UNCCD: Vulnerable nations must defend against drought

Only one country in the world has a national drought policy. This week the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) have been discussing how to tackle drought effectively. Speaking at the event, UNCCD Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja urged delegates to act now and act decisively.

By Luc Gnacadja

Drought is not a charismatic disaster, like a tsunami or an earthquake. It doesn’t happen overnight. Instead it is slow and silent, insidiously creeping up on us.

That is why its impact is often hugely underestimated. Drought causes more deaths and displacement than tsunami and earthquakes combined.

Since the 1970s, the land area affected by drought has doubled, with women, children and the elderly often paying the heaviest price. It takes years for farmers, communities and their ecosystems to recover from the severe consequences of drought.

In 2011, we experienced, once again, the high cost of our late response to early warning of the drought in the Horn of Africa.

As a result, more than 13 million people were affected, lives and livelihoods have been devastated. More than 50,000 people died. And that all happened, despite the clear indications, provided as early as August 2010, that a crisis was coming.

Gnacadja called drought a “crippling monster” and warned governments must ensure it doesn’t creep up on them (Source: Flickr/CIAT)

We experienced, once again, that the costs of disaster relief far outweigh the costs of risk management and preparedness. In fact, building drought resilience is a long-term smart investment with a guaranteed high return.

We must build resilience to drought.

Some farmers and communities in the Zinder region in the South of the Republic of Niger understand it is a solid investment.

During the past 20 years they have protected trees on over five million hectares of farmland. Where they had no trees or only a few per hectare, they now have up to 120.

These trees not only improve soil fertility but also provide about a million households with fodder, fruit and firewood. Most importantly, farmers, who had preserved the trees, were able to cope better with drought than other farmers in the same area.

Today, the science says we cannot escape a 2°C temperature rise. So there is no doubt that droughts will become more intense, more frequent and more widespread.

The evidence on the ground already confirms this trend. So, why then, today, does only one country in the world, Australia, have a comprehensive national drought policy?

During the scientific segment of this High-Level Meeting, experts have provided modalities and practical ways to mitigate and build resilience to drought.

What we need today, from you, is a political decision to translate those principles and modalities into national drought policies, based on early warning, risk monitoring and management systems. What we need now is a clear political commitment, with a roadmap, to shift from crisis management to drought preparedness, risk management and resilience building.

We expect governments to take the discussions from these meetings back home and start investing in drought risk management and resilience building and to bring the process of scaling up existing good practices.

The UNCCD secretariat and its partners, WMO and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), alongside many other engaged institutions are ready to support governments in drought-prone countries in assessing their current situation and developing their national drought policies.

The time is ripe to tame the crippling monster that used to creep up on us. It is up to you to make the long-term guaranteed investments into drought-resilient societies and into building a drought-resilient world.

Together we can do it. So let’s move on and let’s start to make it happen this year! Not next year. Not when the next drought hits.

Please don’t let our future dry up through your inaction.

Luc Gnacadja was speaking at the UNCCD and WMO’s High-level Meeting on National Drought Policy in Geneva.

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