People are dying of drought; our indifference is an outrage

by Monique Barbut | U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)
Monday, 20 March 2017 15:51 GMT

An internally displaced Somali man drinks from a cup at a resting point as he flees from drought stricken regions in Lower Shabelle region before entering makeshift camps in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, March 17, 2017. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

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The lives and livelihoods of millions hang in the balance every time major drought hits - if our indifference ends, both can be saved

The effects of the El Nino drought of 2015-2016 are barely over and we have a new emergency. More than 20 million people in northern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen are currently at risk of starvation. It could become the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of United Nations in 1945. Close to 30 million people are affected globally and the humanitarian support being pledged is insufficient. To make matters even more complex, there is a 40 percent chance of another El Nino event forming later this year.

The lives and livelihoods of millions hang in the balance every time a major drought hits. As we mark World Water Day (22 March) and World Meteorological Day (23 March), the indifference that persists in the face of deaths from drought is an outrage. This indifference persists despite the fact we can see drought coming. In the early stages, drought is not a dramatic disaster like an earthquake. Drought disasters creep up on us slowly. Long before claiming human lives, rainfall levels drop, rivers dry up and plants wither and die. There is time to intervene early and prevent a human catastrophe.

Yet, there is no internationally agreed threshold of what constitutes a drought emergency. Each country decides when to declare a drought and when to declare it a disaster. Countries often declare a drought when it is too late. Some do not declare it at and rely on humanitarian aid to fill any gaps. In most cases, the people worst affected by drought live in remote, rural areas. They are largely dependent on rain-fed agriculture and are often extremely poor, scratching a living from the parched earth. Their political influence and voice is often very limited. As a result, an effective drought management system is not prioritized and falls by the wayside in national economic planning, even if it would save lives. Unfortunately, our general indifference has led to institutional failure.

For example, as drought-affected developing countries often lack an effective domestic early warning and drought management system they are forced to rely heavily on international sources for drought forecasting. There is a perception of hidden agendas as warnings, which should be consistent, deliver conflicting or contradictory information. It does not help that the data used to issue the early warnings is not easily accessible to the governments themselves or that organizations that offer humanitarian assistance, based on the data provided, are often in competition. Tragically, even if a warning arrives on time, the most vulnerable countries end up acting too late.

We can and must do better. In countries with strong institutions and drought management policies in place lives are rarely lost. Affected populations have access to drought insurance or receive government support to deal with the impact of drought on their livelihoods. Rather than funding “just in time” humanitarian aid, again and again, it would be smart and cost-effective to make such early warning and early action are the norm in vulnerable ecosystems and the poorest communities.

Delivering such long-term resilience affordably is not a pipe dream. Small changes can be enough. In the past, people in the Tigray region of Ethiopia braced themselves for death with every drought. However, since they started investing in simple sustainable land management techniques to manage rain water, households have fared better. Life is no bed of roses but for the third time in a row, despite the debilitating drought crippling much of the Horn of Africa, communities have survived largely intact.

Policy makers understand the clouds and are learning from such experiences. Droughts are going to get worse. They are already becoming more intense and more frequent. Africa, in particular, has recognised this and wants to act decisively. Its call, at a pan-African conference on Drought Preparedness in 2016, for an international framework to guide action on drought could create the incentives for countries to build long-term resilience.  

If our indifference ends, lives and livelihoods can be saved.

Monique Barbut is under secretary general of the United Nations and executive secretary of the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification