Published on Voices

In Africa’s drylands, opportunities to cut vulnerability to drought and famine are within reach

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Soil fertility managment and adding trees to farms can boost agricultural productivity and increase the drought tolerance of crops. Photo: Andrea Borgarello

As the global development community marks World Day to Combat Desertification on June 17, large areas of Sub-Saharan Africa will be gripped by extreme drought, leaving millions of people in need of emergency assistance. This is lamentable, because interventions are available that could significantly increase long term resilience to drought. A recent report that we wrote estimates that a set of 5-6 interventions could help reduce the impact of drought by about half in Africa’s drylands, keeping on average 5 million people per year out of danger in some of Africa’s poorest zones.

The report Confronting Drought in Africa’s Drylands: Opportunities for Enhancing Resilience aims to advance measures to reduce the vulnerability and enhance the resilience of populations living in dryland areas of Sub-Saharan Africa.

We focused on a subset of arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid countries in East and West Africa that are home to over 300 million people. Frequent and severe shocks, especially droughts, already limit livelihood opportunities, undermine efforts to eradicate poverty, and require emergency aid. The future promises to be even more challenging. Population growth and an expansion of drylands due to climate change could increase the number of people living in challenging environments by up to 70 percent by 2030.

But there are solutions.

First, our research revealed that better management of livestock, agriculture and natural resources could help enhance people’s resilience in the face of challenges. We found that by investing in interventions that increase the sustainability and productivity of herding and farming-- the main activities in the areas we studied-- we could vastly improve the prospects for development in East and West Africa and cushion the losses that disproportionately affect poor households.

For example, in 2010 only 30 percent of pastoralist and agro-pastoralist households in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa possessed enough livestock assets to stay out of poverty in the face of recurrent droughts. Productivity-enhancing interventions could protect livestock-keeping households and increase the area’s number of resilient households by 50 percent. Examples of interventions include providing improved animal health services, culling male animals that will not be used for breeding purposes, reducing the number of livestock by ‘de-stocking’ or selling quickly in the face of approaching drought, and ensuring improved access to grazing areas.

Secondly, improved crop production technologies, soil fertility management and adding trees to farms can also deliver resilience benefits by boosting agricultural productivity and increasing drought and heat tolerance of crops. Trees growing in crop fields can be a fertilizer source while reducing the water and heat stress affecting crops. Trees can also improve households’ food and livelihood security by providing food when crops and animal-source foods become unavailable, and providing assets that can be cut and sold in times of need.

Irrigation can also provide an important buffer against droughts, particularly in the less arid parts of the drylands. Our analysis suggests that irrigation development is technically feasible and financially viable on 5 to 9 million hectares in the drylands.

Other interventions that we examined include integrated landscape management to restore degraded areas to functional and productive ecosystems, and reducing barriers to trade so that food is more available and more affordable, even after a shock hits. We estimate that the cost of well-targeted, location-specific technical interventions would amount to US$ 0.4 million to 1.3 billion per year. These are daunting numbers, but these costs compare favorably with the costs of emergency assistance programs and are within reach of current development budgets. Most importantly, unlike short-term remedies, the interventions that we examined can lay the foundation for sustainable, long-lasting development by allowing people to build enough assets to get –and stay--out of poverty.

Even under a best case scenario for the spread of these resilience-enhancing interventions, a significant share of the population living in drylands will remain vulnerable to shocks for the foreseeable future. Governments will need to provide support in the form of social safety nets and invest in human and physical capital to help people transition to livelihoods that are less reliant on natural resources. For this reason, on the occasion of World Day to Combat Desertification, it is important to remember that enduring solutions will require comprehensive approaches that attack the problem on a number of fronts.

* Confronting Drought in Africa’s Drylands: Opportunities for enhancing Resilience was prepared by a team from the World Bank working with a large coalition of partners including representatives of government agencies, regional organizations, multilateral development agencies, research institutes, and non-governmental organizations.


Michael Morris

Lead Agriculture Economist

Raffaello Cervigni

Lead Environmental Economist, World Bank Africa Region

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