Droughts are world’s costliest disasters

Ominous fissures: Cracked bottom of a canal in China’s Henan province. Severe drought and scorching heat have damaged
over a million hectares of farmland. PHOTO: AFP

Cecilia Tortajada and Asit K. Biswas

THE BUSINESS TIMES | August 26, 2014 

Drought has ravaged the world from time immemorial. Over the centuries, mankind has learnt how to cope with droughts, floods and other forms of natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis. Droughts are different from other forms of natural disasters since their impact is not visible immediately. They are slow-building threats and are silent killers on a massive scale. Their devastating powers may not be felt for years.

Floods and earthquakes occur in specific but limited areas. In contrast, droughts often occur over a vast region and their impact can sometimes be felt over an entire continent and beyond.

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), droughts are the world’s costliest natural disasters, inflicting US$6-8 billion of annual losses. Also, because of the extent, magnitude and frequency of these events, their effects are felt by more people in the world than any other type of natural disaster. FAO further estimates that some 11 million people have died because of droughts since 1900, and over two billion people have suffered from them. Such global estimates of damages are highly unreliable. For example, another UN institution, ESCAP, estimates that within only the last three decades, in Asia, some 1.3 billion people were affected, and the cost exceeded US$53 billion.

Irrespective of whatever may be the realistic figures, there is no question that Asian droughts have affected millions and have cost billions. The International Panel on Climate Change forecasts that more extreme weather in the future, like droughts and floods, will increase in terms of frequency and magnitude because of global warming. Thus, more effective drought mitigation methods are essential.

Be that as it may, reported increases in the occurrence of droughts at present have generally been over-hyped. A recent authoritative study concluded that there has been little change in drought frequencies globally over the past 60 years.

One fact is now well-established. Since droughts occur over a prolonged period, they attract considerable media attention because of their seriousness and impacts. With the 24/7 continuous global news cycle, its extensive and regular coverages give the public the erroneous perception that the conditions are worsening over the long term.

Let us consider the two major Asian countries, China and India. South and South-east China experienced severe droughts during 2010-11. Now two northern provinces, Henan and Inner Mongolia, are afflicted by a serious drought, as well as Shaanxi, Hebei, Shanxi, Gansu and Anhui to various degrees. Because of droughts, corn production in China this year is likely to be less than 200 metric tonnes (MT), lower than last year’s 203 MT, and the lowest since 2009.

Sinking water resources in China
China is now over-exploiting groundwater by some 22 billion cubic metres each year. This has major implications for proper drought management since it is steadily depleting river and lake levels. In the 1950s, the country had 50,000 rivers having catchment areas of more than 100 square km. The latest survey shows that 27,000 rivers have disappeared. The main cause is steady groundwater depletion. This depletion will adversely impact future drought management since agriculture depends more on groundwater when surface water becomes scarce. For example, because of the current California drought, the state has spent US$500 million more in terms of groundwater pumping to compensate for the lack of surface water irrigation.

In the case of India, during the 19th and 20th centuries, there were 42 serious droughts, ie one every five years. The 1979 drought reduced grain production by 20 per cent and another in 1987 affected production in 58.6 million hectares of cultivated land that affected 285 million people.

Since 2000, India has witnessed three serious droughts. The World Bank has estimated that the 2012 drought reduced the country’s GDP by half a percentage point.

In both India and China, factors like economic development, information and communication revolution, improved transportation, better management of food and new measures at mitigating the adverse impacts of droughts have ensured that serious and prolonged droughts are no longer synonymous with famine. Both the countries have become more drought-resilient than ever before in history. However, more can be done to reduce the impacts of droughts.

Consider, for example, the main policy focus of the Asian governments which still promote expanding supply availability of water.

Very little emphasis is given on managing demand. Agriculture water use, which accounts for 65 to 85 per cent of total water use in Asian developing countries, becomes a serious problem in drought years, when groundwater extraction increases very significantly for irrigation. Not surprisingly, this has become an unsustainable option, especially as even in normal years, groundwater levels in most Asian countries are declining because of overuse.

There is no question that the Asian countries will have to live with droughts in the future. The main problem with current policy is that the countries are now managing droughts as a part of an emergency and disaster relief process which is reasonably effective for short-term needs. However, this is not at all appropriate for long-term droughts that will continue to occur on a regular basis. A negative side of the current policy is that farmers and agribusiness are taking unnecessary risks with full confidence that the government will bail them out during droughts. Also, focus on technical solutions addresses primarily the symptoms but not the disease.

Moreover, Asian countries have hundreds of millions of small farms which mostly do not have the capacity and ability to manage their risks. As industrialization and mechanisation of agriculture continues to advance, new and proactive policies are needed which would diversify production risks and consider new drought management strategies.

Food security must be a priority
Such strategies should include significant improvements in agriculture water use. We now have enough knowledge, resources and technology to reduce such water requirements by some 35 to 50 per cent. Also, in drought-prone areas, many water-intensive crops which are not suitable for water stress conditions are still being planted.

Over the longer term, Asian countries need to give increased emphasis to plant breeding and genetic modifications to develop new varieties of crops that are drought and salt-tolerant. For example, researchers in Egypt have shown that by transferring a single gene from barley to wheat, the water requirements could be reduced by over 80 per cent. Asian countries need to approve GM crops after due considerations of safety issues.

Finally, countries need a vigorous and knowledge-based debate as to whether they want to achieve food self-sufficiency or food security. Food security goes well beyond national production. Food security means both food affordability and accessibility. With strong economic growth over decades, the middle class in Asian countries is growing significantly. They can afford to buy, irrespective of where crops are sourced from, domestic of foreign. The poor could receive targeted food subsidies.

There is no question that with a new mindset and major policy innovations, Asian countries can manage droughts much better than ever in human history.

Cecilia Tortajada is Senior Research Fellow and Asit K. Biswas is Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. Both are co-founders of the Third World Centre for Water Management in Mexico.

Article published in The Business Times, August 26, 2014.