May 14, 2014

Commentary - Changing the paradigm for drought management: The role of National Drought Policies

By Donald A. Wilhite

Donald A. Wilhite is the founding director of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is currently a Professor in the University’s School of Natural Resources

Drought is the costliest of all natural disasters and affects more people than any other weather-related event.  It is a pervasive natural hazard that knows no political boundaries.  Millions of people died in recent years from starvation in the Greater Horn of Africa, and drought was a significant causal factor in that event. Millions more are threatened each year in other regions of Africa and in other developing countries as well.  However, serious impacts also occur in developed nations as witnessed by the recent droughts in the United States, Australia and Europe.  And, these droughts have global implications on food security, food prices and water scarcity. 

The problem, globally, nationally, and locally, is  that most countries treat drought as an uncommon occurrence  when, in fact, it is a normal part of virtually all climatic regimes.  As the number of sectors affected by drought increases and the economic, social and environmental impacts continue to escalate, projections of an increased frequency and severity of drought in the future as a result of climate change provides a strong rationale for a change in the paradigm for drought management.

How governments and societies respond to drought (and other natural disasters) has become a topic of considerable debate in the past decade as governments and nongovernmental organizations continue to distribute large amounts of money and other forms of assistance to those affected in both developing and developed countries.  Studies have shown that drought or disaster relief (i.e., crisis management) does little to reduce societal vulnerability to the next climatic event. It could even increase vulnerability because it encourages the status quo. 

In other words, vulnerability to drought is often the direct result of poor planning and resource management practices. If we are to reduce societal vulnerability, we need to encourage improved planning and resource management by redirecting resources from response programs to policies, and mitigation and preparedness programs that are targeted at risk reduction as its primary goal.

The crisis management approach only addresses the symptoms of drought as they manifest themselves in the impacts that occur as a direct or indirect result of drought.  Risk-based management is directed at identifying where vulnerabilities exist—particular sectors, regions, communities, or population groups (i.e., who and what is at risk and why)—and addresses these vulnerabilities through systematically implementing mitigation measures that will decrease vulnerabilities  to future drought events.  Because societies have emphasized crisis management in past attempts at drought management, countries have generally moved from one drought-related disaster event to another with little, if any, reduction in risk.  Additionally, in many drought-prone regions, another drought event is likely to occur before the region fully recovers from the last event.

The challenge is to move governments away from simply responding to crises and toward a more proactive approach that identifies the populations, sectors, and regions most at risk.  A proactive approach requires tailoring programs to those vulnerable areas with the goal of reducing risk while building resiliency and coping capacity. This will lead to increased institutional capacity and reduced impacts because risk-reduction policies and preparedness plans build resilience. This approach curtails the need for largely ineffective and costly crisis-oriented governmental and non-governmental interventions.  

While building resiliency begins with the individual and communities, it is also important for nations to have a framework in place that emphasizes self-reliance and drought risk reduction, thus providing a roadmap for all to follow.  A national drought policy would frame drought management around the principles of risk reduction.

The principles of risk management can be promoted by: 1) encouraging the improvement and application of seasonal and shorter-term forecasts; 2) developing integrated monitoring and drought early warning systems and associated information delivery systems; 3) producing preparedness plans at various levels of government; 4) adopting mitigation actions and programs; 5) promoting water conservation and supply augmentation strategies; 6) creating a safety net of emergency response programs to ensure timely and targeted relief; and 7) providing an organizational structure that enhances coordination within and between levels of government and with stakeholders.  All risk-management policies must also be consistent and equitable for all regions, population groups, and economic sectors and align with the goals of sustainable development. 

Fortunately, much greater attention is now being directed toward reducing risks associated with drought occurrence.  UN-Water and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) have now joined with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO),  the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in offering training workshops on capacity development in support of national drought policies throughout the world.  Additionally, WMO and the Global Water Partnership have now joined forces to create an Integrated Drought Management Programme (IDMP) aimed at supporting stakeholders at all levels. The IDMP works to provide stakeholders with  policy and management guidance through globally coordinated and generated scientific information, in addition to providing a forum for sharing best practices and knowledge for integrated drought management

The time for a change in the paradigm for drought management is now.  Promoting risk reduction will lessen the impacts of drought for all nations and promote the wise stewardship of our precious natural resources.   


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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