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Severe, increasingly common droughts demand climate change adaptation

This blog describes UNDP's experiences in Ethiopia as it faces its worst drought in 50 years and underlies the critical role that climate adaptation efforts play in sustaining livelihoods.

UNDP’s Experience in Ethiopia

With climate change likely intensifying the effects of this year’s El Nino (2015/16), many parts of the world are experiencing longer droughts, more frequent floods and increasingly violent storms. This can have a devastating effect on poor and vulnerable households, underlying the critical role that climate adaptation efforts play in sustaining livelihoods.

Ethiopia is facing its worst drought in 50 years. Two successive rainy seasons have failed, leaving up to 10 million people in need of aid. As of May 2016, humanitarian funding requirements have increased to more than $1.5 billion USD.

Bekele is from the Oromia region of Ethiopia, one of the areas affected by the current drought. While nearby Lake Ziway used to be a source of drinking water, its levels are now dangerously low. Yet Bekele and his family are amongst the lucky ones, with the support from a project that promotes autonomous adaptation, every morning, Bekele Tesfaye wakes up early to spend a few hours on his farm. The land is dry, but his crops – corn, teff and sorghum – are still growing. There is also water available for his livestock. Solar powered water pumps have helped offset some of the pressures of water shortages for Bekele and his family.

Many others in Ethiopia, however, lack the support required to help them adapt to extreme weather events caused by climate change.

In 1984, Ethiopia experienced a drought that resulted in upwards of one million deaths. Since then, the country has embarked on an ambitious development plan. The Government has allotted 70 percent of public capital to the agricultural sector; reducing poverty by 29 percent. It has also increased the size of its road network, connecting farmers to markets. Initiatives like the Productive Safety net Programme (PSNP) have further helped to increase the food resilience of families. Over the past eight years, the country has experienced growth rates of 11 percent.

Despite these gains, more than 20 million people continue to live below the poverty line. Nearly 10 percent of the population remains chronically vulnerable to food insecurity; depending on national safety net programmes and emergency assistance. The population has doubled since 1984 and is projected to double again by 2050.

Ethiopia’s development gains, like so many other countries, precariously rests on its ability to avoid disasters like the 1984 drought. Climate change works to magnify the influence of weather related hazards like storms, floods and droughts. Over time it will likely permanently change the ecological distribution of plants, animals and, therefore, economic activities that can be pursued in a given area.

Adaptation Options

While relief efforts during disasters capture the public attention, longer term strategies that focus on adapting and mitigating the worst of these climate impacts will be key to achieving long term prosperity. UNDP experience shows that governments can pursue the following three strategies to promote resilience to climate disruptions and secure development gains.

First, a whole-of-government approach needs to be adopted to manage climate risks. Essentially what this means is that public service agencies work with one another across portfolio boundaries to achieve a common goal. Planning to address climate change risks must not only be done in each sector, it is important that these plans are coherent across sectors. Budgetary allocations for sectors must also be in place to implement what is in those plans. However, despite the rhetoric, most government ministries around the world continue to take a siloed approach to their work. Climate risks must be fully integrated into development planning and budgeting processes at all levels of government. Ministries should identify new and innovative ways of working together and leveraging one another’s resources. A whole-of-government approach also requires that governments explore incentives and regulations to promote adaptation activities in both private and public sectors.

Secondly, the adoption of risk management practices by communities on the front lines of climate change needs to be scaled up. This is especially true for Least Developed Countries where scientific evidence indicates that most severe impacts are likely to take place. When disasters ahead are unavoidable, it will be important to reduce the likelihood of damages and strengthen capacity of early warning and post-disaster recovery systems. The international community has put in place the global architecture required for this response. From the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction to the Paris Agreement on climate change, all major agreements in 2015 called for increased investment in early warning, preparedness, disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. In response, the organization I work for, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), is scaling up its efforts to support countries like Ethiopia to undertake adaptation work. From investments in promoting the use of climate information by end users, to promoting climate resilient livelihood options for the poor and marginalized, to ensuring investments in climate resilient infrastructure, to putting in place the right policy incentives and governance systems, UNDP is supporting more than 100 countries around the world to pursue risk informed development.

Thirdly, there is a need to fundamentally shift attitudes regarding climate change risks. As we move from a time when we debated about whether climate change is happening now or not, there are still ingrained perceptions that have to be changed. Impacts of climate change are happening in our life time. Droughts in California have shaken the economic pillars of that state’s economy, shifting views of what types of economic activities are ultimately sustainable in the future. Mass migrations from Africa to Europe and ultimately North America, are changing perceptions on the ripple effects of climate induced disasters. The world is now a much smaller place. Self interests need to make way for the greater good, if our children are to inherit a world they can live in. This underpins the need for transparency and accountability in governance and in civil society.

Lessons Learnt

Much needs to be done. Funds are not currently flowing to countries as urgently as they are required. Some, such as the Least Developed Countries Fund and the Adaptation Fund remain significantly underfunded. So too is work on fundamental requirements such as research on climate change adaptation, impact evaluation of adaptation efforts and associated frameworks to promote transparency and accountability.

Perhaps this situation would change if people’s perceptions of the scope and magnitude of climate change were to align with what we are now seeing around the world. But this needs to happen quickly. There is much to do and little time to lose!


This blog was written by Pradeep Kurukulasuriya, Head – Climate Change Adaptation, Global Environmental Finance, Bureau of Policy and Programme Support, United Nations Development Programme.

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