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Drought: reducing impacts and building resilience


Over 15 per cent of natural disaster damages and losses are caused by drought. Droughts account for 85.8% of livestock losses and drought is the most lethal natural hazard to livestock (FAO, 2015). The distribution of drought-related losses show high relative losses in Sub-Saharan Africa but Central and South America, southern Europe, the Middle East and southern Australia are also at high risk (Natural Disaster Hotspots: A Global Risk Analysis, 2005).

With the anticipated pressures on water resources and with more intense and severe droughts predicted, a paradigm shift is needed. Poorly coordinated “crisis management” in the face of drought will no longer suffice (Managing drought risk in a changing climate: The role of national drought policy, weather and climate extremes, 2014). A well-planned approach that focuses on reducing the impacts of drought is needed now.

The adoption of national drought policies that are focused on risk reduction and which are complemented by drought mitigation plans at various levels of government will have significant ripple effects across key sectors.

The adoption of these policies supports the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal target 6 – “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all” – by promoting integrated water resources management. The vulnerability to future drought episodes can be significantly reduced and the coping capacity of communities, even entire nations, can be improved.

A proactive approach for enhancing drought resilience is composed of three important pillars:

  1. Drought monitoring and early warning systems
  2. Vulnerability and risk assessment
  3. Drought risk mitigation measures

Drought framework

Drought monitoring and early warning systems

A drought can be defined in several ways. A meteorological drought, for example, occurs when rains do not transpire, whereas a hydrological drought occurs when a lack of rainfall continues long enough to empty rivers and lower water tables. Agricultural drought begins when a lack of water kills crops and livestock, affecting locals’ survival.

The timing of declaring a drought can often be very subjective and highly political. Forecast mechanisms require quality data and local knowledge to understand how dry conditions will impact water and food supplies. Unfortunately, these predictions are often unreliable and action is not taken until it is too late.

With more research and collaboration, early warning systems could reduce hunger and distressed migration as a result of drought. An Early Warning System (EWS) provides timely and effective information to facilitate action to avoid or reduce the risk of droughts and prepare for effective response. Numerous natural drought indicators must be monitored routinely to determine the onset and end of drought and its spatial characteristics. Although all types of droughts originate from a precipitation deficiency, it is insufficient to rely solely on this climate element to assess severity of drought. Effective drought early warning systems integrate precipitation and other climatic parameters with water information, such as stream flow, snow pack, groundwater levels, reservoir and lake levels, and soil moisture, as well as a comprehensive assessment of current and future drought and water supply conditions. Local knowledge systems, including traditional knowledge of farmers and pastoralists should also be incorporated into the information system (Handbook of Drought Indicators and Indices, 2016).

Vulnerability and risk assessment

Occasionally, depending on the location, less rain can be compensated for by access to underground water, manmade reservoirs or moisture stored in soils across forested watersheds. Elsewhere, without these buffers in place, drought rapidly escalates into shriveled crops, dead livestock and, in some cases, hunger and death. No amount of early warning will work without action to protect the most vulnerable; therefore, the second aspect of drought management deals with risk assessment of vulnerable sectors, population groups and regions.

Vulnerability is a condition resulting from social, economic, and environmental factors or processes, which increases the susceptibility of a system to the impacts of drought hazard. Vulnerability assessment is needed to understand “who and what is at risk and why?”

Some of the important features of vulnerability assessment include:

  • Recording drought impacts on vulnerable economic sectors, including rain-fed and irrigated agriculture, livestock, environment, energy, tourism and health sectors
  • Assessing the reasons for vulnerability and the conditions that impact the resistance of a system to drought
  • Assessing the degree or extent of potential damage or loss in the event of a drought
  • Assessing the coping capacity of communities affected by drought
  • Assessing sectors, population groups, and ecosystems most at risk and identifying appropriate and reasonable mitigation measures to address these risks

To reduce vulnerability to drought, it is essential to identify the relevant impacts and assess their underlying causes. Information on drought impacts and their causes is crucial for reducing risk before drought occurs and for appropriate response during and after drought. It is important to combine forecasts with detailed knowledge on how landscapes and societies respond to a lack of rain and to turn that knowledge into prompt action within weeks or even days.

Drought risk mitigation measures

There are practical measures that can be taken starting immediately. Both measures and actions – also called drought risk management options – that either build greater resilience to drought or reduce the impacts of drought when it occurs can be deployed. These measures concern all sectors affected by drought, based on their vulnerabilities. However, working with nature and understanding the necessary combination of measures is particularly important for agriculture and for sectors reliant on the availability of water and ecosystems services.

These measures and actions involve approaches promoted by the UNCCD as they involve strengthening natural infrastructure and the integrated management of land and water resources.

