This is how developing countries can adapt better to droughts

Droughts are the natural disasters with the most far-reaching negative consequences. While rich countries are still vulnerable to drought, famines are no longer found there.

© GIZ / Angelika Jacob
Farmers in Ghana prepare their field before it is sowed. © GIZ / Angelika Jacob

Michael Brüntrup

Dr Michael Brüntrup is a senior researcher at the German Development Institute (DIE) in the field of Agricultural and Food Security with focus on sub-Saharan Africa

Daniel Tsegai

Dr. Daniel Tsegai is a Programme Officer in charge of "Drought and Water Scarcity" Portfolio at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in Bonn, Germany.


Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)

Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik

This is different in developing countries: poor, rural households are particularly affected in multiple and complex ways by the consequences of droughts and their effects: These include the lack of water for humans, livestock, pastures and crops, a failing energy supply, decreasing local food availability as well as rising food prices, deaths and the destruction of livelihoods and assets. Droughts also aggravate local conflicts over natural resources. Although it is debatable whether this will lead to major conflicts and mass migration in the short term, there is no doubt that frequent and severe droughts will increase conflicts over the long term.


The causes of drought are essentially natural. Droughts have accompanied humanity since the beginning. However, as humanity has increasingly changed its environment over the centuries, drought risks are at least partially man-made. The deforestation of forests, forest fires, overgrazing, exploitation and deterioration of soils and vegetation as well as improper water management lead to an increased susceptibility to drought. They promote the dehydration of soils and water sources, the overuse of groundwater reservoirs and, overall, reduce the resilience of landscapes and people, i.e. their ability to respond to changes in a way that avoids long-term damage.


In order to increase people´s resilience against drought, and that of ecosystems and societies, proactive approaches are crucial.


Drought affects rural areas that are often far from the political centre of a country. In addition, droughts develop slowly, and the effects are often clearly visible over long periods of time and forgotten in normal periods, and their effects are rarely systematically recorded. All three factors mean that the political and economic effects of drought are not sufficiently visible to policy makers and their willingness to tackle the root causes is lacking and therefore needs to be consolidated.  


For the coming decades, climate researchers predict an increase in the severity, frequency, duration and spatial expansion of drought. At the same time, global land masses are expected to become drier overall. This will have significant effects on the inhabitants of poor countries.


General economic development can help alleviate the negative effects of drought in some countries. However, droughts, for their part, affect economic development, especially as they become more frequent and intense. Development becomes a race against time, especially in rural areas. Short-term ad hoc management of droughts only alleviates the immediate symptoms, but contributes little or nothing to longer-term internal resilience. Long-term methods need to be considered more closely.


In order to increase people´s resilience against drought, and that of ecosystems and societies, proactive approaches are crucial. In developing countries, food security should be at the heart of national drought policy and a driver of drought provisions at all levels


Drought resilience, prevention and recycling management

Source: The authors
Drought Cyclemanagement. © authors

Drought policies should be based on the principles of risk reduction, as they play a crucial role in alleviating the effects of drought. Such principles and policy recommendations are outlined in international, voluntary agreements such as the Hyogo and Sendai Frameworks for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the groundbreaking High Level Meeting on National Drought Policy in 2013. Based on these international frameworks, the following "three main pillars" of mitigating drought risks can be defined:

  • Building drought monitoring and early warning system
  • Systems for assessing drought susceptibility and risk
  • Implementation of measures to limit the effects of drought and improve the response to drought

These pillars provide the affected countries with valuable guidance so they can better prepare themselves for droughts. National drought policies need to be implemented according to country-specific needs, conditions and vulnerabilities, priorities and options.


In contrast to other natural disasters, the way droughts develop often only becomes visible very late with respect to their length, severity and extent. Therefore, it is important to use the drought-free period to build resilience, while the interventions during the drought itself should start as soon as possible. Drought interventions should be designed to include precautionary measures for the next drought cycle (see Figure 1).


