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Caribbean region must prepare for increased drought due to climate change

Agriculture is the sector most vulnerable to the seasonal nature of drought

21 June 2016, Barbados - Climate change is expected to increase the intensity and frequency of droughts in the Caribbean, so countries in the region must enhance their capabilities to deal with this and other extreme weather-related challenges to ensure food security and hunger eradication, FAO stresses in a new report.

The Caribbean region faces significant challenges in terms of drought, the FAO report said. The region already experiences drought-like events every year,  with low water availability often impacting on agriculture and water resources, and a significant number of bush fires.

The region also experiences intense dry seasons particularly in years when El Niño climate events are present. The impacts of this are usually offset by the next wet season, but wet seasons often end early and dry seasons last longer with the result that annual rainfall is less than expected.

The Caribbean region accounts for seven of the world's top 36 water-stressed countries, while one of them, Barbados is in the top 10. FAO defines countries like Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Kitts and Nevis as water-scarce with less than 1000 m3 freshwater resources per capita.

"Drought ranks as the single most common cause of severe food shortages in developing countries, so this is a key issue for Caribbean food security", said Deep Ford, FAO Regional Coordinator in the Caribbean.

The impacts of drought on agriculture and food security

With droughts becoming more seasonal in nature in the Caribbean region, agriculture is the most likely sector to be impacted, with serious economic and social consequences.

This is particularly important since most of Caribbean agriculture is rainfed. With irrigation use becoming more widespread in the region, countries' fresh-water supply will become an increasingly important resource.

Drought can affect the agriculture sector in several ways, by reducing crop yields and productivity, and causing premature death of livestock and poultry. Even a dry spell of 7-10 days can result in a reduction of yields, and thus negatively affecting the livelihoods of farmers.

Small-scale, family farmers, are particularly vulnerable to drought - low rainfall threatens  rainfed crops  and  low water levels result in increased production costs due to increased irrigation.

Extensive droughts also cause increased vulnerability in livestock as grazing areas change in nutritional value, with more low quality, drought tolerant species dominating during such dry spells. In addition,  potential for livestock disease outbreaks also increases.

Drought also often results in food price increases. Expensive, desalinated water resources are becoming more important in the Caribbean, accounting for as much as 70% in Antigua and Barbuda, and this can impact significantly on poor households' ability to afford food.

Rural communities can also face a greater scarcity of drinking water during droughts. In such cases children are at the highest risk from inadequate water supplies during drought.

Climate change poses new challenges

The most frequently occurring natural hazards in the Caribbean are climate related, and their impacts may increase due to climate change. The region's vulnerability to climate related hazards is manifested in loss of life and annual economic and financial losses that result from strong winds, flooding and drought.

Between 1970 and 2000, the Caribbean region suffered direct and indirect losses estimated between $700 million and $3.3 billion due to natural disasters associated with weather and climate events.

So far, the  region has focused mainly on floods and storms, and it currently lacks effective governance, expertise, and financial resources to deal effectively with drought issues.

It also has poor national coordination, policy-making, and planning in place. While many regional and national programmes have developed responses to build resilience against the impacts of drought, too many of these are still only in a drafting phase, or are poorly implemented and in need of review.

Regional frameworks provide a necessary first step

The FAO report noted how the severity of the 2009-2010 drought - the worst in over 40 years - served as an alarm bell for the Caribbean region.

The event forced the region to consider, particularly in light of climate change projections, the need to introduce more strategic planning and management measures to avert the potential disaster that would result by end of the century from a drier Caribbean region.

Three significant frameworks for drought management in the region have been put into place:  the Comprehensive Disaster Management Strategic Framework, the CARICOM Regional Framework for Achieving Development Resilient to Climate Change: 2011-2021, and the Jagdeo Initiative. In addition, the Caribbean Drought and Precipitation Monitoring Network (CDPMN) was also established in 2009.

However, the most pressing need is for countries to develop strong national initiatives. According to the FAO report, policy-making and planning related to drought is hindered by weak governance, lack of finance and poorly coordinated land management.

"These can be overcome by strong political will that encourages participation in policy and planning processes by all actors in the social strata, enabling the sustainable development of water supplies to face the upcoming challenges," Ford said. 

Photo: ©FAO
With irrigation use becoming more widespread in the Caribbean, countries’ fresh-water supplies will become increasingly important.