National Drought Policy Guidebook

Kaveri Marathe1 and Siegfried Demuth2



1 Hydrological Systems and Global Change Section, Division of Water Sciences, Natural Sciences Sector, UNESCO, Paris, France

2 Head, Hydrological Systems and Global Change Section, Division of Water Sciences, Natural Sciences Sector, UNESCO, Paris, France; E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it



Many countries around the world have suffered from a series of natural hazards, especially severe droughts which have an impact on food production and livelihoods. The majority of people are dependent on agriculture which is highly vulnerable towards climate conditions on a seasonal basis. Climate change increases the vulnerability of agriculture towards extremes. The main reason is the reinforcement of the hydrological cycle which will lead to an increase in the frequency and intensity of such extreme droughts. In order to adapt to the impacts of climate variability and change there is a need for tools to be used to monitor and forecast droughts. Only a few countries have adequate drought mitigation strategies in place, instead relying on post-impact management strategies to deal with the effects of drought once the worst has transpired. This paper presents key elements for composing a national drought policy. These elements can be tailored to fit the particular needs of each individual country; however the main elements must all be incorporated in order to offer an effective drought risk management plan.

Keywords: climate change, droughts, monitoring, drought risk plans, guidelines




Drought affects millions of people worldwide on an annual basis. Economically, it is the most devastating of all natural disasters. Unlike floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and others, droughts are difficult to predict due to their slow onset. And in the aftermath, the long term effects are often long lasting and widespread, making them difficult to recuperate from quickly. Some of these effects include loss of human and animal life, reduced crop and forest productivity, water scarcity and rationing, increased risk of fires, and damage to animal and fish habitats (Sivakumar, 2011). Reduced crop productivity in turn has economic impacts on farmers and raises food prices, which can affect entire regions or countries. For example, the drought in Texas in 2011 cost an estimated $7.62 billion with an average acreage abandonment of 55% of planted cotton fields (Fannin, 2012).

Droughts are even more damaging in developing countries. In one 2004 study, droughts in the developing world wiped out 5% of those countries' GDPs (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2008). Due to their heavy economic reliance on agriculture, any disaster that impacts crop production can be devastating for poor populations, at times inducing famine. Additionally, countries that derive energy from hydro-electric plants can experience major shortages in power and even blackouts during a drought (Xie and Economides, 2010).

Climate change is exacerbating these existing drought effects. Droughts are caused by variability in the normal amount of annual rainfall. Rising temperatures will lead to more evaporation and precipitation globally (Rind, 2000). Precipitation will likely be concentrated into fewer high-rainfall events with high runoff, with longer dry periods in between. Mean precipitation levels may also change, making already wet areas wetter and dry areas drier (Bates et al., 2008).

Despite this, few countries have adequate drought mitigation strategies in place, instead relying on post-impact management strategies to deal with the effects of drought once the worst has transpired. One essential element to changing the discourse on drought is to incorporate it into our language and policy as an expected and natural part of climatic activity. As world temperatures increase, drought events will continue to become more common, widespread, and severe. When seen as a recurrent component of the local ecosystem, it can be prepared for in advance rather than simply managed after-the-fact.

Drought can cost the economy hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue to various sectors (Ding et al., 2010). Planning and mitigation can curb many of these costs. However, mitigation also requires a complete infrastructure of information and actors in place in order to function most efficiently.

In this paper, we present the key elements for composing a national drought policy. These elements can be tailored to fit the particular needs of each individual country; however the main elements must all be incorporated in order to offer an effective drought risk management plan.




Case Studies

Country: Australia

Main issues: Australia has the least rainfall of any inhabited continent, and is prone to frequent droughts. Despite this, agricultural activities cover 60% of the continent.

Policy Measures: In 1992, a national drought policy was enacted that encouraged farmers to plan for drought as a natural part of climate variability in order to encourage greater self-reliance. This included farmer training programs and financial management and business planning advice. Additionally, they offered financial support in 'Exceptional Circumstances' deemed beyond the control of farmers as well as a structural adjustment program to increase the efficiency of struggling farms. To prepare for drought conditions, the policy also called for better water management practices (Nicholson et al., 2011).

Outcome: Though initial feedback regarding the policy was mixed, the government has conducted several subsequent reviews, attempting to improve the policy every few years. The improvements have included quicker payment of emergency funds, improved training programs for farmers, and a streamlining of the emergency fund application process.

Next Steps: Assessing the financial impact from the national drought policy is difficult, but several flaws from the initial phases of the program highlighted the need for greater communication between scientists and policymakers, a clear definition of 'exceptional circumstances', and better coordination between levels of government (O'Meagher et al., 2000).

