Drought has dramatically increased as a consequence of climate change. Most countries react to it only after it has occurred, but don’t have national policies to prevent it. The high-level meeting on national drought policies in Geneva this week is trying to match scientific knowledge with political awareness.
“Drought is a natural phenomenon, but over the last decades, as a consequence of climate change, it has been escalating in frequency and intensity, affecting millions of people across the world,” Loc Gnacadja, executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCC), said at the meeting.
The meeting, jointly organised by UNCC, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), brings together scientists and government officials to “start a dialogue on national policies,” said Michel Jarraud, secretary general of the WMO. “We have to facilitate the transition from crisis management to catastrophes prevention, like it has been successfully done for tsunamis and other natural catastrophes.”
Drought affects more people than any other natural disaster: since 1900 more than 11 million people have died as a consequence of drought, and over two billion people have been affected. In Africa, a third of the people already live in drought-affected areas.
Half of the world population will live in areas of high water scarcity by 2020. And drought is the single most common cause of food shortages, severely affecting food security in developing countries and jeopardising the FAO’s effort to increase food production by 70 percent by 2050 in order to feed a world population of 9 billion.
“Last year, the U.S. was hit by a severe drought that cost 1 percent of GDP,” Ann Tutwiler, special representative of the FAO in Geneva told IPS in an interview. “It affected the livestock that had to be sent earlier to the slaughterhouse. Damages could be somehow limited since U.S. biofuel policies allow, in cases of emergency, to use the cereals to feed the cattle instead of fuelling the cars. But it did not have much impact of human beings, except for the increase in the prices of cereals.”
In the Horn of Africa, drought affected 13 million people in 2011. In the worst-affected regions of Somalia, cereal prices were up 260 percent and, in Kenya, wheat yields dropped 45 percent compared to the year before.
In the 2007-2008 drought in Syria, 75 percent of the country’s farmers suffered total crop failure. The drought in Northern Mexico between 2010 and 2011 destroyed 900,000 hectares of farmland, and 1.7 million head of livestock were lost.
“The only country in the world that has a full-fledged drought policy is Australia,” Mohamed Bazza, seniorofficial at the land and water division at FAO told IPS. “Kiribati and Morocco have national policies on water that are first steps towards good drought policies, but they are still sectorial and not comprehensive. Water is not the only sector that needs to be well planned, but all sectors do, like agriculture. Or, the strategy exists, but it is not implemented.”
Tackling drought has been at the centre of the FAO’s mandate since its establishment. The Rome-based UN agency has implemented projects in emergency responses, but also in mitigation and preparedness, like establishment of regional drought management networks.
“We were able to work in specific countries and regions where challenges are recognised, but we cannot work in countries that don’t ask us to,” Tutwiler told IPS. “The purpose of this conference is to raise awareness at the political level. Not enough countries are able to organise interdisciplinary responses to drought, and in many areas it is much easier to respond to emergencies than to longer-term issues. And from the side of donor agencies, prevention and response to drought are often not well coordinated.”
On the financial side, Mohamed Bazza believes that countries can fit their policies in their own regular budgets, like the ones for agriculture. “Drought policy is country specific and it should accommodate economic and social conditions. Of course, the more funding you have, the better; but you don’t need to have extra funding to start. It is not the costs that prevent countries to have proactive policies. It is the lack of political awareness.”
According to Tutwiler, the private sector has a special role to play in preventing drought, for example by developing new irrigation technologies or systems, by providing training for farmers in production techniques that can mitigate drought, or in identifying drought tolerant crops.
What about the NGOs who maintain that there are enough traditional drought resilient seeds, that ecological agriculture is the best response to climate change, and there is no need to develop new varieties of seeds whose control will be in the hand of a couple of multinationals through patents?
“It is important that this issue of intellectual property has been addressed by NGOs because there is much more sensitivity to it now, and the international community is trying to find solutions,” Tutwiler said.
“A lot of lessons have been learned from organic agriculture that can be applied more broadly. But given the challenges of climate change, we cannot a priori rule out a particular technology. A single one will not be right for all countries. Whether you use traditional seeds or commercial ones, you must make sure that they are adapted to the local conditions and wont’ affect the environment.
“There is more and more integration of local knowledge with more sophisticated techniques that will help getting the local varieties that are found to be drought resilient, into a wider use.”
She added that the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture allows for flexibilities for smallholder farmers to be reimbursed if some of their traditional seeds are commercialised.