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United Nations launches concerted push for effective drought policies

Need to focus on building resilience and reducing risks

Photo: ©FAO/Ivo Balderi
Cracked earth during a drought
8 March 2013, Geneva/Rome – Droughts cause the deaths and displacement of more people than cyclones, floods and earthquakes combined, making them the world’s most destructive natural hazard. Yet while droughts are expected to increase in frequency, area and intensity due to climate change, effective drought management policies are missing in most parts of the world. Three United Nations institutions have now joined forces to promote the development and adoption of practical and proactive policies at the national level to make drought-prone countries more resilient.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and other partners will hold a High-Level Meeting on National Drought Policy on 11-15 March 2013 in Geneva to focus on drought preparedness and management policies.

“Since time immemorial, drought has been a feature of the natural variability of our climate,” said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud. “The frequency, intensity, and duration of droughts are expected to rise in several parts of the world as a result of climate change, with an increasing human and economic toll. We simply cannot afford to continue in a piecemeal, crisis-driven mode. We have the knowledge and experience to reduce the impact of drought. What we need now is the policy framework and action on the ground.”

“Despite being predictable, drought is the most costly and the deadliest disaster of our time. The decision to mitigate drought is ultimately political. Governments of all drought-prone countries need to adopt, mainstream and operationalize national drought policies, based on the principles of early warning, preparedness and risk management,” said UNCCD Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja. “The cost of crisis management far exceeds that of risk management and early action and we should not wait until the next drought, causing famine and claiming human lives.”

“More extreme and frequent droughts resulting from climate change are having devastating food security impacts, especially in the most vulnerable regions of the world,” said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva. “To buck this trend, we must build resilient, ‘drought-resistant’ communities. This means not simply reacting after the rains fail, but investing over the long-term, so that when drought does hit, people and food systems can weather the blow.”

The High-Level Meeting on National Drought Policy brings together world leaders, government decision-makers, development agencies, and leading scientists and researchers. Government leaders include His Excellency Issoufou Mahamadou, President of the Republic of Niger, whose country has been repeatedly hit by devastating droughts, most recently in 2011-2012.

Heavy Human and Economic Toll

Since the 1970s, the land area affected by drought has doubled. Women, children and the aged often pay the heaviest price.

Most recently, droughts have affected the  Greater Horn of Africa and the Sahel region, the USA, Mexico, Northeast Brazil, parts of China and India, Russia and Southeast Europe. The most vulnerable countries are in the world’s drylands, with the poorest communities in Africa and parts of western Asia are at particular risk.

The effects can last long after the rains return, with food remaining scarce and expensive and depleted water resources, eroded soils, weakened livestock, and legal and social conflicts lingering for years. Often, droughts are broken by major flood events, so they catch communities when they are most vulnerable, and add to the damages experienced.

Today, 168 countries claim to be affected by desertification, a process of land degradation in the drylands that affects food production and is exacerbated by drought. At the Rio+20 Sustainable Development Conference held last June in Brazil, world leaders identified desertification, land degradation and drought as global challenges and committed to strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world, in which degradation of new areas is avoided and unavoidable degradation is offset by restoring an equal amount of land in the same time and in the same ecosystem.This is an achievable target. Sustainable land management practices, including restoring degraded lands and improving soil and water management that help to mitigate drought already exist, but need to be reflected, supported and scaled up by national policies.

From Crisis Management to Disaster Risk Reduction

The purpose of the High-Level Meeting on National Drought Policy is to encourage countries to move from crisis management to disaster risk reduction – an approach already successfully embraced for hazards such as tropical cyclones and floods.

Specific targets include:

  • Proactive mitigation and planning measures, risk management, public outreach and resource stewardship as key elements of effective national drought policy;
  • Greater collaboration to enhance the national, regional and global observation networks and information delivery systems to improve public understanding of, and preparedness for, drought;
  • Incorporation of comprehensive governmental and private insurance and financial strategies into drought preparedness plans;
  • Recognition of a safety net of emergency relief based on sound stewardship of natural resources and self-help at diverse governance levels;
  • Coordination of drought programmes and response in an effective, efficient and customer-oriented manner.

Increasing Resilience, Focusing Efforts


Better drought management is one of the priorities of the Global Framework for Climate Services (GFCS) now being implemented by governments with support from the United Nations. Climate services aim to increase drought resilience by improving climate information and services, especially for the most vulnerable. They will build on fast improving climate prediction capabilities.

The GFCS aims to give global access to improved services for four priority sectors – food security and agriculture, water, health and disaster risk reduction – by the end of 2017.