23 November 2007

The USAID Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET)

Primary Sources:
5 August 2005: New York Times
Malnutrition Is Ravaging Niger's Children
2 February 2006: BBC
Ethiopia's food aid addiction
7 February 2006: IRIN Africa
ETHIOPIA: Struggling to end food aid dependency
7 February 2006: NASA Earth Observatory
Aiding Afghanistan
16 October 2007: Reuters
Cost of food aid soars as global need rises
Additional sources include Wikipedia and specific links provided below. All information used here is available from public sources.

Are you ready for a peek behind the curtain? This is operational hydrology, in one aspect at least...

A number of agencies in the US government participate in an operational endeavor called the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET), which is oriented almost entirely on the evaluation of food security in areas of the world where drought and crop failures are chronic issues. The main partners are:
The FEWS was started in 1986 in the US in response to the devastating 1984-5 famine in Ethiopia, in which an estimated 1M people died of starvation due to drought and political instability. The system was expanded to a network across several countries in Africa in 2000 and currently covers 22 countries on that continent, as well as one in Central Asia (Afghanistan) and four in Central America and the Caribbean. At NOAA, this latter extension of FEWS NET activities is known separately as the Mesoamerica FEWS (MFEWS).

NOAA also operates, by another extension, the Asia Flood Network (AFN). The AFN includes monitoring of cyclones and tsunami, especially in the Indian Ocean, and could be linked with the NOAA/USAF Joint Typhoon Warning Center, based in Guam, to provide an overwatch for almost all of coastal Asia and the Maritime Continent.

But the focus here with FEWS is not flooding and the problems those natural disasters provide. Drought is different: it's something more of a creeping disaster, with various definitions and thresholds that depend on your location, your business, the population and resource stress, etc. Areas in the Sahara are not considered in drought, perpetually - we call that desert. At the southern edge of the desert, however, many Africans make their livelihoods in a region known as the Sahel, a grassy savanna that provides marginal support. With climate change, droughts, unsustainable farming practices, and a lack of water supply for irrigation, these areas can turn to desert, and the Sahara advances. With the monsoon season, however, rapid greening is often observed in the Sahel and the farmers advance to reclaim the land. In some places the advance-and-retreat goes on an annual cycle, but longer-term trends such as drought and a warming climate tend to favor the desertification of the Sahel.

In other areas of Africa, the monsoons are not so much at issue, and it is beyond the margins of the rainforests in Sub-Saharan Africa that most of the problems with drought and famine occur. Before we go much farther, let's look briefly at the different types of drought:
  1. Meteorological drought, in which precipitation totals fall below a statistical threshold or there is a complete lack of precipitation for a measurable time period.
  2. Agricultural drought, in which precipitation and/or irrigation is insufficient for crop growth and production.
  3. Hydrological drought, in which water resources in rivers or reservoirs fall below a statistical threshold.
  4. Economic drought, in which commodity (food) stores and prices are affected, and foreign aid is often requested.
This is far different from the observation of tropical and mid-latitude storm events, which are described with wind speeds and wave heights, precipitation totals and various measures of severity such as the Saffir-Simpson scale. The storm events are finite and the damage can be evaluated not long after the event has passed. Not so, with a drought. In civil engineering, storm events are often ranked in order of precipitation depth and assigned a recurrence interval (e.g. ''the 100-year storm'') according to the length of record-keeping. With droughts, however, the severity is measured in various ways: precipitation can be rendered as an absolute or as a deficit from normal, and the time period of the drought is often at issue, primarily because recognition of the drought does not occur until it has already started. With a rainstorm, we can see it coming, we can watch The Weather Channel, we know when it arrives, and we know when it leaves. With a drought, a few days of rain are missed here and there, we figure it will be made up for later, and the next thing we know the plants are wilting and there's still not a storm in the forecast for weeks to come. By the time the reservoirs are down to half-capacity and our water rations have run out, it's already too late to save the crops, but maybe the people can survive on what remains, with help.

And that's where FEWS NET comes in. With early warning of a drought, an impending crop failure, or a full famine crisis, the primary goal is the acquisition and positioning of food aid, mostly cereal grains, for those affected. In 2006 USAID administered more than $1.5B in two categories related to food assistance, the International Disaster and Famine Assistance program and the P.L. 480 Food for Peace initiative.

In the areas of Africa covered by FEWS NET, Ethiopia has been the main beneficiary of international food aid for the past 30 years, and USAID has provided the majority of that assistance. Given rising populations and a steady decline in agricultural production, some have suggested that Ethiopia and other parts of Africa are addicted to such foreign aid. Some nations, however, remain under foreign and domestic political pressure. Sudan and Ethiopia have been threatened by Egypt upon any hint or suggestion in the direction of water resource development in the upper Nile River basin. Numerous countries in the FEWS NET area remain politically unstable, mired in civil conflicts and under the control of warlord factions who dictate the distribution of such aid. The word for these regimes, a term marked as potentially biased on Wikipedia, is kleptocracy.

Nevertheless, countries like Ethiopia and Somalia watch the weather and keep tabs on climate indicators, such as the western Pacific ENSO index and the Indian Ocean dipole. The Ethiopian highlands, where African easterly waves that sometimes turn into Atlantic hurricanes are born, also foster coffee plantations in the rich volcanic soil. But they can't eat coffee, and Egypt has warned them off of building big dams on the upper Blue Nile because Ethiopia provides as much as 90% of the total flow in the Nile River north of Khartoum, so every drought becomes a disaster because there remains no security in the country's water resources. The government reaches for agricultural development, some measure of sustainability with a reduction of foreign aid, but USAID's website indicates that the country has remained in Warning or Emergency status since July 2002.

So let's talk guts. The FEWS NET evaluation process is supported by several input datasets, including:
  • Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), an indicator of plant growth and health, from NOAA satellite imagery and NASA processing procedures.
  • Meteosat Rainfall Estimation (RFE), based on processing of visible and infrared imagery from the EU's Meteosat geostationary sensors. The most recent RFE algorithm for use in FEWS was implemented by NOAA researchers in 2001.
  • A Water Requirements Satisfaction Index (WRSI) map based on imagery of crop areas at the beginning of the growing season, known crop-specific watering requirements from UN FAO datasets, and measured precipitation over the area within the growing season up to the time of evaluation.
  • The 10-day average latitudinal position of the African Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), provided by NOAA, which suggests areas of recent and current rainfall.
  • Country- and region-specific Livelihood Maps, a product that employs evaluations of predominant livelihood activities (agriculture, livestock, pastoralism, fishing, and labor) in combination with known and forecast food availability in order to provide a relative context to the concepts of security and scarcity.
The first four of these are geophysical datasets, observable from space or estimated from a combination of space-based and ground observations. Two of these, the NDVI and WRSI, require both outside datasets and consistent updates on a monthly or dekadal (10-day) basis throughout the growing season. The other two, Meteosat RFE and the ITCZ position, are monitored constantly and rendered to dekadal time scales for analysis and dissemination. Much of the processing and combination of these geophysical datasets is performed by the USGS at their Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) data center. Sources of individual datasets include several NASA sites, such as the NASA Land Processes (LP) Distributed Active Archive Center (DAAC) and the Goddard Earth Sciences (GES) Data and Information Services Center (DISC).

The last dataset listed seems, by far, the most complicated to produce and keep up-to-date on a regular basis. As described on the main FEWS NET site,
"The livelihoods lens has shaped project work from early warning reporting to emergency needs assessments to special studies of affected populations. The livelihoods framework was adopted in order to provide essential baseline material for interpreting early warning indicators. The main advantage to a livelihood-based early warning system is that the focus is now on understanding the context of survival. Once this context is understood, the analyst can better judge the impact of a shock on household food access."
Basically, the orientation of FEWS analysis shifts from absolute indicators of food security, provided by the geophysical information collected and processed above, to a relative assessment based on the "normal" food security in a particular region or country. A "food gap" can be identified and addressed with warnings, preventative measures, and if necessary, foreign aid. As described further on the site, "the livelihood vision keeps FEWS NET staff focused on the essential questions during a food crisis, and that is: how, and to what extent, have households’ normal patterns of food access been affected?"

Naturally, NASA is also involved in this area through a partnership with Columbia University in the NASA Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC). The SEDAC is a veritable treasure trove of maps and geospatial information on both natural (vegetation, land cover, natural resources, environmental sustainability) and human aspects (locations, population density, urbanization, economic indicators, census details) of the problems at issue.

The end results of all this processing and evaluation are the analyses and food security status warnings issued on the main USAID FEWS NET site. Each country in the program's coverage is observed constantly, and the analyses are updated on a monthly basis or more frequently depending on recent events, especially rains and at harvest times. In the countries and regions of interest, USAID's monitoring and reporting activities are translated to on-the-ground responses through the well-defined FEWS NET Contingency and Response Planning Framework. The elements of this framework are enabled in direct cooperation with the authorities and major stakeholders in the target countries and regions, providing contingencies and responses that are tailored to the specific resources and needs there.

19 November 2007

A "circle of blue"

Primary Sources:
19 June 2007: New York Times
Climate-Change Scorecard Aims to Influence Consumers

It would seem that I now have some competition in the realm of water-related news analysis: check out circle of blue when you have the chance. Pretty fancy graphics and all that, nice busy layout, certainly a great deal of journalistic resources that I do not hope to provide. Of course, what do you expect from a fully-staffed foundation with contributors like The Pacific Institute, the Ford Foundation, the Coca-Cola Company, and several other foundations, including some with research activities in China?

When I looked it up a while ago, I found that Coca-Cola was one of the few large international companies not oriented primarily on the engineering sector that has a Vice President for Environment and Water Resources. In a recent survey on consumer company efforts toward addressing climate-related issues, Coca-Cola scored higher than Starbucks, PepsiCo, and McDonald's in the food-service category. You might say that this blog is already sponsored by three of those four companies, in a round-about way. Oh, and just as an aside, I am sure many of you know that you can send money to people by e-mail now...

Look for more news from circle of blue on water issues in our changing world, both on their own website and in this blog.

10 November 2007

US Water Resources Development Act of 2007

Primary sources:
23 October 2007 (presented to President Bush): THOMAS (Library of Congress)
Water Resources Development Act of 2007
3 November 2008: New York Times
Bush Vetoes Water Bill, Citing Cost of $23 Billion
7 November 2007: New York Times
Republicans Join Vote to Override Water Bill Veto
9 November 2007: New York Times
Congress Turns Back Bush’s Veto in a Test of Power
10 November 2007: New York Times
Hope for the Everglades (Editorial)
Additional sources include Wikipedia and specific links provided below.

The US Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2007 was just passed into law by veto-overriding votes in the House and Senate. It was the first such legislation in seven years: the last WRDA was passed before President Bush entered office, the phrase "Global War on Terror" entered the media lexicon, and Hurricane Katrina became one of the largest natural disasters to drive internal migration in this country since the Mississippi floods of 1927.

The WRDA of 2007 is truly a massive piece of legislation, detailing $23B in federal budget authorizations for more than 900 US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) projects at a rate of approximately $5B per year over the next five years (FY 2008 through FY 2012). The actual rate of allocations (spending) on the projects will be a bit slower, with about $11B to be spent during the allocation period and another $12B in the ten years after that. A very small amount of the costs will be offset by about $12M in revenues from land transfers, debt restructuring, and other minor provisions.

The USACE is tasked primarily with water resource studies and capital projects in flood control, inland navigation, shoreline protection, and environmental restoration. The WRDA authorizes some large amounts for high-profile projects: $3.5B for projects in Louisiana, including a dedicated Hurricane Protection Project, and $2B for restoration work in the Florida Everglades. A total of $3.6B is authorized for a combination of navigation-oriented and ecosystem restoration projects in the Upper Mississippi River basin. About 50 projects authorized in previous legislation were removed from the USACE slate with this WRDA.

Overall, specific construction and restoration projects in 24 states were authorized in the WRDA, and studies for future projects were directed for many more locations:
  • Flood damage reduction studies in 20 states.
  • Emergency streambank protection studies in eleven states.
  • Navigation studies in eight states.
  • Environmental quality improvement studies in seven states.
  • Aquatic ecosystem restoration studies in 21 states.
  • Shoreline protection, sometimes known as "beach-building," studies in six states and in the US Protectorate of Guam.
  • Channel dredging and clearing studies in one state.
  • Studies toward the prevention and mitigation of damage due to previous navigation projects in two states.
  • Assessments of river basins and watersheds in five states.
Numerous amendments to previous WRDA legislation (1986, 1996, 1999, 2000), Flood Control Acts (1946, 1948), and the River and Harbor Act (1960) were included. One important new rule is that the USACE is directed to "expedite any authorized planning, design, and construction of a flood damage reduction project for an area that, within the preceding five years, has been subject to flooding that resulted in the loss of life and caused damage of sufficient magnitude to warrant a declaration of a major disaster by the President." Basically that means areas on the Gulf Coast affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, areas that suffered floods and debris flows in California in 2005 and 2006, and a large number of individual storm-related flood events in many areas of the country, but mostly in the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio River basins.

Looking toward a future in which water resources are an increasingly contentious issue in many areas of the US, the WRDA authorizes the USACE, "at the request of a governmental agency or nonfederal interest, to provide technical assistance in managing water resources, including the provision and integration of hydrologic, economic, and environmental data and analyses." Numerous additional provisions specify how this is to be undertaken, including the adoption of risk analysis approaches to project feasibility and cost estimates and the consideration of alternatives in water resource problem assessments to promote integrated water resources management (IWRM) concepts.

All of this sounds good, right? Greater guidance, responsibility and oversight for a federal agency in search of its original purpose. Peer review of project studies, and the review of certain flood-related project design and construction activities by independent experts. A seemingly proactive treatment of serious water- and flood-related issues around the country. Potential relief for the drought-stricken Southeast and water-poor West of the US. And the first such legislation to do all of this in seven years, during which time we've seen the most costly flood-related disasters in US history and had our glimpse of the future of water issues in the US by way of the IPCC climate change studies and related research.

Alas, President Bush's veto message was read on 5 November before the House of Representatives, and included the following text:
"This bill lacks fiscal discipline. I fully support funding for water resources projects that will yield high economic and environmental returns to the Nation and each year my budget has proposed reasonable and responsible funding, including $4.9 billion for 2008, to support the Army Corps of Engineers' (Corps) main missions. However, this authorization bill makes promises to local communities that the Congress does not have a track record of keeping. The House of Representatives took a $15 billion bill into negotiations with a $14 billion bill from the Senate and instead of splitting the difference, emerged with a Washington compromise that costs over $23 billion. This is not fiscally responsible, particularly when local communities have been waiting for funding for projects already in the pipeline. The bill's excessive authorization for over 900 projects and programs exacerbates the massive backlog of ongoing Corps construction projects, which will require an additional $38 billion in future appropriations to complete.

"This bill does not set priorities. The authorization and funding of Federal water resources projects should be focused on those projects with the greatest merit that are also a Federal responsibility. My Administration has repeatedly urged the Congress to authorize only those projects and programs that provide a high return on investment and are within the three main missions of the Corps' civil works program: facilitating commercial navigation, reducing the risk of damage from floods and storms, and restoring aquatic ecosystems. This bill does not achieve that goal. This bill promises hundreds of earmarks and hinders the Corps' ability to fulfill the Nation's critical water resources needs--including hurricane protection for greater New Orleans, flood damage reduction for Sacramento, and restoration of the Everglades--while diverting resources from the significant investments needed to maintain existing Federal water infrastructure. American taxpayers should not be asked to support a pork-barrel system of Federal authorization and funding where a project's merit is an afterthought.

