Issue 4 - Article 3

Southern Africa: Drought Relief, Drought Rehabilitation… What about Drought Mitigation?

September 1, 1995
Ailsa Holloway, International Federation of the RedCross, Harare

In southern Africa, the failed 1991/92 rainy season and dry conditions that followed are largely remembered as the “worst drought in living memory”.

The resulting regional and international response has been repeatedly acclaimed as an unprecedented success, with almost 11 million MT food, being imported to avert region-wide famine. In addition to the large volume of food imports, the regional operation was also positively reviewed for giving priority to the non-food needs generated by drought.

The total emergency food and non-food requirements sourced through the DHA/SADC appeal process exceeded $US 950 million for ten southern African countries.

In reality however, nearly 80% of the total financial requirements sourced in the 1992/93 consolidated appeal were still related to targeted food and logistics – and less than 20% focused on health, water and agriculture.

There were many lessons learned during the 1992/93 drought response – which, unfortunately – most southern African countries have an opportunity to revisit this year. Due to the failure of the last seasonal rains, the region now faces serious harvest shortfalls.

The total cereal yield projected for the eleven SADC countries is estimated at 15.73 million MT in 1995/96, down by 35% compared to the previous year. Moreover, severe deficits in ground and surface water supplies are reported in many countries, placing at risk the health of humans as well as livestock.

Given the widespread applause accorded the 1992/93 drought response, this year’s emergency is an opportunity to reflect on whether the ‘lessons learned’ two to three years ago have indeed strengthened national response capacity. It is also timely to consider the degree to which measures initiated during the 1992/93 operation have actively mitigated the impact of this year’s drought.

Better preparedness for response

With respect to changing capacities in drought preparedness during the three year period 1992-95, there are three areas of consideration; speed of response, institutional capacity at national and agency levels, and specific operational capacities in both food and non-food sectors.

The speed of drought response has been affected by many factors. Although southern Africa has well-developed national and regional systems for meteorologic and agricultural early warning, official governmental reaction to drought conditions has varied greatly from country to country.

The Government of Lesotho declared a national drought disaster in December 1994, while Zimbabwe’s and Zambia’s drought declarations were announced as late as July and August 1995, respectively.

Moreover, for as long as national and regional drought response will require support from external sources, operational action, particularly in food imports, will be heavily influenced by the timing and outcomes of the FAO/WFP crop assessment. In both 1992 and in 1995, national and regional crop assessment figures required external “verification” before the process of food aid mobilisation began in earnest.

Despite this, there are differences in the institutional aspects of this year’s response, compared to 1992/93.

The most notable change is the degree to which overall responsibility for drought management has shifted from the regional to the national level. In 1992/93, SADC and DHA played more prominent brokering, coordinating and reporting roles due to the DHA-supported appeal process.

While SADC did launch a consolidated international appeal in Geneva in June 1995, this year’s resource mobilisation process has been driven primarily at the country-level, in local consultation with bilateral, multilateral and NGO partners.

WFP’s early prioritisation of Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland and Zambia as countries in need of targeted drought assistance resulted in WFP emergency operations being launched from Rome for these countries, long before the 1995 SADC consolidated appeal was issued.

That these fund-raising and coordination capacities now exist in many SADC Member States, when they did not three years ago, reflects significant improvements in institutional preparedness and response. During 1992/93, governments wrestled with establishing mechanisms for donor and operational coordination of implementing NGOs.

This year, in Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland and Zambia, inter-agency coordinating mechanisms are better-established, along with procedures to transfer funds to cover NGO and other operational costs.

One key factor in redirecting responsibility for overall drought management to the national level, has been the dramatic change in the international aid environment since 1992. Today, most southern African governments are acutely aware of the severe resource constraints facing their international partners, given continuing political instabilities and displacement in Central Africa and elsewhere.

This is reflected in the 1995 drought response, with affected countries financing proportionately more of their food requirements through commercial imports, direct government funding, or through balance of payments support. In practical terms, food aid constitutes less than 60% of this year’s consolidated SADC appeal, compared with 80% in 1992.

Even in Lesotho, this year’s most severely drought-affected country – facing an overall deficit of 350,000 MT – international food assistance will provide only 44,000 MT of cereals, with the Lesotho Government funding an additional 15,000 MT. In Namibia, with 163,000 people considered severely drought-affected in 1995, no donor contributions have been pledged to date for either food or non-food assistance.

