International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean   

Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
Issue: 13/2006- 12/2006 - 11/2005 - 10/2005 - 9/2004 - 8/2003 - 7/2003 - 6/2002 - 5/2002 - 4/2001- 3/2001

Disaster in the Region


Droughts: Not-So-Minor Disasters
Romeo Bernal Central American Mitigation Initiative (CAMI) Project


In El Salvador, according to records going back to 1926, droughts have increased in frequency over the past decade. At present, their most significant impact is on the energy and productive sectors, affecting mostly small farmers already in a condition of extreme poverty.

The most severe damage due to drought took place in 1997 and 2000. In 2001, the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry (MAG) has launched a mass-media campaign to explain the measures that will be taken in response to the drought that is affecting several parts of the country and, indeed, the region. National institutions such as the Agrarian Reform Confederation (CONFRAS) and the Chamber of Agriculture (CAMAGRO), and international agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP), are monitoring the situation. Even though the executive branch of government has so far issued only a yellow alert, the legislative branch decreed a national state of emergency on 10 August.
The impact of the drought will no doubt be hardest on the extreme poor, particularly those who are still reeling under the impact of recent earthquakes.

Given these facts, it is imperative to increase national capacity to confront droughts, not only by responding to the effects, but by developing a Drought Risk Management Plan—one that contains prevention, mitigation, and response strategies.

General Aspects

Droughts are the natural disasters that have the biggest economic impact and can affect the largest number of people. Earthquakes and cyclones may have great physical intensity, but they are short-lasted and their geographical impact is limited; moreover, the number of fatalities they cause is only large if they hit densely populated areas. By contrast, droughts affect large extensions of land, sometimes entire countries or even continental regions. They may last several months, even years. Invariably, moreover, they have a direct and significant impact on food production and the economy in general.

As is the case of most natural disasters, drought has not traditionally been a priority of policymakers. The negative effects of droughts are mostly handled through contingency measures such as price controls or the grain imports. Their occurrence is not seen as structural; accordingly, they are not contemplated when designing development plans.

Even research on macroeconomic stability or the problems faced by the peasant economy tends to underestimate the significance, to the subsistence dynamics of the farming sector, of losses caused by drought. Instead, it focuses primarily on aspects such as inadequate technical assistance, lack of credit, low prices, the need food assistance, or the impact of food imports.

In recent decades, environmental degradation has accelerated, increasing the vulnerability of the population to natural phenomena such as droughts or floods. The degradation of natural resources and the environment is of global dimensions—and has global implications.

El Niño, a warming of Southern Pacific surface sea waters that causes various meteorological and oceanic phenomena, is blamed for the increase in natural disasters such as floods, droughts, landslides, and forest fires. But the growing severity of El Niño itself is attributed to the thinning of the stratospheric ozone layer due to CFC’s and other ozone-depleting substances, which increases the level of ultraviolet solar radiation that reaches the earth’s surface, including that of its oceans.

Other forms of man-made pollution, such the emission of so-called greenhouse gases, are likewise contributing to climate change, which threatens to aggravate the frequency and severity of disasters worldwide.

An Operational Definition of Drought

Drought can be operationally defined as a significant temporary reduction in available water and humidity that is below the normal or expected amount for any given period. The essential components of such a definition are the following:

  • The reduction must be temporary. If it were permanent, one should rather speak of aridity or desertification.
  • The reduction must be significant.
  • The reduction is defined by comparison with a norm.
  • The period employed as the basis for the norm must be specified.

The way this “norm” is defined is highly important. The final two components in the list above, therefore, require some amplification.
A norm can be defined in one of the following two ways:

  • Technically: For instance, a state of drought might be declared if the availability of water falls 80% below the average of the past 20 years. Given the natural fluctuation in climate conditions, however, the period chosen to estimate the average may prove inappropriate.
  • Culturally: The norm would be defined as the availability of water considered “normal” by society. All societies tend to stabilize their socioeconomic systems around their perception of what would be considered a normal amount of rainfall. This perception is affected by recent observations. Thus, after 10 consecutive years of heavier-than-normal precipitation, society will become habituated and feel that a drought is taking place when there is a return to average rainfall patterns.

