Drought is among the most devastating of natural hazards – crippling food production, depleting pastures, disrupting markets, and, at its most extreme, causing widespread human and animal deaths. Droughts can also lead to increased migration from rural to urban areas, placing additional pressures on declining food production. Herders are often forced to seek alternative sources of food and water for their animals, which can create conflict between pastoral and farming communities.
In recent years, droughts have resulted in some of the most high-profile humanitarian disasters – including the recent crises in the Horn of Africa (2011) and the Sahel (2012) regions, which threatened the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. In the past, droughts were not always so disastrous and are often part of a regular climate cycle, as was the case in the Horn of Africa’s drylands and in the Sahel. However, the greater frequency of droughts and more erratic nature of rains in many countries, combined with underlying economic, social and environmental vulnerabilities have meant that droughts have an increasingly destructive impact on at-risk populations.
FAO and its partners have highlighted the threat of drought and advocated for immediate response among governments and donors to ensure that early warning is matched by early action through various food security and early warning systems – such as its management of the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit in Somalia, its use and dissemination of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification system and its partnership with governments and non-governmental agencies at country and regional levels. From preparedness to response, FAO plays a critical role in responding to drought-related crises. Droughts are cyclical and “slow-onset”, meaning that much can be done to make the livelihoods of people likely to be affected by droughts much more resilient.
FAO also helps agricultural communities to mitigate the impact of droughts through a range of activities, including by supporting the local production of short-cycle and drought-tolerant seed varieties, which can help farmers produce crops even during droughts; rehabilitating or building water reservoirs that can store rains that do come; and by promoting conservation agriculture in Southern and Eastern Africa, which has the capacity to increase the efficient use of rainfall and reduce water runoff and evaporation, making better use of limited water.
When communities are hit by drought, FAO provides a range of support to help them quickly get back on their feet and start producing food. In the aftermath of the Horn of Africa drought, cash transfer mechanisms (like cash-for-work) were used to give the most vulnerable people a direct source of cash, while rehabilitating vital irrigation infrastructure, water reservoirs and feeder roads that will boost food production in the longer term. In the Sahel, herders were provided with goats to help rebuild their herds and ensure they could keep producing milk. In both regions, where livestock are a crucial source of food and income, animals were vaccinated against and treated to protect them from disease and pests, and improve their body condition. Farmers were provided with quality seeds and farming inputs to help them quickly replant in time for the next rains and, in parts of eastern Africa, water was trucked to communities that were desperately in need of water for themselves and their animals.