Although national response capacities in managing cereal shortfalls have improved in many southern African countries, such changes have yet to occur in the non-food sectors.

Although the limited emphasis on health, agricultural recovery and water was severely criticised during the 1992/93 operation, there has been little strengthening of the emergency capacities in these areas. The reasons for this remain uncertain.

However, there are clear differences between food and non-food drought interventions. First, unlike the non-food sectors, the costs involved in emergency food assistance can be covered in part from outside sources or recovered through commercial sales.

In contrast, health and water are perceived to be services, for which the government has responsibility.

Second, these are viewed as primarily developmental activities, which, in most SADC Member States, are under-resourced for even day-to-day activities.

Third, because services extended through the health, water and agriculture sectors continue during non-emergency as well as emergency periods, it is difficult to define legitimate drought-specific activities, especially those which take place before serious health or economic effects are reported in at-risk groups. In 1992/93, the last point was clearly illustrated in the health sector.

Although the DHA-SADC appeal was significantly under-resourced in health (with 37% financial requirements covered), it was only after severe cholera/dysentery outbreaks were declared in Malawi and Zimbabwe that funds were provided for emergency action.

In 1995, donor support for the non-food sectors across the region remains limited, although they comprise 44% of the total requirements outlined in SADC’s consolidated appeal.

From a governmental perspective, the lack of programmatic, operational and funding elasticity to scale-up and refocus health, water and agricultural activities in times of drought remains a critical obstacle.

This year, as in 1992/93, many governments are hopeful that drought-related activities in the non-food sectors will be financed externally, or supported by NGOs.

So, while overall capacities in drought preparedness have improved since the “worst drought in living memory”, this progress is primarily in managing food supply. It reflects a continuing preoccupation that links “drought” with “food”, although drought in southern Africa has hydrological, agricultural, economic and environmental implications that extend far beyond issues of food supply and distribution.

Strengthened capacities in drought preparedness must extend to other sectors if SADC’s Member States are to manage recurrent drought episodes more effectively.

What about drought mitigation?

The 1992/93 southern African drought response has been one of the most extensively evaluated relief operations in recent times – with at least 17 individual bilateral, multilateral and NGO evaluations completed.

Moreover, in the operation’s aftermath, a number of regional and national workshops took place to reflect on the lessons learned, and to begin processes that would reduce the impact of future drought occurrences. As an example of one follow-on initiative, the Oxford Food Studies Group is now actively engaged with the SADC Food Security Technical Advisory Unit to institutionalise sustainable food security training in SADC’s Member States.

Drought mitigation is a long-term and multi-sectoral undertaking. It has macro-level implications which include improved management of hydro-electric resources to protect national industrial activity against recurrent drought shocks.

However, drought mitigation also has micro-level considerations, primarily to protect the food and livelihood security of subsistence farmers in semi-arid lands.

In this context, one of the key differences in the perceived impact of the 1991/92 and 1994/95 droughts has been in the water sector. The 1992/93 drought response was generally an externally supported food-driven operation.

Three years later, there is growing awareness that recurrent drought in this region is inextricably linked to the more careful management and conservation of ground and surface water resources. Concerns are expressed now about aquifer recharge rates, dam water supplies and depths that boreholes must be drilled to sustain water supplies when water tables drop.

In a region whose food security has long been dependent on rain-fed agriculture, this awareness is a critical step in incorporating drought mitigation measures into ongoing water, agriculture and environmental programmes. Regrettably, this awareness has yet to be translated into practical measures within repeatedly drought-stricken communities.

However, as experience in countries such as India has shown, effective and sustainable drought mitigation is a gradual and developmental process. The 1991/92 and 1994/95 droughts have conveyed a powerful message to southern Africans that rainfall scarcity in this region is a reality with wide-reaching implications.

This year’s drought operation is a timely opportunity to go beyond past practices in food relief and short-term agricultural recovery.

Unlike 1992/93, it is hoped that donor support this year will give greater priority to governmental and non-governmental efforts, which promote sustainable drought mitigation in water as well as the other non-food sectors. Drought mitigation is long overdue.


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