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

Michael Morris's picture
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.


Submitted by Gerardo Pilligua on

This thinking has been around for hundreds of years. We need to start to thing outside the box. How about desalination plants and building pipelines that can carry water to prevent drought. Building water storage facilities/ reservoirs. Cost studies have to be done but I’m sure it would be more beneficial in the long run. The only people against such thinking are the ones who will lose economically with the proposed changes…

Submitted by Hatibu Rajabu on

Africa is a good place with number of resouces, also there are number of challenges found in Africa which became to be a hinderance conditions for the development. To cut vulnerabilities and famine in Africa require stong leadership and well organization of resources. As long as we are having a leadership problem the problem of resource utilization and organization will be of poor rate, what to do now is a commitment and youth empowerment for the benefit of the cominv generation. The following seems to be challenges of Africa today which need seriousness in process of attaining development;
First is political leadership and corruption, in Africa the problem of corruption limit the access to development in a sense that when the when the resources are allocated for the all peoples, some few leaders who are not patriot tend to use such loop as opportunities for their own development and not for the community development. Forexample there was an area in Tanzania where the agriculture tools like fertilzers, plough and seeds were provided by the government for fee and some at the low price but few peoples who were interested on their own benefits intervened the process and sale such inputs at high price so how can famine removed in such situation?, that is African tragedy.
Also the issue of realization and empowerment of youth towards the development changes and possitive attitudes on development. Africa did not realize the potentials found in Africa, there are young individuals with variety of talents and knowledges but the realization is a problem and hence difficult to empower young generation whose the changes always starts with them.
So what to do is that, there should be a good process of opportunities and resources realization. when we realize our potentials then it will be simple to empower young generstion towards the development. That is the Sustainable devlopment 2030.

Submitted by Michael Bender on

I hope everyone reading this is familiar with Allan Savory and Holistic (Grazing) Management. And take them both seriously.

Submitted by mohamed hussein on

I enjoyed reading this report but the most important mechanism of fighting drought were missed, harvesting water and water management. which helps countries like China and the United states of America. and I beleive that can help the subsahara the most.

Submitted by Gibson Kiragu on

Working very strategically to ensure Kenya has a powerful and participatory Land Reclamation and Rehabilitation Policy and Bill as soon as possible. There are still a number of huddles and stumps to jump and pitfalls to avoid to get there.
This article is an eye opener to those who have standing on the way. Now is the time to let go and let us halt and reduce land and land and water resources degradation.

Submitted by K Alexander on

Thanks for this article! Good to hear about concrete ways that farmers in the drylands can improve their output.

Submitted by Dr UN Nandakumar on

Yes, Comprehensive approaches as stated in the article are very much needed to combat desertification, drought, famine and other burning issues we face in different parts of the globe.

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