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Preparation, not procrastination, for effective drought management

Nate Engle's picture
Preparation, not procrastination, for effective drought management
    Photo © World Bank

As more frequent and intense droughts (which I described in a previous post as the ‘dry face of climate variability’) are expected in the future with climate change, there is an urgent need for more such efforts across the world to improve and expand the mechanisms for managing and coping with them. 

Because drought is spatially widespread and can last for long periods of time, its management extends from the household to the international level. We approach drought management in different ways depending on the sector or resource, and it is usually addressed reactively, rather than proactively.

Examples of household and community approaches might include food storage and sharing, supplementing household water supplies with rainwater harvesting and cistern collection, agricultural and rangeland irrigation, planting drought tolerant crop varieties, and in the longer run, moving to less climate-dependent sources of income. Even with diversified income, long-term indirect drought impacts may still affect livelihoods negatively.

Regional, national, and international approaches might include crop insurance, drought aid and relief, drought contingency reservoirs, conjunctive management of ground water and surface water resources, and demand management to increase water-use efficiency and curtail excessive water use. Like local approaches, there are myriad drought strategies and responses throughout the world that could help to make systems more robust, adaptive, and resilient to droughts.

While any truly successful approach is likely to be multifaceted and require cooperation on various levels of organization, one of the most promising regional and national means for improving drought management is to transition from reactive drought emergency management to proactive drought preparedness and mitigation management.

Drought preparedness and mitigation involves iterative monitoring of drought conditions and indicators, conducting risk and vulnerability assessments, and preemptive investments and planning. Not only can this more proactive approach contribute to poverty reduction and development through measures like early warning systems, educational gains, and improvements in infrastructure, it is perhaps one of the most well-suited management tools for addressing climate change.

The approach is well-aligned with recent calls for ‘adaptive and integrative management’ to deal with climate change, as it emphasizes flexibility, decision-support systems, monitoring and evaluation, long-term and iterative planning, and the use of climate information to guide decisions.

The National Drought Mitigation Center in the United States offers a 10-step process for initiating drought preparedness and mitigation planning. It has recently been described in a World Bank document.

Despite its promise for dealing with climate change, there are a few aspects of the drought preparedness and mitigation approach that might need retooling in the context of climate change.

First, drought indicators and triggers used in the planning process tend to be based on historical trends or averages. With climate change, drought preparedness and mitigation management will likely also need to consider scenarios of how to respond to drought events that are not part of the historical ‘norm’. One positive sign in Africa was a recent drought adaptation forum that brought future climate change predictions and scenarios to the forefront of the African drought planning dialogue.

Second, decisions about how to prepare for and respond to droughts need to be evaluated in the broader context of ‘climate-smart development’, that is, by explicitly considering how adaptation to drought might contribute to climate change, and how it might increase long-term vulnerability to climate change impacts.

For instance, in a post I wrote some months ago, I discussed how measures taken to protect against the impacts of climate change might exacerbate the problem of climate change. I highlighted the example of the carbon-intensive materials used to construct sea-walls, but the example can easily be extended to reservoirs built to buffer against the impacts of drought.

Managing droughts has not been easy, and it is likely to become even more difficult in the future. Preparedness and mitigation is a good place to start, but it too will likely need reconfiguring to adequately deal with the surprises, complexities, and uncertainties introduced by climate change.

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