LONDON (AlertNet) - The race by U.N. and aid agencies to respond to worsening drought and hunger in the Horn of Africa suggests how far the world still has to go to put in place effective measures to prevent droughts turning into disasters.
Finding solutions is particularly urgent as climate change brings more extreme and unpredictable weather, including more “slow-onset” disasters like droughts, warns Luc Gnacadja, executive director of the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification, a sister convention to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The United Nations’ anti-desertification chief, born in Benin, spoke to AlertNet as his agency prepared for a key U.N. General Assembly meeting on addressing desertification and drought on Sept. 20 in New York.
Q. You’re calling for “effective, long-term solutions” to famine, including drought management and measures to stop desertification. What are those?
A. Drought has been plaguing many areas of the world – Australia, West Africa, East Africa. But it’s only in places where there has been a breakdown of governance that drought becomes famine.
In drought-prone areas where early warning systems are not operating to help populations prepare for drought, where safety nets and infrastructure are not in place to assist them, then of course drought will turn to famine and lead to the loss of thousands of lives. And who does drought kill? The children and most vulnerable.
Since January it’s been forecast drought would come to the Horn of Africa. In drought-prone areas, droughts should not be a surprise.
Q. What do governments need to do differently?
A. Governments should mainstream drought preparedness into policies and institutions, and build resilience.
Preparedness is not only ensuring drought-resistant crop species are in place or putting in place water storage infrastructure. What is needed is drought management institutions at all levels, from district to national. It’s putting in place infrastructure (such as roads) that can help farmers sell their livestock rather than lose it to drought.
Agro-forestry – combining agriculture with fertilizing trees that improve the soil and help avoid erosion – is one kind of long-term investment in drought resilience that should be taking place.
Preparedness is about looking at a lot of strategies that you can see working, scaling up what works, building institutions to mainstream what works and making sure preparedness is countrywide.
Q. So, good governance is a prerequisite for dealing effectively with drought?
A. What is making the shocks so extreme in Somalia is because of governance breakdown.
Good governance is crucial to implement and scale up solutions, help populations build their resilience and protect ecosystems.
Q. You argue countries prone to slow-onset disasters like droughts should have the same kind of preparedness plans as countries vulnerable to hurricanes or earthquakes?
A. When you live in a drought-prone country, you must be as ready to respond as a country prone to earthquakes. It must be the same approach. A country prone to earthquake knows how to prepare. That is what is needed with drought.
I hope world leaders will come to see that this is not just about the Horn of Africa. What I hope is that we will invest as much as we are spending now on relief on preparedness for drought. Drought is going to become more frequent and severe. It should not a surprise anymore.