From drought policy to reality

There is quite a leap to be made between a country’s declared intent to draw up a drought policy and actually making it happen on the ground. This was the view of several participants at the recent High-Level Meeting on National Drought Policy in Geneva.

Drought is the world’s costliest natural disaster, incurring US$6-8 billion in losses every year. And droughts are becoming more common.

“Droughts are becoming more prevalent and are an almost a permanent phenomenon in parts of Africa, punctuated by floods, leaving no recovery periods for vulnerable households,” said Gideon Galu, a regional scientist based in Africa with the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET).

Despite these facts, few countries have drought policies in place.

After five days of deliberations at the first-ever global conference on drought in Geneva, those in attendance issued a non-binding declaration urging countries to develop and implement national drought policies.

Niger’s Prime Minister Brigi Rafini told IRIN, “You have to respect countries’ sovereignty. You cannot compel them to implement policies, but at least the conference has created an awareness to move towards prevention [of the damaging impact of droughts], and delegates have learned about the value of cooperation [across sectors and agencies].”

10-step recommendation

The declaration was accompanied by a series of policy options for countries to consider. The policy document recommends a 10-step process roughly modelled on the US government’s drought preparedness plan. The steps are a mix of crisis prevention, making countries and communities more resilient, response and science:

- Appoint a national task force on drought
- Define the goals of a national risk-based drought policy
- Hold consultations with everyone, from communities to top policymakers, and resolve water-based conflicts between sectors
- Get data on the available and required resources to prevent and respond to drought and on which communities are most vulnerable
- Prepare the key elements of a drought policy: monitoring, early warning, prediction; risk and impact assessments; and mitigation and response measures
- Identify the research needs and gaps within institutions that deal with drought-related issues
- Integrate the science and policy aspects of drought management
- Publicize the policy and build awareness
- Develop educational programmes for all age groups and communities
- Evaluate and revise the policy

"You have to respect countries’ sovereignty. You cannot compel them to implement policies, but at least the conference has created an awareness"

The steps focus on taking an evidence-based approach to drought. For example, the impact assessments would help countries plan interventions, such as social protections and technical support - which might include providing drought-resilient seeds, better management of water and soil, or insurance.

“You need good information on droughts to be able to identify vulnerable areas and communities,” said Bruce Stewart, director of climate and water at the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the main organizer of the conference.

Getting the essentials right

Yet there remains a significant gap between the policies advocated and the capacities of the most vulnerable countries.

Recent droughts in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel and the US have had massive humanitarian consequences . Drought in the Sahel cut cereal production by 26 percent in 2012, compared with the previous year’s production, according to the UN. The situation remains critical - over 10 million people are still food insecure, and 1.4 million children are at risk of acute malnutrition.

But countries in the Sahel are struggling to get even their basic drought response mechanisms in order. Most are far from developing the sophisticated inter-sectoral approaches and scientifically based best practices advocated at the conference.

Birama Diarra, an official at Mali’s national meteorological service, said the country still has to improve its early warning system and its ability to disseminate information to those on the ground.

People in parts of Mauritania were surprised by the drought’s onset in 2011]. Mohamed Elighali Ould Khhtour, head of the country’s meteorological service, says their capacity to implement basic early warning systems and conduct assessments is limited. “We don’t have the resources to do that, and for that we need funds, support of donors and aid agencies,” he said.

Franz Uirab, chief of Namibia’s meteorological service, says his country has a disaster response plan in place, but it is far from ideal. “We have a drought at the moment in southern Namibia, but we are still rather reactive,” he said. “We will not go into the affected areas to conduct intense [vulnerability] assessments. We do quick surveys to plan our response when a disaster is [going] on. We just don’t have the capacity or the time to plan preventive measures.”

Delegates like Uirab, Khhtour and Diarra say their take-home message is that they have to focus on crisis prevention and drought response.

“We will need to align our plans according to the policy framework proposed at the conference, but, of course, modifying it to meet our requirements,” said Uirab.

WMO’s Stewart says the agency is trying to build capacity by holding workshops and offering online courses for climate scientists and meteorologists regularly. “But we are also constrained by capacity and limited funding,” he said.

Global partnerships are also playing a role. The Global Water Partnership is helping to set up an Integrated Drought Management Programme, which tries to integrate drought response and mitigation at all levels. The partnership’s Alex Simalabwi says there are existing programmes in several countries. “We hope to build on that,” he said.

Political will

Ultimately, implementing the meeting’s drought policy recommendations will require political will, noted WMO’s deputy secretary-general Jerry Lengoasa.

But political will may be in short supply, if the meeting’s attendance by policymakers is any indication.

Few senior aid officials or ministers attended the meeting’s High-Level Segment for dignitaries and ministers. Niger’s Brigi Rafini was the only head of state at the meeting.

William Lacy Swing, head of the International Organization for Migration, was one of a handful of agency heads to attend the High-Level Segment. He noted that drought is the second biggest driver of migration.

“You can see the kind of problems we are dealing with - drought is not as dramatic a disaster as floods or earthquakes are, so it does not attract that kind of attention,” said Sergio Zelaya Bonilla, a policy and advocacy coordinator for the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). “But anyone who is seriously interested in droughts was here [at the conference].”

And delegates expressed their commitment to promoting the meeting’s policy recommendations.

"We will convey everything we have heard, and we hope our governments will listen," said Diarra.