Country: USA

Main issues: Southern and Western portions of the U.S. are extremely prone to drought conditions. Due to the U.S.'s federal system, most drought management responsibilities fall on the shoulders of each individual state.

Policy measures: In 1996, a council of governors convened to compose a regional policy, to offer guidance and support to states facing drought conditions. Two years later, Congress passed the National Drought Policy Act which created a commission to advise Congress on the most important elements to include in a national policy. The commission advised preparedness over relief and coordination between federal and state entities. It also found that a policy must accommodate diverse water users and diverse water uses, and that it needed to distinguish between normal cyclical droughts and emergency situations. The commission named the following as the main elements of a national policy: planning and education, careful monitoring, insurance and emergency funds, and efficient coordination of programs. Though these elements were outlined in a bill introduced to Congress in 2000, the bill stalled and was never passed.

Outcome: In 2006, the U.S. launched the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) to gather data to improve drought monitoring coordination and capabilities. NIDIS and the U.S. Drought Monitor provide up-to-date information on drought conditions for the whole country but a disconnect still exists between state and federal authorities.

Next Steps: Congress has opted to put drought issues on the backburner but in light of 2012's extreme drought conditions, another review of drought policy options may be forthcoming (Motha, 2011).

Country: China

Main issues: In China, monsoon rains never fell in 2011, leaving reservoirs dry, hydropower plants still, and millions without electricity or drinking water. The drought severely affected lake systems and rice and cotton outputs. Droughts have been a recurrent feature of the Chinese climate; however they have become more and more severe in recent years (Sivakumar, 2011).

Policy measures: A Water Law and a Meteorological Law were developed in the 2000s on the national level to plan for drought. At the state and local levels, regulations were passed on natural hazards and meteorological activity. China monitors soil moisture and water levels using hydro probes and remote sensing. Applying various indices, they classify drought severity as drought-free, slight, moderate, severe, and extreme. Drought forecasting is done as often as every 1-3 days to inter-annually. In the event of a drought, Chinese authorities have the following measures in place to respond: media announcements, storehouses of reserve relief supplies, an internal information sharing system, an inter-agency coordination mechanism, and emergency response. They also have a system that delineates each sector's individual role to prevent overlap (Zhang, 2011).

Outcome: China's current strategies are focused more on short-term reactive than long-term proactive drought management. The move toward a more proactive approach that encourages farmer self-reliance is currently difficult since most farmers lack modern technology or the means to diversify their risk (ABARES, 2012).

Next steps: Preventive measures are under way to mitigate the effects of future droughts, such as farmer training, research and development of new techniques, and infrastructure projects (Zhang, 2011).

Countries: African Sahel Region

Main issues: Severe drought has affected the Sahel since the 1970s, leading to the deaths of thousands of people and animals. Agriculture accounts for a large portion of African GDP and rural employment, therefore improving the agricultural sector can have major impacts on the quality of life for Africans. However, increasing agricultural output faces several challenges, namely a lack of adoption of superior seed varietals, a lack of political support, poorly developed markets, lack of access to finance, and climate variability. While some attention is paid to the issues of seeds, markets, and financing, limited attention is paid to the issue of climate variability. A second major problem in predicting droughts is the dearth of historical data on rainfall and moisture levels.

Policy measures: The Sahel has 2 regional agencies – one handles the production and dissemination of scientific information (AGRHYMET) and the other coordinates planning for food emergencies with other organizations (PREGEC). On the national level, each country has an agency that produces scientific data and offers early warning. Assessment begins in March with a seasonal outlook and is then checked every 10 days for updates. Food stocks are maintained to prepare for extreme droughts. To deal with the lack of data, the African Drought Monitor was set up at Princeton University to offer near real-time drought monitoring of soil moisture and other hydrologic variables to be compared against historical drought data from the region to forecast impending droughts (Ali and Traore, 2011).

Outcome: Despite the introduction of regional agencies and drought monitoring technologies, major weaknesses remain in coordination and resource allocation. Very little coordination exists between data collecting agencies. Additionally, communication is weak between local and international agencies. International aid is often misspent or misappropriated by corrupt government officials. High staff turnover leads to a lack of institutional memory so systems fail to become institutionalized. Lastly, the focus remains on crisis management rather than risk management (Tadesse et al., 2008).

Next Steps: Due to the lack of data, an important first step will be developing monitoring systems on a national level. This will encourage a shift from reactive to proactive thinking. Strengthening coordination between institutions and reducing corruption will be critical as well (Traore, 2005).