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Vinod Thomas

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What Can the Horn of Africa Do in the Face of Severe Droughts?

Posted: 08/04/11 04:49 PM ET

The Horn of Africa is facing a humanitarian catastrophe from the worst drought in 60 years. The United Nations estimates that more than 11 million people need urgent assistance to stay alive. International donors, including the World Bank with its recent pledge of $500 million, are trying to help the people suffering from the food shortage and loss of their crops and livestock.

The region has faced droughts every few years, and each time, they have set back progress on reducing poverty, disrupted food production systems, and jeopardized the lives of millions of people. The sharp rise in food prices this year makes the situation worse. The severity of the drought and its ominous link to climate change this time around deepen the concern over the current devastation.

Immediate relief and recovery is of course the urgent priority in a calamity. But the recurrent nature of the crisis especially in the face of climate change also calls attention to building resilience to cope -- in two ways. Supporting the development of reliable early warning systems and of flexible social safety nets to protect the most vulnerable groups is one. Strengthening agricultural and agribusiness systems by improving farmer's access to drought resistant varieties of crops, improved rain water harvesting technologies and information from weather forecasting systems while continuing to increase investment in irrigation development is the other.

On social safety nets, it is important to look at the emerging work and lessons from Ethiopia's experience. Since the famine of 1984, Ethiopia had issued an appeal for humanitarian assistance every year. Following the drought in 2003, the government established the New Coalition for Food Security and sought a new approach to deal with food insecurity. The approach recognized that issuing annual emergency appeals was unsustainable and did not secure timely delivery of food to drought victims.

The Ethiopian government established the Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP) in 2005. PSNP, a collaborative effort between the Ethiopian government and development partners, aimed to provide transfers to people in chronically deficit food insecure areas and structured to prevent asset depletion for households and create additional assets for communities. An impact evaluation in 2008, right after a significant drought, found that PSNP beneficiaries were more likely to be food secure, borrow for productive purposes, use improved agricultural technologies, and operate non-farm business activities. It also prevented beneficiary households from sliding deeper into poverty and selling household assets.

One of the strong points of the PSNP has been its flexibility. Initially designed to address regular shocks in rural areas, the program expanded to create options for two different types of poor -- those with the potential to move out of poverty and those who face chronic challenges. Another aspect of the PSNP was setting up contingency funds that would allow the government to take swift actions during food shortages. The Drought Risk Financing (DRF) mechanism, which considers a rainfall-based index, allows scaling up of disbursements and providing rapid support to households. The DRF was activated in 2008 and in 2009 to respond to food related shocks, and is scheduled to come into effect again in September 2011 to mitigate the effects of the current food shortages in the region.

As mounting water stresses and climate change are only likely to worsen, droughts are bound to increase. Thus, the recent stepped up support for agricultural development by international donors in Africa is important, as it can contribute to building food security and resilience. The vast majority of people in the region depend on either livestock or farming or a combination of the two. Support to increase farmers' access to improved water harvesting technologies, drought-tolerant crop and fodder varieties, should help improve the resilience of livestock and rain-fed agriculture systems. Increasing investments in new and old irrigation systems would also be critical for improving agricultural productivity and reducing food shortages overtime.

The Juba and Shabelle river basins in Somalia, the country bearing the brunt of the current drought, have considerable potential for irrigation development, and several irrigation schemes have been developed in the past in these two major river basins. However, years of civil insecurity and unrest have led to the collapse of these irrigational schemes. The international community needs to invest urgently in these schemes to the extent possible in fragile environments.

Given the unfortunate recurrence of droughts in the Horn of Africa, there is urgency in investing and maintaining drought resilient agriculture and agribusiness. Such investments can target drought-resistant crops, catalyze the use of rain water harvesting and water conserving technologies, and improve irrigation systems. To strengthen further the resilience and preparedness of the region to droughts, social safety nets should factor the cyclical nature of natural disasters and aim to protect the poorest and most vulnerable. Social safety nets must have flexibility to change, refocus and adapt to evolving country contexts and needs.