Living with droughts

Drought resilience partnerships at the national and local levels will be critical to managing drought (Image: Pixabay; hbieser)
Drought resilience partnerships at the national and local levels will be critical to managing drought (Image: Pixabay; hbieser)

As per a Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction: Special Report on Drought 2021, released by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) recently “the impact of severe droughts on India’s GDP is expected to be about 2-5% per annum, despite the decreasing contribution of agriculture in the country’s expanding economy.”

India’s economy is rightly called the ‘gamble of monsoon’ and the arid and semi-arid regions in the western, northern and peninsular parts experience more frequent droughts, a slow-onset disaster.

Droughts have deep impacts on societies, ecosystems and economies. The costs are borne disproportionately by the most vulnerable people. As per UNDP, the impact of severe droughts as in 2002 includes large-scale ecological damage, mass migration and death.

“The extensive impacts of drought are consistently underreported, even though they span large areas, cascade through systems and scales, and linger through time. They affect millions of people and many sectors and domains -- such as agricultural production, public water supply, energy production, waterborne transportation, tourism, human health and biodiversity -- contributing to food insecurity, poverty and inequality,” says the report.

In fact, in north-west­ern India, a combination of drought and groundwater overabstraction led to decreasing trends in groundwater levels and reduced resilience to future droughts (Pathak and Dodamani, 2019).

Impact of climate change

"Climate change is increasing temperatures and disrupting rainfall patterns, thus increasing the frequency, severity and duration of droughts in many regions. As the world moves towards being 2°C warmer, urgent action is required to better understand and more effectively manage drought risk to reduce the devastating toll on human lives and livelihoods," says the report commissioned by the UNDRR.

The report which incorporates inputs from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) notes that the number of droughts will grow dramatically because of climate change, environmental degradation and demographic shifts. This will pose a threat to the achievement of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the Sustainable Development Goals and human and ecosystems health and wellbeing.

The biggest impacts of climate change have to do with water. Urgent action is therefore needed to improve drought management and prevention, such as through the development and the strengthening of Multi-Hazard Early Warning Systems (MHEWS) to enable multi-hazard, all-media emergency alerting. Impact based MHEWS help societies to prepare for, and respond to, all types of disasters, including those related to hydrometeorological hazards.

As drought is a slow onset event, early warning and alerting offers opportunities to enhance collective action that can save lives and minimize potential economic and environmental damages. A powerful way to adapt to climate change is to invest in early warning services and meteorological and hydrological services.

Case study: India

The report has a section on case studies that explores the countries’ capacities to respond to drought-related impacts vary. They highlight how limited knowledge on possible impacts, poor assessments of vulnera­bilities and costs, little coordination at national and regional levels, and lack of awareness on policy options are key impediments to effective drought management.

The India case study highlights the Deccan Plateau region (about 43% of southern and eastern India), which has faced major drought conditions in recent times in 2000–2003 and 2015–2018. Significant drought conditions occur once in 3 years (Mishra and Singh, 2010).

Rainfed agriculture is the dominant source of food production in this low rainfall area where droughts are embedded into society and the economy. “In terms of drought preparedness in agri­culture, crisis management plans and drought contingency plans are prepared each season, which, to varying extents, connect with coping strategies at farm level (e.g. choice of crop variety),” the report says.

The water demands of rapid urban­ization and industrialization in recent years have seen groundwater systems dry up without appro­priate aquifer replenishment.

Also, in India drought-related decisions and policies are made at national and state levels, the centre being the main authority and “drought declaration” being the most import­ant step in governmental response to a drought situation. However, institutions treat drought as discrete, episodic and outlier events, choosing to respond only when drought emergencies arise. This leads to perpetuation and aggravation of drought vulner­abilities, agrarian crisis and natural resources degradation.

The key aspects discussed in the India case study were drought impacts and risk governance; substantial variance in the quality of drought monitoring; exacerbation of pre-existing vulnerabilities during droughts. The case study notes that monitoring, early warning and technical improvements to drought manage­ment systems – ongoing and planned – need to focus on “practical” tools that can be embedded and sustained in operational systems that capture the dynamic vulnerability and strengthen existing systems.

“The hazard posed by drought can be compounded by exacerbating effects such as the co-occurrence of droughts and heatwaves, antecedent soil moisture deficits and the feedback and connections among droughts, heatwaves, wildfires and even floods,” as per the report.

Key recommendations

Addressing the full complexity of drought and reducing risk will require partnerships, greater public awareness and support, and participation and action at all levels.

The report calls for proactive and innovative approaches to drought risk management -- reflecting the long-held view of WMO which has campaigned for more proactive, coordinated and sustainable management policies to replace the current crisis-driven piecemeal response.

The report recommends the establishment of new coordination and collaboration mechanisms to rapidly advance the understanding and management of drought risk. This is the philosophy behind WMO's Integrated Drought Management Programme which is based on the three pillars of monitoring and early warning; vulnerability and impact assessment; drought risk mitigation, preparedness and response.

Specific recommendations include -

  • Prevention has far lower human, financial and environmental costs than reaction and response.
  • Increased understanding of complex systemic risks and improved risk governance can lead to effective action on drought risk.
  • Drought resilience partnerships at the national and local levels will be critical to managing drought in a warming world where rainfall will become ever more unpredictable and require practical solutions to tackle issues like deforestation, excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides, overgrazing, salination, waterlogging and soil erosion.
  • A mechanism for drought management at the international and national levels could help address the complex and cascading nature of drought risk.
  • Financial systems and services need to evolve to encourage cooperative approaches, to promote social protection mechanisms and to encourage risk transfer and contingent financing, so as to provide diversified adaptive support to drought risk management.
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