By Michel Jarraud, Jose Graziano and Luc Gnacadja
Droughts have scarred human history since ancient times. While lacking the drama of earthquakes or hurricanes, droughts cause more deaths and displace more people than any other kind of natural disaster.
During the past several years alone, they have struck such diverse places as Australia, Brazil, Djibouti, southeastern Europe, Mexico, Russia, Somalia, Spain and the United States.
Climate variability and change threaten to bring even higher temperatures, greater evaporation and altered rainfall patterns in the years to come. While rainfall and water supplies vary everywhere in the world, the countries most vulnerable to serious drought are in the world’s drylands, which since 1950 have increased by almost 2 percent per decade.
The poorest communities in Africa and the Middle East are at particular risk. The effects of drought can last long after the rains return, with food remaining scarce and expensive and depleted water resources, eroded soils and weakened livestock lingering for years.
Often, a new drought hits an affected area before local communities have had time to recover from the last one. Recurrent droughts and other extreme weather events erode the capacities of vulnerable families to respond and make them ever more dependent on external aid. This situation can degenerate into conflicts which sometimes spill over national boundaries.
The cost of inaction is high. Despite this, drought rarely inspires governments to respond proactively, perhaps because it is a creeping phenomenon that builds slowly over time and across vast areas. Too often, countries get trapped in the same loop: a drought develops, people become concerned, they suffer, the rains resume, memories fade – repeat.
It is time to break this cycle by moving beyond crisis management and adopting risk-management strategies that make society truly drought-resilient. This is an increasingly complex challenge because drought affects not only agricultural production but also energy resources, transportation, urban water supplies and forestry, resulting in competition between different land and water users.
A PARADIGM SHIFT
To reduce our vulnerability to droughts, we need to shift gears from passive crisis management to proactive risk management. We must boost society’s capacity to cope before the next drought strikes. National policy frameworks that improve drought prediction and make this information available so that communities can act are indispensable. To promote this approach, the World Meteorological Organization, the Secretariat of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and other partners organized a high-level meeting on national drought policy this week in Geneva, Switzerland.
National drought policies vary depending on a country’s local circumstances, institutional capacities and economic priorities. In general, however, sustainable development is the key to more resilient communities, allowing families to escape the trap of having to rely time after time on emergency food aid. Resiliency also makes it possible to avoid short-term responses that further degrade the land and to pursue actions that restore drought-affected areas.
Farmers will always play an essential role in drought preparedness. Increasing the sustainability and productivity of drought-prone agriculture could involve introducing drought-resistant crop varieties and sustainable land management techniques that boost soil fertility. Improving access to markets and financing makes farmers more resilient. These resources need to be introduced in ways that encourage farmers and other rural producers to be self-reliant in managing climatic variability.
By taking advantage of recent progress in drought monitoring and climate prediction, governments can empower local communities to anticipate and prepare for drought and reduce their impacts. They can promote collaboration among scientists and managers to enhance observation networks, prediction, information services and applied research. They can also foster public understanding of, and preparedness for, drought.
The delivery of drought information and services is most effective when all actors, including local, regional and national governments, coordinate their efforts. Resource managers, educators, health providers, civil society and non-governmental organizations, the private sector and others should be engaged in developing and implementing policies.
This will ensure that risk management, resource stewardship, environmental protection, and public education are fully integrated into drought preparedness. Access to insurance, together with careful planning for emergencies and relief and strong safety nets, are also essential pillars.
We cannot stop droughts from happening, but we have the knowledge and the experience to put in place measures that will prevent them from resulting in crisis or famine. What we need now is to complete the shift to this new paradigm, from reaction to resilience.
Michel Jarraud is Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization; José Graziano da Silva is Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; and Luc Gnacadja is Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. This statement first appeared on the WMO website.