Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

ON SATURDAY, the UK government hosted the Group of Eight Nutrition for Growth Conference in London. The event committed to a bold vision of saving 20-million children from chronic malnutrition by 2020. The conference followed speedily upon the release on June 4 of the landmark Global Food Security Report by the UK parliament’s international development committee. That study, which noted that the UK itself is "never more than a few days away from a significant food shortage", highlighted the global dimensions of the food challenge facing the world.

Mainly in the developing world, there are still 1-billion people going hungry, one in four children are stunted through chronic malnutrition, and 165-million children are so malnourished by the age of two that their minds and bodies will never fully develop. And, with the world’s population forecast to rise from 7.1-billion today to 9.3-billion by 2050, pressure on food supplies will only intensify.

The scale of the problem is hard to comprehend. A range of measures is needed, including urgent attempts to reduce food wastage. Even if we reduce waste, however, global food production also needs to be increased by about 30%-80% to meet rising demand.

This represents not only a huge humanitarian challenge, but also a security one. When food shortages occur, as in 2007-08, price spikes often result, which can have a devastating effect, especially on those developing countries that rely heavily on food imports, including parts of South America, North Africa and the Middle East. The 2007-08 spike in food prices drove about 100-million people into poverty. This helped encourage civil unrest in about 28 countries. And, going forward, it is estimated that the price of key staples may double in the next 20 years, threatening disastrous consequences for poor people in particular.

So, how can we spur more production of food and reduce malnutrition in an innovative and cost effective way? The two main continents with significant capacity for producing additional food are South America and Africa. The reason they are producing below capacity is because of erratic weather (in Africa’s case) and the challenge posted by rain forests and biodiversity issues in South America, which limit the amount of land to grow on.

We believe it is best to prioritise Africa, and, recognising the problems of the continent’s erratic weather, are pioneering a technological breakthrough solution — the Trans-African Hydro-Meteorological Observatory. This will develop a network of hydro-meteorological measuring stations to provide better maps of water and weather in Africa.

This scheme is genuinely "game-changing" because the present African meteorological observation network is limited. As a result, national governments and regional planners do not have the data to make proper decisions regarding investments in water-resources infrastructure. Also the success of several adaptation measures, such as micro-insurance for crops, hinges on the availability of local weather data. This is a challenge if Africa’s food-growing potential is to be optimised. Harvest predictions and food production would profit from improved understanding of water availability over space and time and an improved ability to predict shifting weather patterns.

The observatory project requires the installation of 20,000 measuring stations, each one costing only $500, at intervals of 30km. The new weather stations will measure all standard meteorological variables (rainfall, radiation, temperature, humidity, wind speed and wind direction).

Funding permitting, our ambition is to have 20,000 stations located at schools and integrated in local educational programmes by 2018. The data will be combined with models and satellite observations to obtain a much more complete insight in the distribution of water and energy stocks and fluxes in Africa.

The weather stations will also give local people access to climate data on their own region, relevant to their daily lives; provide climate scientists with a huge new amount of data; and train a new generation on how to do measurements and the benefits those measurements have.

As challenging as the project is, the potential prizes ahead are increased food supply and reduced malnutrition; stronger economic growth for Africa, and greater domestic stability, in Africa, and elsewhere. It is crucial for future generations that we seize the opportunity.

Van de Giesen is Van Kuffeler Chair of Water Resources Management at Delft University of Technology.