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Before The Next Drought Wreaks Havoc

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By Jutta Wolf | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

BERLIN (IDN) - The growing intensity, frequency and duration of droughts worldwide is a source of acute anxiety to secretariat of UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which was agreed in the aftermath of the severe drought in the Sahel in the 1970s and 1980s and continues to be key to global efforts to combat desertification.

Together with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the UNCCD therefore organised a High-level Meeting on National Drought Policy in Geneva, Switzerland, to impress on stakeholders that they urgently need to take action.

The consensus declaration of the Geneva meeting stresses the need for national drought management policies. It encourages governments to develop pro-active drought impact mitigation, preventive and planning measures, risk management, fostering of science, appropriate technology and innovation, public outreach and resource management as key elements of effective national drought policy.

The declaration also urges the need to promote greater collaboration to enhance the quality of local/national/regional/global observation networks and delivery systems, and improve public awareness of drought risk and preparedness for drought.

The statement asks governments to consider, where possible within the legal framework of each country, economic instruments, and financial strategies, including risk reduction, risk sharing and risk transfer tools in drought management plans, establish emergency relief plans based on sound management of natural resources and self-help at appropriate governance levels, and link drought management plans to local/national development policies.

The declaration notes that most countries’ approach to dealing with drought is very uneven. "Do they put people and their ability to cope with drought centre stage? The answer is yes, in some cases, but most governments still think reactively, focusing on crisis management instead of risk management. They start taking action when the drought is already happening, adopting a fire-fighting response to emergency aid delivery. At this stage, it is too late to draft and implement preparedness plans. It is too late to make communities more resilient."

Why is there such reluctance to shift towards preparedness, risk management and early response? According to UNCCD Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja explains, there is widespread ignorance of the real socio-economic cost of inaction, compared with the costs of preparedness and risk management. “There is also a strong fear of acting on early warning because this means acting on uncertainties – with financial resources and reputations potentially at stake,” he told the High-level meeting held from March 11 to 15.

“We cannot continue like this,” said Michel Jarraud, WMO Secretary-General, summing up the joint viewpoint of WMO, UNCCD and FAO which was the starting point for the High-level gathering.

Practical insights

The UNCCD secretariat said, with this meeting, the three organisations wanted to provide stakeholders, especially governments, with practical insights into useful, science-based actions to address the key drought issues.

After the scientific segment dedicated to this purpose, 40 ministers met for the high-level segment and committed to move towards science-based drought disaster risk reduction by signing a final declaration, which was received favourably. In fact, Brigi Rafini, Prime Minister of Niger, expects the declaration to usher in a new era of solidarity. For Gnacadja, it is “good and resilient seed sown in a good ground”.

The declaration argues that national drought policies seem to be the natural way forward, because policies at the country level regulate most issues of national relevance. But so far, only one country in the world has adopted a national drought policy – and it does not contain any ground breaking new approaches, but merely adapts those already successfully adopted for other hazards such as tropical cyclones and floods.

The High-level Meeting clearly identified what national drought policies have to accomplish. They should contain, as their key elements, effective monitoring and early warning systems to deliver timely information to decision-makers, effective impact assessment procedures, pro-active risk management measures, preparedness plans aimed at increasing coping capacity, and effective emergency response programmes directed at reducing the impacts of drought.

Implementation is vital

"It is vital that the communities concerned can prepare for periods of drought. Enhanced national, regional and global observation networks and information delivery systems are therefore needed to improve public understanding of, and preparedness for, drought," states the declaration.

"Farmers, whose yields could be diminished or destroyed by a severe drought, and others potentially affected by drought should have the opportunity to benefit from comprehensive governmental and private insurance schemes and funding for drought preparedness plans," the statement adds.

The High-level Meeting participants also stressed that even though the focus should be on preparedness and resilience, a safety net of emergency relief based on sound stewardship of natural resources and self-help at diverse governance levels is indispensable.

However, drafting and adopting a national drought policy is only part of the story. The rest is down to implementation – and this is often far more difficult. But usually, a risk management approach starts to acquire firmer foundations once the communities affected by drought see for themselves how simple measures can reduce the impacts of drought.

Mahmoud Solh, Director General of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), highlighted some of these techniques and technologies during the High-level Meeting. For instance, mixed cropping, watershed management plans and zero tillage techniques increase the soil’s ability to retain water. Drought-resistant ruminants, seasonal climate prediction and a community approach to managing common water and rangeland resources can also contribute.

New initiatives

For the UNCCD and its partners, it is clear that hosting a High-level Meeting is not enough to sustainably promote national drought policies. They have therefore launched several new initiatives. These include the Capacity Building Project on Drought Preparedness, involving UNCCD, WMO and FAO in cooperation with the UN-Water Decade Programme on Capacity Development (UNW-DPC),

Equally important is the Global Campaign on Drought Preparedness and Risk Management (WMP and UNCCD, the UNCCD’s Advocacy Policy Framework, and the Integrated Drought Management Programme involving the Global Water Partnership and WMO.

"Although they tackle drought from different angles, all these initiatives serve the same overarching purpose – to promote preparedness and resilience. The next drought is already approaching. Perhaps those in charge of drought management in the communities, in local administrations or in national politics will then realise that it is in their power to reduce vulnerability. They simply have to shift from crisis management to risk management. The knowledge and the methods are available: they are just waiting to be implemented," says the declaration. [IDN-InDepthNews - May 10, 2013]

Picture credit: UNCCD

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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