* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Aim is to use tried-and-tested emergency responses usually reserved for more sudden natural disasters
With more than two million people unsure about when their next meal will be, dried up farms and lower water tables, Central America is quietly facing a surging humanitarian crisis. To address these challenges, an extensive research project is developing a new information management system for Guatemala that will change the way the government treats drought and other climatic events.
The idea is to incorporate and adapt tried and tested emergency responses usually reserved for more immediate natural disasters to the specific challenges presented by drought. This involves innovative emergency drought-drills, where drought is acted upon with the same urgency as a coast-crushing storm or flash flood.
“Since drought is a slow-onset disaster, it is usually not treated as an emergency event,” says Jacob van Etten from Bioversity International, who is leading the research activities in Guatemala. “However, early action on drought through forceful responses could help secure millions of livelihoods and regional food security.”
The four-year project is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), and led by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). The team works directly with local development and emergency response organizations such as Action Contre La Faim (Action Against Hunger) Spain, which has a proven and effective system for conducting emergency responses.
The group is also collaborating with the government of Guatemala, a key driver in the process:
“Through early engagement with the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food, we learned that they wanted to find ways to better deal with drought-related events,” Jacob van Etten continues.
“This really helped guide our activities when we started last year, and I think will ensure the framework is implemented when finalized, as the ministry is a part of the development process.”
Drought-drills in practice
Drills and simulation exercises are useful tools for evaluating and testing emergency plans, already used systematically by organizations involved in disaster preparedness and response. Up to now, however, emergency drills have not been designed to manage droughts or dry spells.
So far, three groups of government and development workers have gone through a simulated drill.
“We told the groups to imagine a specific percentage of plants showing certain drought-related symptoms as they were visiting remote farms,” says Jacob.
“As part of the drill, they were asked to report back on crop- and other farm losses and evaluate families’ and communities’ food reserves. The teams also looked at farmers’ channels for weather and climate updates, available response mechanisms and other acute needs in the communities.”
The drought simulation was conducted at a critical moment last year when seasonal forecasts were indicating high probability of drought, but before an official alert was sent out at the national level. Edwin Rojas, Director of the Climate Change Unit of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food of Guatemala commented that “[The simulation] was appropriate at that time. It made clear to what extent we were prepared.”
The trial simulation has helped build staff capacity and spot response issues or lags, avoiding “trial-and-error” when rolled-out.
“During the simulation drills, we found several issues that need to be addressed. For example, farmers’ and staffs’ telephone coverage to share updates and seek assistance, was low,” says Jacob van Etten.
“We also noticed that the capacity of different teams and the precise methods they used in the field to estimate crop losses was not equal, which affects the quality of gathered information,” he continues.
The response system, to be finalized and rolled-out within the next two years, will incorporate and better utilize climate scenarios and models to predict dry spells and reduced rainfall for timely action. The project partners directly with the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), which delivers climate information tools, data and forecasting.
Another important part of the engagement has been to break the so-called hydroillogical cycle:
”The hydroillogical cycle looks the same everywhere. As rainfall levels drop, and dry period is extended, governments usually start a number of activities that aren’t really well thought out. Then right before any forceful response is enacted, the rain comes and everybody gets back to business as usual, forgetting all about the dry spell!” Jacob van Etten explains.
“This happens because there are no institutionalized response mechanisms in place, since drought is not classified as an emergency event in many countries.“
A breakthrough in the work has been that drought was recently classified as a type of emergency in Guatemala. For the team, this has meant other ministries and institutions have begun backing the project and are now open to collaborate on the drought management system.
Changing perceptions and timely response mechanisms to drought are crucial in order to ensure governments take appropriate and immediate actions when hit by drought. Simply put, early action is a matter of survival for millions of smallholder farmers and communities around the world. Drought-drills and the accompanying management system is a first exercise towards creating institutional awareness and capacity to respond promptly when drought or another climatic event hits.
*Want to learn more? Get in touch with Activity Leader Jacob van Etten: j.vanetten[at]cgiar.org