By Megan Rowling
LONDON (AlertNet) - U.N. agencies are calling on governments at a high-level meeting this week to start reacting more quickly to warnings of drought and put in place national policies to prepare for longer and worse droughts.
"In the next decade to come, drought will continue escalating in severity, in occurrence and in duration," Luc Gnacadja, executive secretary of the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), told AlertNet from the conference in Geneva. "Preparedness and risk management cost-wise are unbeatable compared to relief and crisis management."
Providing aid to people hit by a drought-related emergency can be up to eight times more expensive than the investment needed to prevent a crisis developing, Gnacadja said. Despite this, policy makers receiving early warnings about the onset of droughts are still not taking precautions to help them manage the problem, he said.
"Despite our ability to predict drought, globally we still continue operating in crisis-management mode," he said.
Droughts cause more deaths and displacement than cyclones, floods or earthquakes, making them the world's most destructive natural hazard, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Since the 1970s, the land area affected by drought has doubled, with women, children and the elderly often paying the heaviest price.
But effective drought management policies are missing in most parts of the world, the agency said in a statement ahead of the March 11-15 meeting.
The FAO, the UNCCD and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) have organised the gathering to push governments in drought-prone countries to develop and adopt pro-active policies that will make them more resilient. The prime minister of Niger -- repeatedly hit by devastating droughts, most recently in 2011-2012 -- and 22 ministers are due to attend.
"There is a feeling now that drought severity, duration and intensity have increased over the past 20 years, probably due to climate change," Mohamed Bazza, senior land and water officer with the FAO, told AlertNet. "More and more countries are requesting help to reduce drought impacts."
The three U.N. bodies have teamed up to push drought preparedness higher up the political agenda and build government capacity to reduce the damage drought causes to people and economies.
In the past two to three years, droughts have affected the Horn of Africa and the Sahel region, the United States, Mexico, northeast Brazil, parts of China and India, Russia and southeast Europe.
Droughts can cause devastating food and water shortages, degrade agricultural land, and fuel conflict. The most vulnerable countries are located in the world’s drylands, with the poorest communities in Africa and parts of western Asia at particular risk, the FAO says.
DROUGHT CONSEQUENCES 'UNDERRATED'
The world has been slow to come up with a comprehensive framework for dealing with the growing hazard. "Drought is not charismatic compared to other disasters. Drought is slow and silent. It has a way of creeping up on us, and we underrate its consequences," Gnacadja said.
But there are initiatives under way in countries like Niger, he said, where he recently visited a land regeneration scheme that enabled local people to sustain themselves and their livestock even through last year's Sahel drought.
In another example, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique and Zimbabwe are taking part in a U.N.-backed three-year programme to help farmers cope with drought and climate change and share their experiences.
Boosting poor nations' resilience to drought will take time and money. A group of developing nations proposed that the declaration from the Geneva conference should request financial assistance and technology transfer from rich countries for building national drought management policies.
But the organising committee rejected this. Officials say they want the meeting to focus more on mobilising political will and redeploying existing budgets to protect people and assets from drought.
"It is first and foremost about better using the resources we are poorly investing in crisis management. I call it an investment because it will yield high returns," Gnacadja said.
The FAO's Bazza said the conference would inform governments about the technologies available for dealing with drought, and encourage them to exchange information between both countries and different sectors such as food, water and energy.
Gnacadja said it is also in the interests of businesses to get involved in supporting drought management policies. In Ivory Coast and Ghana, for example, droughts have reduced hydropower production from dams in the last decade, leading to energy crises that have harmed production in the private sector, he said.
"I hope that we will learn not to underrate and underestimate drought any more, that we will take it as a matter of policy failure ... for letting something that is predictable have such huge socio-economic impact," he added.