the one two years ago that required a massive EU humanitarian response.

Pastoralists in remote regions of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia are collecting data on wells and water reserves and sending it by text message to regional databases, doing in minutes what it took days or weeks to do before by letters.

“Having this information the same day means [relief organisations] are working with very up-to-date information,” said Alun McDonald, a Nairobi-based spokesman for the charity group Oxfam, which launched the drought-alert system as pilot project last year and now wants to expand it.

“The speed does make the response more efficient and more timely,” McDonald said by telephone on Friday (12 April).

Timing can be critical in remote regions where communication and transport infrastructure are poor. The initial slow response to the 2011 drought was blamed in part on spotty data collection from across a vast swathe of the Horn of Africa.

Since then, mobile network coverage has improved, clearing the way for efforts like Oxfam’s early-alert project.

EU response to drought

East Africa saw one of its worst droughts in more than 50 years in 2011, causing a humanitarian and refugee crisis as crops and livestock withered. At the height of the crisis, 13 million people needed food and water aid in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.

By mid-2011, the European Commission and EU states pledged €706 million, or one-third of the international aid response.

The crisis also prompted the European Parliament, in a September 2011 resolution, to urge the EU to do more through its development aid to buttress the region against droughts and other climate shocks. The resolution was adopted a month before the European Commission unveiled a new aid agenda aimed at giving higher priority to the world's most fragile nations.

Pastoralists often have little recourse but to send letters to warn government disaster agencies and humanitarian workers about impending water problems, and by then “several weeks have passed,” McDonald told EURACTIV be telephone from Nairobi.

The text messages being used through the Oxfam pilot project can do that in minutes.

So far, Oxfam is using private funding and phones provided by Finnish telephone manufacturer Nokia. The charity now wants to expand to other parts of East Africa prone to devastating climate events.

Doing more with mobile technology

Mobile technology is increasingly being used to provide humanitarian warnings and in getting help to hard-hit areas faster.

Another charity, Save the Children, has launched a community-based programme in the arid Ethiopia-Somalia border region using mobile messaging to improve food distribution during times of drought. The programme that receives support from the European Commission.

The United Nations mobile messaging to improve information sharing between needy communities and relief coordinators, while the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has supported a project in East Africa to provide early warnings about the outbreak of livestock diseases.

“Cellular phones eliminate delays in receiving field data, since all the information is relayed via the mobile network,” Robert Allport, an FAO official in Kenya, said in a statement last month. “In addition, the information is assigned a geographic location, so locations are extremely accurate and available in real-time.”

Oxfam hopes to expand the drought warning system to other parts of Ethiopia and Kenya, which are prone to cyclical food crises, and other vulnerable areas of East Africa.

The organisation has provided 60 phones to pastoralists who send data via text messages each day, information that is collated by Oxfam through two databases in Ethiopia and a third in Kenya and forwarded to national and international relief organisations. The phones are also used to take photos to verify the written data.

Europe’s new overseas aid policy, the Agenda for Change, is aimed at focusing assistance on the 48 least-developed countries, nearly all of them sub-Saharan Africa.

The plan, unveiled in October 2011 and approved in May 2012, puts the emphasis on improving governance and social protections in developing nations, while also supporting agriculture and expanding energy access to drive growth and reduce the number of humanitarian crises. 

The shift in funding would be in line with commitments donor nations made in December 2011 in Busan, Korea, where the European Union, United States, Japan and other big donors also agreed to strengthen development aid coordination to help the most impoverished countries.

The Agenda for Change is also seen as complementing the EU’s support for a successor to the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, eight poverty-fighting targets that expire in 2015.

  • Sept. 2013: UN General Assembly to discuss a successor to the Millennium Development Goals, the UN's signature anti-poverty framework
  • 2015: Target for achieving the eight original Millennium Development Goals

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