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Drought – formed by a significant, extended period of dry weather and limited rainfall – is particularly common across some of the ASEAN region’s drier areas. However, history has shown that drought is not confined to just those locations, with it known to impact communities and livelihoods from traditionally rainy climate, and can even be felt significantly outside of the directly-affected region.

Defining drought can be relatively complex, due to the fact that it is based not on a set precipitation figure – but compared to the average amount of precipitation experienced in a specific location. Therefore, a recognised drought situation in a tropical region (known for high rates of rainfall) may still be seen as very wet when compared to an arid location. However, we can simply determine that a drought is recognised when an area receives significantly less precipitation than it is used to, and does so over an extended period of time.

A key difference with drought, when compared to other disaster types, is its slow-onset nature. While earthquakes, floods and volcanoes strike quickly and often unexpectedly, drought slowly manifests over weeks and months of little-to-no rainfall. Sometimes bursts of rainfall may provide short-term relief, however the beginning and end of drought periods are usually only determined once the disaster has truly finished. Drought is most-often caused by changes or disruptions to the normal weather patterns (such as through winds or atmospheric circulation), with the increasing onset of climate change impact also linked to many drought situations.

It was recently reported by United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) that droughts have impacted over 60 million ASEAN citizens throughout the past 30 years, with such estimations considered conservative due to traditional underreporting of drought based on its slow-onset context. Through a study produced to support ASEAN disaster risk reduction under the ASEAN-UN Joint Strategic Plan of Action on Disaster Management, significant increases in the future impact of drought in the region were highlighted, particularly with increased detrimental impact of climate change on ASEAN communities.

Key challenges faced by ASEAN when facing drought include the tendency of high impact on farming communities and regions, increasing vulnerability for those who rely on agriculture as their primary source of income – including in Lao PDR (61% of citizens), Viet Nam (41%), Indonesia (31%), Cambodia (27%) and the Philippines (26%). Alongside this, drought conditions also tend to impact most heavily on poorer communities, increasing inequality and therefore the risk of conflict. The report calls on starting interventions now to reduce the impacts of drought, protect the poorest communities and foster more harmonious societies.

Drought impact and conditions also increase significant risk of a range of secondary disasters – or disasters that occur due to conditions impacted by drought. Flooding can increase in risk in drought-affected areas, particularly when flash rains arrive, with loose and dry topsoil adding to water runoff, alongside lack of flooding preparation by communities (due to ongoing dry weather). Landslides also become a significant risk, as land degradation and decreased plant life results in unstable and landslide-prone land areas. Fires clearly also increase in risk during drought conditions, as trees and plants become dry and more prone to ignition, while dry winds and lack of rain only add to fan the flames of any hotspots or flare-ups. As previously mentioned, human conflict (or human-influenced disaster) is also an increased risk due to drought, as inequality, hunger and forced displacement all become more prevalent the longer a drought continues.

While perhaps more challenging to prepare for than quick-onset disasters, ASEAN communities and governments must adopt new practices and policies to prepare for the forecasted increase in future droughts. Even in non-rural areas, efforts for water conservation and protection of green areas can support the overall context of drought mitigation. Working with farmers through new technology and drought-resistant crops, as well as promoting more sustainable land-use practices and more responsible water-use methods are all significant opportunities to help deal with the onset of drought. All parties clearly have a role in the preparation for and overcoming of future drought conditions in the region.

Written by : William Shea | Source : Ready for the Dry Years: Building resilience to drought in South-East Asia, United Nation Publication/ESCAP