Types of Drought
There are three types of drought.

  • Meteorological – It involves a reduction of precipitation over a given period (a month, a season, a year) below a specific amount, normally defined as some proportion of the long-term average for a specific period. Its definition is limited to precipitation data. One must be very careful when employing and aggregating precipitation data.
  • Hydrological – It refers to a reduction in water resources (river flows, lake water levels, aquifers) below a particular level for a given period. This definition only takes into account availability and consumption data based on the normal supply of water in the system for domestic, industrial and agricultural use.
  • Agricultural – It refers to the impact that meteorological or hydrological droughts have on this economic activity. Crops need very particular temperature, humidity and nutrient conditions during their growth phase to achieve their maximum development. If the availability of humidity (or any other factor) falls below the optimum level, then production will be lower, often setting off a chain effect throughout the economy (see Section 6 below).

Factors that Affect Vulnerability During
an Agricultural Drought

The following factors may increase or reduce the vulnerability of farmers and farming to the effects of a drought.

  1. The proportion of agricultural production that involves irrigation.
  2. The soil’s capacity for humidity retention.
  3. The arrival of the rainy season.
  4. The adaptive behaviour of peasants.
  5. The incorporation of soil conservation practices that improve the soil’s water retention capacity.
  6. The management of river basins and micro-basins.
  7. Crop systems.
  8. Deforestation to increase the surface of grain crop production.
  9. The availability of preventive technical assistance, education and training in drought prevention and mitigation measures.
  10. The degree to which agricultural production has been organized and planned, particularly in terms of land use management.
    Effects of Drought

The typical effects of a drought include the following:

  • A decrease in farm income.
  • A decrease in employment for farm workers.
  • A generalized fall in demand throughout the economy as a result of the reduced income of a significant sector of the labour force.
  • An increase in loan defaults in the rural sector, affecting both central and commercial banks.
  • A decrease in government tax revenue and foreign earnings due to a fall in agricultural exports.
  • An increase in the price of basic food items.
  • An increase in the rate of inflation.

The inability of certain sectors of the population to pay high food prices may result in the following situations:

  • People may buy cheaper food items, even if they are not the most habitual or nutritious.
  • They may reduce their overall consumption of food.
  • They may request loans to maintain their level of overall consumption.
  • They may sell assets to maintain their level of consumption.
  • They may look for alternative sources of income.
  • They may migrate in search of employment.
  • They may migrate to where food assistance is being provided, leading to increased morbidity and social tensions between long-term settlers and new arrivals.
  • The reduction in food consumption may negatively affect their nutrition and reduce their ability to withstand disease.
  • They may have to go further afield in search of “good” or more plentiful water, and possibly even migrate to where water is more abundant or of better quality.
  • The increased competition for access to water sources may lead to more frequent local conflicts and disputes.
  • The social costs of migration may lead to the dissolution of communities and families.


Recommendations for preventing and mitigating droughts can be divided into those of a “macro” nature, involving government policies, and those of a “micro” nature, meant to modify the ecological conditions and farming practices of the areas affected. Many of these must necessarily be carried out by government at its various levels, but others may be a part of the strategies of international cooperation agencies.

The following are measures to mitigate the effects of a drought, provide emergency relief, or guarantee food security.

  • Price controls.
  • Food subsidies.
  • Job creation programmes.
  • Supplementary food programmes.
  • Special programs for livestock farmers.
  • Complementary water supply programmes.
  • Complementary health programmes.

The following are long-term prevention and mitigation measures.

  • Production diversification strategies involving more drought-resistant and profitable crops.
  • Research of humidity conservation techniques or methods for reducing the water deficit caused by drought.
  • Projects involving water reservoirs, small-scale irrigation, alternatives to slash-and-burn techniques, the use of compost, and other soil-friendly practices.
  • Education programmes on the importance of responsible water and forestry management and the protection of basins and micro-basins.
  • Training programmes for community organizations on the importance of Risk Management Plans to identify specific causes of physical, environmental and social vulnerabilities and take advantage of weather forecasts and early warning systems.

For more information, please contact:
CAMI Project, CARE International
Tel. (504) 235-5055 Fax (504) 232-0913