Scientists seek solutions to rising costs of drought

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 1 December 2011 09:47 GMT

Efforts to build national drought strategies and better global drought monitoring are key, they say

DURBAN, South Africa (AlertNet) – Drought costs the world an average of $42 billion in economic losses a year, and creates wide-ranging economic pressures. For instance, a bad dry spell in the United States, a grain-exporting country, can drive up prices and lead to hunger in other nations that must import their grain, U.S. drought experts say.

“Drought can have a tremendous ripple effect in a global economy,” notes Michael Brewer, a drought monitoring expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

But scientists and policy experts at the U.N. climate talks in Durban say they are coming up with innovative ways to lessen the damage - from micro-insurance programmes for the world’s most vulnerable farmers and herders, to drought-resistant crops and international drought-tracking systems intended to lay the groundwork for an eventual global drought early-warning system.

Drought is a growing problem in many parts of the world as climate change impacts strengthen, affecting livelihoods, food production, hydropower generation and the spread of diseases.

Parts of East Africa – including hard-hit Somalia – have been experiencing their worst drought in 60 years, following two years of below-normal rainfall. China’s central Hubei province battled a severe drought this year, and the U.S. state of Texas suffered one of its worst droughts in modern history, receiving less rain than Timbuktu over an eight-month period, according to Mannava Sivakumar, director of climate prediction and adaptation for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).


Perhaps the best way of coping, Sivakumar says, is for countries to develop pro-active national drought policies, aimed at coordinating all the agencies that might deal with a drought and putting in place measures to prepare.

To that end, he and colleagues are building a compendium of more than 70 best drought practices, addressing everything from insurance and water management to crop switches, effective drought monitoring and relief efforts.

The aim is to allow countries to survey all the options, and pick and choose the measures they believe will work most effectively in their situation.

“We don’t create one drought policy for government to use. We want a compendium of options to give governments the ability to choose what is right for their priorities,” he explains.

So far, long-parched Australia is the only nation that has a national drought policy, he adds.

Brewer of NOAA, meanwhile, is working towards building a global drought-monitoring web portal that will combine data from around the world to give a more accurate picture of drought.

The project is based on a decade-old drought data-sharing effort among the United States, Mexico and Canada, which each month produces a “continental depiction of drought”, Brewer says.

Getting comparable accurate data around the world and effectively combining it is a huge challenge, but the effort has widespread interest not only from meteorological organisations but also groups working on food, water and national security issues.

The project is “a long way” from being able to produce a good drought forecast, he admits, but “is the first step toward a drought early-warning system”.

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