"I urge the Congress to send me a fiscally responsible bill that sets priorities. Americans sent us to Washington to achieve results and be good stewards of their hard-earned taxpayer dollars. This bill violates that fundamental commitment. For the reasons outlined above, I must veto H.R. 1495."
So $23B for this bill, plus $38B in future appropriations, for a total of $61B in long-term funding requests. That's still less than the additional $70B that the President wants for the next six months of military operations just in Iraq, and far less than the $459B non-combat Defense funding bill upon which the House and Senate just agreed. The President says that he had about $5B in the last annual budget for the types of projects authorized for the USACE. That means that, over the next fifteen years, discounting inflation and increases in the requested amount, the President's plans would cost more and be planned less well; annual budget requests, with their high variability and changing priorities, would likely inhibit continuity in the development and execution of long-term projects, and would not allow the lead time that the WRDA presents to the USACE to get their projects and priorities in order.

The President claims concern for federal water infrastructure, but has not put forward a bill to address those issues. I see two problems with such an unlikely prospect:
  1. There is no single federal agency tasked with assessing, managing, and fixing that infrastructure.
  2. The bill, meaning both the legislation and the costs, will be HUGE!
We must assume that the figure quoted by the President for future appropriations includes the "funding for projects already in the pipeline," which should have been paid for in the bills that authorized those projects in the first place. This is a telling reference to the cost overruns emblematic of USACE projects. But let us not forget that the USACE is an agency of the Executive branch, not the Congress. If they can't finish the work on-schedule and on-budget, then they really need to look at how they do what they do. According to an editorial in the New York Times (listed above), "the water bill’s biggest shortcoming is the absence of far-reaching reforms of the Corps’ operations that were proposed by Senator Russell Feingold but rejected by the House. The reforms sought to impose discipline on a notoriously dysfunctional agency."

I get the impression, following some of the USACE work that has made the news over the years, that the Corps' SOP runs approximately as follows:
  1. USACE receives or generates a project request in collaboration with stakeholders, including congressional representatives for the project's location.
  2. USACE scopes a project and takes bids from contractors; in a fair system, the lowest bid wins the contract.
  3. USACE submits a cost estimate to the Department of Defense, which generates the WRDA budget request.
  4. USACE gets less than the cost estimate from Congress.
  5. USACE issues contracts, which have been waiting at the ready, for the full project scope.
  6. USACE runs out of money for the project.
  7. Contractors, and thuse the USACE, leave the work unfinished; it's a free-market economy, and construction engineers and workers won't work on it if they don't get paid for it.
  8. Project stakeholders and beneficiaries, when they realize what just happened, complain and campaign for more funding.
  9. Go to step 2 above and repeat the process for the remaining work.
Now don't get me wrong: I have friends at the Corps who do great work, and USACE contributions to science in hydrology, hydraulics, and other areas are legion. It's the bureaucracy that needs some adjustment. Actually, I think that earmarks (a.k.a. "pork") in the funding bills are the only way to go about it in a fair manner. Sounds a little strange, but here's my reasoning: provision of a general appropriation for those three main missions of the Corps' civil works programs creates, basically, a slush fund, and whomever is the fastest at laying out their project plans gets the money they need, regardless of merit. Once the money runs out, that's all there is, and any merited projects that come up for consideration after that time just get to wait for the next WRDA. With an earmark strategy, the merit of a given project is evaluated and debated at several levels of stakeholder and representative involvement, and then it's inclusion in the WRDA is available for fair debate in Congressional Committee and then in the House or Senate chamber upon presentation of the bill. Projects that make it that far must have some merit, and many of those go a long way toward the restoration and maintenance of the very infrastructure that the President laments. Prioritization is provided by competition; now it's up to the USACE to decide the order of projects, not their priority.

Finally, a comment on the "backlog" of USACE projects: hire more people and write more contracts!