GENEVA, 14 March 2013 (IRIN) - It takes more than weathermen and agriculture experts to design an effective drought response policy. Recognizing this, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) invited social scientists and economists to the 11-15 March High Level Meeting on National Drought Policy, at which ministers and other officials are expected to draw up a framework that countries can adapt and mould for their individual use.
The meeting has underscored the need for a multi-sectoral approach. Drought affects all of society, from agriculture to industry. Both villagers' and urban residents' electricity, water supply, income and food might depend on the amount of rainfall in their country.
Drought kills and displaces more people than cyclones, floods and earthquakes combined, making it the world's most destructive natural hazard, according to WMO. As the world's climate changes, drought intensity and frequency are expected to increase, said Michel Jarraud, the WMO secretary-general.
"Without national drought policies, countries will continue to respond to drought in a reactive way, or, in other words, they will stay in a constant crisis-management mode"
"Without national drought policies, countries will continue to respond to drought in a reactive way, or, in other words, they will stay in a constant crisis-management mode," said Robert Stefanski, chief of WMO's agrometeorology division. "The goal is for countries to be resilient and not be totally dependent on relief to deal with droughts. Of course, relief will be a factor, but it should not be the only way countries to deal the droughts or other disasters."
The economic, social and environmental consequences of droughts have increased significantly worldwide. The World Bank predicts that in Malawi, for instance, severe droughts expected to occur once in 25 years could increase poverty by 17 percent, hitting rural poor communities especially hard. And in India, losses from droughts recorded between 1970 and 2002 have reduced the affected households' yearly incomes by 60 to 80 percent.
Getting development right
A good national drought policy is a good national development policy, says Anantha Kumar Duraiappah, who heads the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change. The objectives of both drought policy and development policy are the same: to make populations and systems resilient enough to withstand drought - or other shocks - and continue to grow.
It is about getting sustainable development right, said Bai-Mass Taal, the executive secretary of the African Ministers' Council on Water, who led Africa's discussions on the elements of a good drought policy framework.
"A drought policy is about integrated land and water management, which in turn is about sustainable use of water and land. And it is also about all other sectors - such as health and the economy - working together," said Taal, who served as Gambia's minister of fisheries and natural resources until a few years ago. "It is not just an environmental or agricultural issue anymore."
A drought in a major food-producing region can have wider global ramifications, as the 2012 drought in the US demonstrated, pushing prices of major staple grains to record levels, affecting not only people's access to food in many countries but also their economies.
Donald Wilhite, who teaches applied climate science at the University of Nebraska and gave the keynote talk on the first day of the meeting, said the development of a national drought policy "should be linked to national development and national water policies, if they exist. This process is about building institutional capacity in many areas."
Many countries have early warning systems in place to predict droughts. But an early warning system "is worthless without a mechanism to engage decision-makers at all levels and the institutional capacity to deliver messages in a timely manner."
And the engagement should move beyond sectors.
Siddharth Chatterjee, of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), pointed out that "as droughts affect all of the three pillars of sustainable development - economic, social and the environment", governments will require a framework "to craft a country-specific national drought policy". They must also balance "between a top-down and bottom-up approach, keeping vulnerable populations at the centre of their focus" by, for example, consulting with civil society.
But climate is growing increasingly variable, making it difficult to plan a response, said Gideon Galu, a scientist with the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET). FEWS NET, which provides early warning data for most countries in Africa, has started offering possible scenarios to governments and aid agencies to help them plan.
Rainfall can vary from village to village, says Hilary Motsiri, IFRC's senior officer on food security. "We need to bring the communities to the table in the consultations on a drought policy to identify their needs."
Communities also have indigenous knowledge and coping mechanisms that need to be strengthened and built upon. "You just cannot hand rain gauges to them to monitor rainfall - many of them have their own ways to measure rainfall and have even maintained communal grain reserves in the past."
Faced with increasing climate variability, Australia - one of the few countries to have had a drought policy in place since the 1990s - has engaged in major reforms, conference participants heard. The country now intends to offer a constant package of safety-net measures to farmers and rural communities that are vulnerable to drought. Previously, the measures only kicked after a drought was declared.
The package, which provides technical support to farmers and their families and an exit plan should they wish to leave farming, aims to make them resilient and not dependent on government support.
Ultimately, countries have to decide what will work best for them, said Taal. "But it is going to be a tough challenge to make people think beyond their sectors and drive an effective drought policy. It needs tremendous political will at the very top to make this possible."
This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations