How an early warning system is helping pastoralists in the Sahel adapt to climate and COVID-19 shocks

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The Pastoral Early Warning System (PEWS) provides herders in the Sahel with a steady flow of real-time data and evidence to help them make decisions

West Africa’s Sahel is home to over 300 million people, and 60 per cent are employed in the agricultural sector. Threats from climate change and COVID-19 are making it more difficult for pastoralists in the region to keep their animals alive and healthy – despite their income and nutrition dependent on doing so.

Thankfully, an innovative, data-driven Pastoral Early Warning System (PEWS) is providing herders in the Sahel with a steady flow of real-time data and evidence to help them make better decisions on how to manage their livestock and weather the growing challenges they face.

The early warning system in action

Initially launched in 2007 in Mali and Niger by Action Against Hunger, PEWS is bringing the digital revolution to small-scale pastoralists in 11 countries across West Africa: Burkina Faso, Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Benin, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Chad, and Togo.

Firstly, it uses satellite imagery collected by the European Space Agency and delivered by the Copernicus Global Land Service CGLS to map out where there are vegetation production abnormalities. In other words, it identifies where there is  more or less forage regeneration during the rainy season than usual in relation to the availability of grazing land. The PEWS algorithm is based on a remote sensing product called Dry Matter Productivity, which provides information on biomass production in real time on a 10-day basis and at the spatial resolution of 1 km. 

This product is then used to create maps of vegetation that herders can use to identify the best grazing opportunities nearby, as well as possible areas to avoid, for example those where water or forage levels are already stressed. This improves their mobility greatly.

Pastoralists in the Sahel take their livestock to drink water. Photo credit Anouk Delafortrie (EC/ECHO).
Pastoralists in the Sahel take their livestock to drink water. Photo credit Anouk Delafortrie (EC/ECHO). source

Secondly, PEWS deploys community members as data collectors on the ground to gather information on a range of relevant topics, such as local market prices, the prevalence of various animal diseases, animal concentration, abnormal movements, bushfires, and incidents linked to insecurity. 

Weekly data is collected and shared through an online dashboard that provides information on the prices and current supplies of livestock feed, the availability of basic necessities, any disruption to economic activity, and the market situation overall. Since 2020, the dashboard has expanded to also include information on the COVID-19 pandemic, including health and safety measures for the community and data on the economic impacts of the pandemic on pastoral populations. 

Lastly, the PEWS team analyses this information and compiles national and regional bimonthly bulletins in French and other local languages. These are distributed through online platforms and radio broadcasting to key technical stakeholders, local communities and agro-pastoral networks in the region to provide project updates and highlight areas for possible collaboration, cooperation or funding support.

Equipped with vital evidence and data, PEWS demonstrates how the digital revolution can help even small-scale herders to build resilience and maintain more steady incomes to safeguard both their families and communities.  

Building resilience against climate and COVID-19 shocks

Climate change in the Sahel region is a stark reality for herders. Droughts, heatwaves and bushfires are increasing, resulting in greater water scarcity. Unreliable rainfall, poor soil health and extreme temperatures drive herders to constantly move across the terrain to find pastures amidst shrinking available land for grazing. 

With livestock farming accounting for 40 per cent of the region’s GDP, the inability to find water or food for animals can have compounding consequences, and COVID-19 has further exacerbated these challenges. In a June 2020 survey of nine countries across the region, 54 per cent of respondents stated that they felt more restricted in movement, 17 per cent noted closures of major rural markets and growing food insecurity, 85 per cent noted a shortage in livestock feed, and 39 per cent said they faced tension at water points. 

Explore the dashboard for Pastoral Monitoring and COVID-19

 

 

Climate change and COVID-19 are also triggering greater risk of conflict within and between communities who are vying for finite, or even diminishing, resources for their herds. Violent clashes between herders and farmers in Nigeria, in particular, are now one of the most deadly conflicts after Boko Haram attacks.

These effects are felt even more strongly in an already politically insecure region with poor land management, corruption and armed conflict.

Using data to make better decisions

Since its launch, PEWS has successfully scaled up both in terms of data quality and reach. The number of data collection facilities has increased from 50 to 225 in five countries, and 36 bimonthly national and regional bulletins have been published since May 2021. There have been several thousand visitors to the PEWS website annually since 2019, and this number is continuously growing. 
 
The high-quality satellite imagery and data collection methods that PEWS uses means pastoralists can have access to a wealth of accurate, real-time, free information. In addition, training local community members as data collectors is giving voice and value to the pastoralists involved. The Action Against Hunger team has also fostered a tighter network for collaboration between both herders and the communities around them.

What is next for PEWS?

Action Against Hunger intends to continue improving and scaling up the program in the years to come, by increasing its network of data collectors in existing locales and by expanding into new, neighbouring countries. The PEWS team also plans to build a Navigator App to make the information online even more accessible for all – and especially for herders – and is interested in partnering with others to improve the current system wherever possible.

For the past five years, Action Against Hunger has also strengthened its collaboration with Réseau Billital Maroobe, a regional Pastoralist network. This partnership aims to reinforce herders’ voices in the project and ensures that the data and information produced is used by those who need it most.

Providing small-scale farmers in vulnerable regions like the Sahel with access to digital innovations is an important step towards ensuring the data revolution is accessible to those who need it most.

Explore the PEWS resources

  • Visit sigsahel.info to explore the dashboards, read summary reports and access guides and tutorials.

Header photo: Aerial view of cattle near Ansongo eastern Mali. Credit: Marco Dormino (UN Photo) (source)