If we want to reduce disaster risk, we need to manage droughts

by Yvonne Walz | UN University
Friday, 12 October 2018 09:17 GMT

Cracked soil is pictured at the almost empty Maria Cristina water reservoir during a severe drought near Castellon, Spain, September 14, 2018. REUTERS/Heino Kalis

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Preparation is key - and that includes everything from social safety nets to more accurate models of how a drought happens

This year has shown that droughts are a global trigger of disaster.

It is as much a problem for the industrialized countries as for developing ones. Droughts, commonly described as a severe lack of water compared to normal conditions, have devastating impacts on communities, ecosystems and economies, especially in the agricultural sector.

From shortages of drinking water as they were faced in South Africa this summer, to droughts destroying harvests in Australia, to food insecurity and diminishing livelihoods of farmers in West Africa, droughts which are not planned for and managed are a root cause for disasters.

On the occasion of the International Day for Disaster Reduction, we need to shift our thinking about droughts away from crisis mode, which aims at responding to a drought disaster once it has struck, towards a proactive approach, which allows us to manage and reduce drought risks before a crisis hits.

Doing so will not be easy. First of all we need to be clear that the impact of drought on agriculture does not only depend on the lack of rainfall and/or soil moisture deficit, but also on the exposure and the vulnerability of the agricultural system and the people depending on it.

This means that no rain does not automatically mean a failed harvest. Different crops need different amounts of water so some can survive periods of droughts better than others. Similarly, the type and quality of the soil will also influence impact severity as some soils can hold water resources better than others.

The people who depend on the agricultural system play a critical role as well. Key questions are for example, whether farmers have access to irrigation systems or have alternative income from sources other than the drought-affected farming. If farmers are highly vulnerable to drought conditions, e.g. because they fully depend on their harvest with no other financial means, a single severe drought can threaten their livelihood.

Most countries use hazard-centered monitoring systems to monitor droughts. This means that drought response decisions are based on information collected on meteorological and hydrological conditions, such as lack of rainfall (meteorological drought) or low water levels in rivers or reservoirs (hydrological drought).

This can however mean that farmers receive aid from safety nets if they live in areas where rainfall is abnormally low, despite not being impacted due to their high capacities to cope with drought conditions through for example an irrigation system. At the same time, farmers who are very vulnerable and might lose their harvest already during mild drought conditions would need to receive support early enough.

Combining data on the ability of the agricultural system´s as well as the farmer´s ability to prepare for and react to drought conditions with actual information on weather and water levels in the soil can allow national governments and local communities to plan early interventions, such as providing fodder for the affected livestock or access to loans. 

This means taking into account this kind of information on exposure and vulnerability can support both the planning for the prevention of droughts, and the preparedness to respond to them once they hit a region in order to reduce impacts for the most vulnerable.

Examples for drought risk reduction measures are the introduction of more drought-resistant crops or livestock which can better cope with dry conditions, the improvement of soil quality, and measures to preserve water or to establish fodder banks and water reservoirs before a drought hits.

Droughts as a global challenge will not go away. Global changes such as population growth, changes of land and resource use are likely to exacerbate the drought hazard conditions (e.g. through deforestation) and its impacts (e.g. through competition on resources) will further increase the risk in the future. At the same time droughts are expected to become more frequent and more extreme over the next decades as a result of climate change.

If we do not want droughts to threaten sustainable development, we need to act. We need to start managing drought proactively and we need to combine information that is not only centered on biophysical conditions, but also the people who are affected.

Yvonne Walz is a senior scientist at United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security.  More on the institute's work on drought is available here.