The El Niño episode severely affected more than 60 million people around the world. The impact of drought, flooding and severe storms led 22 countries to appeal for international humanitarian assistance in East and Southern Africa, Central America, the Caribbean and the Pacific according to the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoys for El Nino and Climate.
In southern Africa two recurring years of drought exacerbated by El Nino induced a humanitarian emergency severely affecting 16 million people. Although El Nino has now concluded, the effects are still reverberating throughout the region. The peak of the lean season, the time between planting crops and harvesting is now just beginning with people struggling to meet their most basic needs. 13.8 million people remain extremely food insecure and are targeted by the UN World Food Programme for life saving assistance over the next four months in seven priority countries: Malawi, Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Mozambique, Lesotho, Angola and Swaziland.
Although droughts cannot be prevented from recurring, they should not result in humanitarian crises. Drought emergencies are reversing hard won development gains in Southern Africa. Now that early warning systems can forecast these events, how can they be tackled so that they don’t increase people’s vulnerability especially in the worst affected areas of some countries such as Madagascar’s Grand Sud region where half the population is on the brink of famine?
Here are five urgent lines of action to mitigate drought induced emergencies.
- Climate Smart Agriculture: reduce dependency on rain fed agriculture, diversify crops and introduce drought tolerant seeds.
The Southern Africa region is seriously exposed to compounding shocks. Many are so dependent on rain fed agriculture for survival that they now face famine. Government policies still fail to protect these people. The single mono cropping dependency on maize in the region is exacerbating the problem. In southern Madagascar, the lack of rains resulted in lower crop production for basic staples like maize, cassava and rice and coupled with rising food prices have “eroded the food security of the most vulnerable. Many households adopted survival strategies, eating less often, consuming seeds, and selling animals, agricultural tools and even land.” According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in a November report.
Scientists worldwide have confirmed that climate change is unequivocal. Because of climate challenges, extreme weather and frequent shocks will be the new norm for all of us going forward. Climate change adaptation strategies especially in agriculture, can help adapt to this new reality.
- Early warning systems that can translate scientific information on climate induced events in simple terms and disseminate it through multiple communications channels. Access to such information can help alert farmers, and exposed people as well as decision makers at all levels to ensure action before a drought crisis. Early warning systems and predictions when turned into early action could help prevent millions of people from falling into greater poverty from which they might never recover. It is the responsibility of decision makers to act on scientific information to help prevent humanitarian crises and mitigate potential increases in poverty due to climate change disasters.
- Closer collaboration between humanitarian and development organizations in reaching those most affected by climate induced disasters. The UN World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May 2016 pressed the need for humanitarian and development actors to work more effectively together in addressing disasters as well as preventing them from becoming crises. Putting this global commitment into practice to tackle recurring drought emergencies should be one of the relatively easier areas of collaboration between all those working to reduce poverty and respond to humanitarian emergencies.
- Increase water security: community based techniques of water harvesting, efficient irrigation, together with larger scale water sector developments such as dams and management of river basins must address a future of water scarcity. The World Economic Forum ranked water crises as number 1 in its 2015 assessment of global risks, with potential to cause damaging economic and social impacts across entire countries and sectors. Governments have been working in water resource management for decades – can this work now be refocused to address climate and drought emergencies?
- Increase coverage of social safety nets that help those affected by drought from falling into severe vulnerability and poverty through emergency cash transfers. In recent years, tremendous progress has been made in this area in many countries.In Southern Africa, joint collaboration is underway between aid agencies and governments to strengthen existing national systems such as support to low income families. Learning, reflection and collaboration are well underway on different types of social safety nets. Greater emphasis to achieve broader coverage will ensure that those most affected by droughts will not be left behind.
The UN Special Envoys for El Nino and Climate have called for a Regional Resilience Strategy and strengthening of regional early warning services to help countries stay on the path towards achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A new ‘Blueprint for Action’ is about to be launched to tackle the roots of climate induced drought emergencies taking a resilience based approach. Together with other UN policy initiatives in climate, not least of which is SDG13 – to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts – it’s time to make resilience to climate induced drought a reality.
 Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Marshall Islands, Mozambique, Namibia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Somalia, Sudan, Swaziland, Timor-Leste, Vietnam, Zambia and Zimbabwe