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Drought Looms for South-East Asia

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By Sean Buchanan

LONDON (IDN) – South-East Asia is expected to experience a future of many dry years and the hardest hit will be the poor, especially farming communities that rely on regular rainfall for their annual crops and have few resources to fall back on during periods of rain shortfall.

This is the prospect for the region outlined in a just-released study by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) entitled Ready for the Dry Years: Building Resilience to Drought in South-East Asia.

Launched at the 34th Meeting of the ASEAN Committee on Disaster Management, against the backdrop of the ongoing drought in almost all countries in South-East Asia with social and economic impacts already being felt very strongly in Cambodia, the Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam, the study says that future scenarios of drought in many parts of South-East Asia may become even more frequent and intense if actions are not taken now to build resilience.

“Increasing resilience to drought will require much better forecasting, and more efficient forms of response, at both national and regional levels,” notes the study.

The cumulative impact of drought in the region strikes hardest at the poor and heightens inequality, as well as degrading land and increasing the prospects of violent conflict.

Droughts can also be particularly damaging in countries where many people rely on agriculture for primary employment (61 percent in Lao PDR, 41 percent in Viet Nam, 31 percent in Indonesia, 27 percent in Cambodia and 26 percent in the Philippines).  

According to the ASEAN Statistical Yearbook 2018, approximately 34 percent of people in South-East Asia work in the agricultural, fisheries and forestry sectors. These sectors are the region’s largest source of employment based by industry and are vulnerable to the effects of drought, a major impact of climate change.

Drought could bring about severe economic losses for ASEAN Member States through crop damage or failure, given that agriculture contributes up to 25.9 percent of GDP share in the region. Drought also threatens food security and limits access to water for consumption and domestic use which affects people’s livelihood.

There are also potential social impacts of drought, including human health problems due to limited and poor water quality, public safety threat by increasing forest and range fires, and changes in lifestyle through urbanisation.

“Timely interventions now can reduce the impacts of drought, protect the poorest communities and foster more harmonious societies,” said United Nations Under-Secretary-General and ESCAP Executive Secretary Armida Alisjahbana.

“Slow-onset disasters, such as droughts, tend to receive less attention from policy-makers and the media compared to the rapid-onset ones,” said ASEAN Secretary-General Dato Lim Jock Hoi.

“Therefore, knowledge of what to do and how to react in these situations is fundamental, especially for ASEAN people living in disaster-prone areas. There is a need to establish a robust developmental approach by analysing how resources are distributed within states, and how governments should be allocating more finance and personnel to risk reduction and capacity building for droughts.

“The priority areas of intervention highlighted in this report will contribute to the development of policy responses to mitigate the impact of future drought and eventually will strengthen efforts on building the ASEAN Community that is resilient to drought.”

Building resilience to drought

Ready for the Dry Years proposes three priority areas of intervention for ESCAP and ASEAN – strengthening drought risk assessment and early warning services, fostering risk financing instruments that can insure communities against slow-onset droughts, and enhancing people’s capacities to adapt to drought, in order to reduce conflict.

In terms of strengthening drought risk assessment and early warning services, the study says that each country should have drought monitoring and early warning services that can alert key sectors such as agriculture and trigger early support, while also gearing up social protection to cushion the impact on low-income groups.

Risks can also be reduced by more accurate weekly and monthly forecasts that will allow early response and mid-course corrections. Longer-range forecasting can be complemented with near-real-time, in-season monitoring that can offer additional warnings several days ahead.

Such monitoring, says the study, can be provided by scaling up ESCAP’s Regional Drought Mechanism which provides drought-prone countries with tools, services, capacity building and information that can be used to build tailored drought-management programmes. ESCAP could also enhance its collaboration with the ASEAN Research and Training Centre for Space Technology and Applications under its long-standing Regional Space Applications Programme for Sustainable Development Regional Space Applications Programme for Sustainable Development in Asia and the Pacific.

Through this programme and with other partners, ESCAP is constantly working to build capabilities and services for countries that request support.

In order to foster drought risk financing markets, the study says there are also significant opportunities for using risk financing tools to support rural resilience against droughts, although this will require a paradigm shift from post-disaster financing to a model where the financing is planned in advance and can be executed quickly and efficiently in order to save lives and protect livelihoods.

The old model for social protection against slow-onset disasters is also evolving. Rather than relying on post-event needs assessments, the idea now is to register recipients in advance and instead of providing food aid, making cash transfers that channel funds efficiently to those most in need.

A relatively new development is said to be forecast-based financing. In this case, some funds are disbursed on the basis of a forecast, that is, prior to the occurrence of an emergency or crisis.

Finally, enhancing people’s capacities to adapt to drought is necessary for reducing the risk of conflict arising in complex and drought-affected areas. The study says it will be important to prepare for evolving conflict scenarios to prevent and mitigate the long-term adverse impacts on community resilience and stability. “Competing interests can be channelled into non-violent resolutions through better management of natural resources, combined with climate adaptation.”

Preparing for the dry years

The study stresses that ASEAN countries will need to be increasingly prepared for the dry years ahead and be ready to take the necessary action. In particular, it says, they should protect the region’s poorest people, who are already likely to live on the degraded land that is most vulnerable to the effects of drought.

“While the dry years are inevitable, their consequences are not,” notes the study. “Many timely steps taken now can mitigate the impacts of drought, protect the poorest communities, and foster more peaceful societies.”

The study was produced as part of ESCAP and ASEAN’s close collaboration on disaster risk reduction under the ASEAN-UN Joint Strategic Plan of Action on Disaster Management. [IDN-InDepthNews – 25 April 2019]

Photo credit: Cover image of the study ‘Ready for the Dry Years: Building Resilience to Drought in South-East Asia’.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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