Five facts on drought risk, from the UNU Lead Author of GAR Special Report on Drought 2021

Droughts affect millions of people and many domains, and incur costs that are mostly laid on the shoulders of the most vulnerable. Impacts are widespread, ranging from agricultural and energy production to human health and biodiversity, and even tourism. Climate change is aggravating the issue by increasing temperature and disrupting rainfall patterns, leading to more severe and frequent droughts in many regions in the world. As the world inches closer to getting 2°C above pre-industrial levels, we must better manage drought risks, understand root causes and take preventive action.

On the occasion of United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) publishing the new Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (GAR) Special Report on Drought 2021, UNU-EHS Senior Scientist Dr. Michael Hagenlocher, who contributed as Lead Author on the topic, highlights five insightful facts about drought risk.

1. We need to focus more on preventing droughts

We need to get ahead of the curve by focusing more on preventive measures, instead of reacting to droughts after they happen. By concentrating on identifying where risks and vulnerabilities lie, addressing root causes of risk and taking preventive action, we can reduce the costs of reacting and responding after a drought event has taken place, and also prevent damage for ecosystems, people and entire economies.

2. We need a global mechanism to reduce drought risk

The GAR Special Report on Drought recommends setting up a new global governance mechanism so that countries can address the cascading and transboundary nature of drought risk, broaden collaborative partnerships, promote adaptive governance and share capacities and learning. Drought is an issue that has a widespread impact around the world, and the more knowledge sharing and collaborative process take place, the better we are equipped to reducing drought risk globally. To achieve this, networking and partnerships across different scientific disciplines, policymakers, practitioners and citizens – including the most vulnerable – are needed.

3. Drought risks are increasingly systemic

Droughts are complex, interconnect across large areas, cascade through socioecological and technical systems, sectors and across borders at different scales, and linger through time. In a globally interconnected world, these complex interactions and feedbacks not only make the assessment of drought risk and the monitoring of the overall impacts of droughts more difficult, but also increase the risk of systemic failure. For example, system changes due to droughts can lead to higher food prices, which in turn affects health deterioration and poverty, and even labor system deterioration and education failure. While our understanding of the systemic nature of drought risks has evolved, many countries lack approaches and tools for assessing cascading and systemic drought risks.

4. A paradigm shift towards systems-based approaches in drought risk management is needed

We need more bold and systemic action to reduce current and future drought risks and increase resilience to hazards. Existing strategies and plans need to be complemented by more comprehensive systemic approaches aimed at preventing droughts and their cascading and possible systemic effects in the first place. In order to address drought risk holistically, we need to move from single and sectoral risk management approaches to multi-risk, cross-sectoral and systemic drought risk management approaches.

5. Reducing drought risks supports the Sustainable Development Goals

If well managed, efforts towards reducing drought risks and impacts will not only help to avert loss and damage in the future, but also contribute to achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), e.g. through effects on poverty (SDG1), hunger (SDG2), health and well-being (SDG3), gender equality (SDG5), clean water and sanitation (SDG6) or sustainable cities and communities (SDG11).

Read the GAR Special Report on Drought here.