South-East Asia is regularly hit by droughts. Though starting slowly, droughts can have devastating cumulative impacts – striking hardest at the poor and heightening inequality, as well as degrading land and increasing the prospects of violent conflict. There will be many more dry years ahead, and the area affected by drought is likely to shift and expand. Increasing resilience to drought will require much better forecasting, and more efficient forms of response, at both national and regional levels.
Over the past 30 years, droughts have affected over 66 million people in South-East Asia. The most severe events have been during the El Niño years. Most of the economic impact of drought – around four-fifths – is absorbed by agriculture. However, the impact extends beyond agriculture. Through both demand and production, agriculture is linked with industry and services.
Compared with earthquakes and cyclones, which are sudden ‘intensive’ risks, droughts are considered ‘extensive’ risks with slower-onset, repeated or persistent conditions of low or moderate intensity. They are often highly localized and operate over longer timescales – with large, cumulative impacts on widely dispersed populations. Due to their slow onset and persistence, however, droughts are often under-reported and receive relatively little attention from policy-makers.
Droughts undermine all aspects of food security by reducing food supplies, and cutting the incomes of poor communities. Water and land scarcities, coupled with a succession of disasters, erode traditional coping mechanisms, particularly for the poorest people who live on the most degraded land. By decreasing the incomes of the most vulnerable populations, droughts can then heighten income inequality. Some people will try to escape through migration, often to urban coastal areas in search of new opportunities.
In addition, droughts can create fertile ground for conflict. Natural disasters, and particularly drought, can lead to environmental degradation, which can provoke conflict over access to resources and land. In previous years, more than 80 per cent of localized conflict incidents in the Asia-Pacific region, have occurred in areas that were, at some stage, affected by drought.
In the future, drought severity in South-East Asia is likely to see a geographical shift. Historically, droughts have been concentrated over the north and south of Viet Nam, the southern part of Sulawesi and Borneo, and the central part of Java, Sulawesi and Papua. In the near future, even with less severe El Niños, the drought area will have extended to Cambodia and the southern part of Thailand, with similar conditions in the southern part of Sumatera and Borneo. For more severe El Niño conditions, in both the near and far futures, the northern part of Viet Nam and Lao People’s Democratic Republic will face extreme drought.
Building drought resilience
Building resilience to drought will rely primarily on national action. But national efforts also need to be set within frameworks of regional cooperation. These include the ASEAN Declaration on Culture of Prevention, ASEAN Vision 2025 on Disaster Management, ASEAN-UN Joint Strategic Plan on Disaster Management, ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response and ASEAN Disaster Risk Financing and Insurance. Drought resilience is also an integral part of the Agenda for Sustainable Development. Activities to build resilience contribute to the achievement of several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Based on the findings of this study and the existing frameworks, the following interventions are proposed for implementation by ESCAP and ASEAN:
1. Strengthen drought risk assessment and early warning services
Each country should have drought monitoring and early warning services. These 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 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 Center for Space Technology and Applications under its long-standing 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.
2. Foster drought risk financing markets
There are also significant opportunities for using risk financing tools to support rural resilience against droughts. But, 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 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.
3. Reduce conflict by enhancing the adaptive capacity to drought
Conflict risks will increasingly arise in complex and drought-affected areas. It will be important therefore 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.
Ready for the dry years
ASEAN countries will need to be increasingly prepared for the dry years ahead, and be ready to take the necessary action. In particular, 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. ESCAP is prepared to work with all partners to develop a roadmap. This will help promote synergies and ensure a continued, strong momentum in collaborative efforts with ASEAN countries.
While the dry years are inevitable, their consequences are not. Many timely steps taken now can mitigate the impacts of drought, protect the poorest communities, and foster more peaceful societies.