Lack of data on droughts hampers risk reduction efforts

Drought can hit crop yields hard Copyright: Flickr/ ian t taylor

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[LONDON] Droughts pose a "hidden risk" as they are poorly understood and lack reliable data that could inform mitigation strategies, says a report on global disaster risk.

Lack of systematic monitoring means that the risk of impeding drought is largely invisible despite having significant effects on agricultural production, rural livelihoods and economies, says ‘Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2011: Revealing Risk, Redefining Development’.

According to the report, published by the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), current drought risk models are inadequate. Although efforts such as the US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Famine Early Warning System (FEWS Net) show how drought risk can be modelled when data is available, there is not enough data to do this at a global level.

"We had hoped to come up with a global risk assessment for drought, but we found that the data was simply not available," Andrew Maskrey, coordinator of the report, told SciDev.Net at the United Kingdom launch last week (30 June).

Although droughts have had catastrophic effects in the past — reducing crop yields by up to 40 per cent in the Caribbean, or causing total crop failure for 75 per cent of farmers in Syria — there is still no way of globally assessing risk.

"It will take probably 8–10 years more work to get a global risk model for drought of a similar level to those which we currently have for other weather-related hazards," said Maskrey.

Global annual water demand has tripled since 1960 and is likely to increase due to climate change, says the report, which comes as the worst drought in 60 years is hitting the Horn of Africa, according to UN media briefing last week (28 June).

It calls for increased global drought surveillance and monitoring of its effects on food security and poverty.

It highlights urbanisation, industrialisation, tourism and agribusiness, as well as inappropriate soil and water management as catalysts for local drought risk.

Molly Brown, a senior earth scientist at FEWS Net and a researcher at NASA (the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) said: "Despite the increasing scientific understanding and ability to identify meteorological and hydrological drought when they occur, there is a widespread lack of appropriate ways to interpret the findings and a lack of commitment to appropriate response.

"Without a clear link between drought identification (physical science domain) and drought response (social and political domain), the risk of widespread and large scale impacts of drought will remain."

Randolph Kent, director of the Humanitarian Futures Programme at King’s College London and one of the contributing authors, emphasised the role science must play in tackling drought risks but warned that various barriers may prevent policymakers from taking advantage of scientific innovations.

The temporal and geographic scale at which science is produced is not readily translatable to policymaking contexts, said Kent, and the different terminologies and metrics used by scientists and humanitarian planners also pose an obstacle.

The report, of which one chapter focused on drought risk, was first launched during the Third Session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (8–13 May) in Geneva, Switzerland.

See below for a UNISDR video from the Third Session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction:

Link to full report