Examples of important mitigations measures include:

  • Water harvesting, protecting water sources against contamination, developing water sources – such as micro dams, ponds and wells, use of reserve sources of groundwater and water rationing/allocation
  • Restoring pastures and balancing land and water resources
  • Recovering the water holding capacity of soils through tree planting (including fruit trees) and the protection of riverbanks and wetlands
  • Implementing Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), such as mitigating upstream-downstream user conflicts and coordinating between water users, communities and sectors
  • Enhancing irrigation schemes
  • Diversifying rural livelihoods through social protection, cash-transfer programs or improving access to markets and rural services: Access to markets could help create alternative non-farm employment that could reduce the impacts of droughts
  • Crop insurance
  • Shifting to drought tolerant crops
  • Managing livestock production within the landscape, including the relocation of herds, nomadic migrations and use of special reserved areas

Drought management

The management of drought needs a paradigm shift.

The time is ripe for countries to develop and implement effective national drought policies that include all three pillars of drought action. Countries need to recognize that the traditional approach of responding to drought is not viable any more; it has proved to be ineffective far too often.

In many countries, drought awareness is limited and institutional capacities need to be strengthened by promoting public awareness and strengthening capacities of both the citizens and institutions especially at the local level: farmers, pastoralists and all those actors and stakeholders involved in decision making. Local citizens and institutions, in particular, need help to identify and disseminate good practices that work in local conditions.

By being proactive, investing in early warning systems and assessing their vulnerability, countries can emphasize protection rather than recovery. Countries must understand not only where the most drought-stricken areas are, but also who and what is vulnerable and why. Integrated drought early-warning and monitoring systems that capture information on the incidence and severity of droughts can better identify vulnerable population groups and geographic regions. This facilitates early action and can lead to the development and implementation of a wide variety of mitigation actions including better land management to reduce impacts from future drought events.

Lastly, there is a need for greater cooperation and sharing of experience and success stories among countries. Well-planned and coordinated drought action will have a positive ripple effect across sectors and across borders. The poorest and most vulnerable parts of society will benefit the most.

Examples of drought mitigation measures:

Strengthening Early Warning Systems for Drought (SEWS-D) project in Central America and the Caribbean:

  • The intense droughts that are taking place in the so called “Dry Corridor” of Central America and some islands in the Caribbean, coupled with the high drought vulnerability of communities in the region, forced governments to implement a series of measures. The Strengthening Early Warning Systems for Drought (SEWS-D) project aims to strengthen the early warning systems (EWS) through the incorporation of the use of drought indices derived from satellite products, including the Normalized Differential Vegetation index (NDVI), Vegetation Condition Index (VCI), the Agricultural Stress Index System of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (ASIS) and other related products. The project also aims to contribute to the institutionalization and the improvement of EWS dedicated to drought through the combined use of satellite and in-situ information, covering weather, vegetation, soils, social, and economic aspects. The UNCCD contributes to the policy aspect of the EWS that entails specific policy guidelines on a step-by-step approach to formulate and implement national drought policies. A regional expert meeting took place in July, 2016 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The meeting took stock of advances in the project and outlined the plan of work for the remaining of 2016 and 2017. The UNCCD is a collaborator in this multi-partner project coordinated by The United Nations Space-based information for disaster management and emergency response (UN-SPIDER) in Bonn.

Pilot project on policy options for drought and implications for food security in Ethiopia and Kenya

  • The German Development Institute (DIE) and UNCCD have been jointly undertaking a research project on the analysis of drought and food security policies and programmes in two Horn of Africa countries, Ethiopia and Kenya. In these countries, drought and food security and strongly linked and policies, as well as development cooperation, is becoming dynamic. The project investigates how efforts towards drought resilience and food security at regional, national and local levels have led to changes in political practices in the two countries. Ethiopia and Kenya are interesting cases for a study on drought resilience and political build-up due to their different political and institutional setups under similar ecological conditions. The regional networks and implications for Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) member countries are also being investigated. The results will serve as background information to further assess and consult with the country parties on the support needed for action on drought resilience.

Survey on drought tolerant crops:

  • The UNCCD designed a survey to assess the position of 16 African countries and their current understanding of drought tolerant crops. All countries confirmed that they grow drought tolerant crops to some degree and recognized the role of drought tolerant crops in mitigating the effects of drought. Millet, sweet potato, yam, sorghum and cassava were mentioned as the major crops cultivated. A transition to more drought tolerant cropping (including improved local varieties), which can cope with increasing climate change, has not been ruled out in most of the surveyed countries. Low awareness among farmers and the government and inflexible/traditional consumption habits, as well as legislative challenges, were mentioned as some of the factors stopping the shift from taking place.

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