Sectors and sectoral measures

In order to build up drought resilience, different policies need to be activated. These include various sectoral policies for water, soil and other natural resources, agriculture and food trading, social assistance, local economic development and infrastructure, energy and health


Precautionary and management frameworks on droughts must be flexible. The effects of drought depend not only on rainfall, but also on water storage, water access and consumption. Small farmers and disadvantaged consumers are usually affected earlier than big farmers and privileged consumers.


The focus should be on "no or low regret" measures, which can be adjusted according to the best available and updated information and risk scenarios. The private storage of food and seeds can be controlled through transparent information and reliable, governmental action. Water can be used for irrigation during short periods of drought or short-term droughts, but its use may need to be limited to the most basic needs during prolonged dry periods. Vaccinations and measures to reduce livestock can be taken early to avoid price collapses. Welfare programmes can be increased, depending on the situation in the food markets as cash or in-kind.


Particularly susceptible groups

Particularly susceptible populations and ecosystems may require specific measures. For example, special strategies are often required for shepherds and nomads, who often live in particularly drought-susceptible, arid areas. In fact, so-called pastoralism is traditionally the best adaptation strategy in these regions. More recently, in addition to the increasing temporal and spatial constraints, the variety of options for herdsmen has decreased. New trends, such as population growth, education or changes in sources of income and consumption habits, also require structural changes. The improvement in the resilience of herdsmen requires the maintenance of a particularly difficult balance between the continuation of the traditional and the change to alternative livelihoods.


Furthermore, droughts often have different effects on women and girls than on men. During drought events, the school drop-out rates among girls increase due to early marriages or because they need to support their families by providing water. Women's workload and gender-based violence increase, and access to basic, hygienic sanitation for women in periods of drought is often more difficult.


Policy coherence and coordination

olicy coherence and coordination on resilience to drought are particularly important and, at the same time, difficult to achieve, as they include various levels: sectors, decision-making levels, time, socio-economic and technological transitions. Bottom-up solutions on resilience to drought offer benefits as they are more compatible with local conditions and knowledge. However, there are often difficulties in integrating them into top-down drought prevention approaches.


Economic diversification away from precipitation-dependent sources of income is particularly difficult in some rural areas, especially in sparsely populated arid and semi-arid regions. Sometimes there are simply no alternatives on a large scale, except for an exodus. Furthermore, possible trade-offs have to be considered: for example between drought resilience and optimisation under normal conditions; investment in production versus resilience-enhancing infrastructure; autonomy of food production in normal periods versus development of food markets during droughts; or specialisation benefits in combination with security measures, such as insurance or savings, versus diversification.


The implementation of multisectoral drought policies should focus on:

  • The establishment of a general disaster risk management framework that identifies specific drought-related measures according to specific needs and circumstances, including a coordinating body to foster cooperation between different levels of government, development partners and non-governmental organisations

Drought risk management approaches need to be integrated into

  • both long-term development and short-term emergency measures
  • Regional (cross-border) and international aspects should be explicitly considered
  • Drought-related national policies should actively promote bottom-up approaches by farmers, civil society and grassroots groups
  • Effective communication between all parties involved is enormously important for such overarching approaches. In addition, the framework on drought provision should allow for strong monitoring, assessment and knowledge management
  • Development budgets must ensure the flexibility of programmes and their funding. Development programmes should have the possibility to switch to "emergency mode" during a drought and to fund emergency measures

By implementing these approaches, droughts can also function as a "link" between many sectors, levels and parties and strengthen their cooperation.


This work is part of the research project "Results-oriented promotion of food security in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa" of the German Development Institute (DIE) and is funded by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) within the framework of the special initiative “ONE WORLD – No Hunger" (SEWOH). In this project, research was examined on agricultural development corridors, agroecology, water management, agricultural financing, social security, cash transfers in fragile states and the results orientation of food security approaches. Drought Resilience has emerged as an overarching policy that can and must bring together most of these issues.


Über den Autoren

Daniel Tsegai

Dr. Daniel Tsegai is a Programme Officer in charge of "Drought and Water Scarcity" Portfolio at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in Bonn, Germany.


Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)

Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik
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