Understanding and overcoming disconnects between formal and informal drought and crisis prediction and response systems is central to the Observatory’s challenge question on effective early action at community levels. In early May 2023, a group of county-level actors involved in ‘local’ drought and emergency management met in Isiolo, Northern Kenya to synthesise lessons and insights from local drought and food security responses. This post by Cynthia Mugo of ILRI summarises the discussions on drivers and blockers to effective local early action against droughts. It is the first in a series of four posts on recent discussions convened in Kenya by the Jameel Observatory for Food Security Early Action.

Drought Management: Enhancing Resilience or Fostering Vulnerability? (image credit: The Elephant)

Drylands are renowned as being fragile environments with inherent uncertainty and variability. This fragility has been tested in Isiolo and Marsabit countries in Kenya where local communities have experienced five seasons of low rainfall, resulting in prolonged droughts that significantly challenged their food security and livelihoods. What can we learn from these experiences?

To take stock of local experiences, local organisations, community representatives and local experts met to uncover first-hand responses to these recurring droughts. Prominent discussion themes were the fragility of drylands, transitioning from reactive to proactive response approaches, bridging gaps between emergency responses and resilience programming, leveraging research and evidence, empowering local perspectives and voices, and addressing resource allocation and financing challenges. 

Understanding the fragility of drylands

The dialogue emphasised how important it is to recognise the unique challenges presented to local communities by the fragility of drylands. The deep-rooted connections of pastoral communities to these environments, built over generations, provides a unique perspective on the challenges and complexities they face. It was stressed that local communities have a wealth of knowledge about the intricate balance of ecosystems, the variability of weather patterns, and the adaptive practices necessary to survive in such harsh conditions. By actively involving local communities with their understanding of the fragility of drylands, we gain access to a wealth of traditional wisdom and practical experiences that can inform our approaches to resilience building. Harnessing this knowledge allows for a more nuanced understanding of the interplay between ecological, social and economic factors in such environments.

A woman fetching water at the Makutano water point in Kenya. (photo credit: Save the Children/Dorothy Waweru)

Transitioning from reactive to proactive approaches

Historically, responses to drought have been reactive, often providing relief after damage has occurred. The dialogue highlighted the significance of shifting towards proactive approaches. Strengthening early warning systems and promoting local anticipatory action emerged as critical strategies. For example, a representative from the National Drought Management Authority acknowledged that weak links in the ‘predict, prepare, respond’ cycle have led to sub-optimal responses by communities and other agencies. They emphasised the urgent need to invest in strengthening the predictive element through superior modelling to improve drought response and ensure more effective preparedness measures.  The importance of also improving information dissemination, enabling communities to take timely measures to mitigate the impact of drought before it reaches alarming levels, was underscored.  This would allow them to better cope with challenges posed by water scarcity or other threats.

Bridging gaps between emergency responses and resilience programming

The dialogue noted that drought responses and long-term resilience building are both crucial to address the challenges posed by recurring droughts. However, despite significant efforts in resilience programming, the unfortunate reality is that many hard-earned gains are lost when a drought crisis hits. The critical question we face is how to balance immediate drought responses with long-term resilience building. The dialogue emphasised the need to recognise that drought response and resilience building are interconnected and mutually reinforcing. While emergency responses are crucial to save lives and meet immediate needs, they should be designed to support and align with longer-term resilience goals. Participants stressed the importance of effective partnerships between government agencies, community-based organisations, non-governmental organisations and research institutions to ensure that resilience-building measures are integrated into emergency response efforts.  By working together, these stakeholders can pool resources, share expertise and develop strategies that address both immediate and long-term needs. Further, we heard that adequate funding and resource allocation should be dedicated to initiatives that strengthen communities’ capacities to cope with droughts.

The dialogue also highlighted the importance of connected processes that balance drought response and long-term resilience through increased coordination, collaboration and taking on community-centric approaches. By recognising the interconnectedness of these efforts, investing in sustained resilience programming and actively involving local communities, it is possible to effectively navigate the challenges of drought and ensure that resilience-building gains are preserved during a crisis. Including local actors was especially emphasised, as drawing from the expertise of the local community enables us to develop context-specific strategies that address the underlying causes of vulnerability.

Leveraging research and evidence

Research and evidence-building play pivotal roles in shaping effective drought response strategies. The dialogue underscored the importance of comprehensive research on the underlying factors influencing drought severity, to give us holistic understandings of the challenges faced by local communities.  Participants stressed that such research should be conducted with local communities, integrating their perspectives, knowledge and experiences. Applying such participatory approaches strengthens the relevance and applicability of research outcomes and ensure that communities are active agents in shaping their own resilience-building initiatives. Participants also aged that the gaps between research and implementation must be bridged through effective knowledge co-creation, sharing and dissemination.

Empowering local perspectives and voices

Recognising local communities’ knowledge and expertise, the dialogue underscored that local communities must be empowered to contribute their perspectives and voices in decision-making processes. This entails empowering local institutions, providing necessary resources and institutionalising local voices in drought response measures. An example was given on the significance of the NDMA’s early warning alert and alarm system for a herder in Marsabit. To contextualise early warning for herders means involving them in designing and implementing early warning systems. Their knowledge of the local environment and traditional coping mechanisms can be integrated, making the alerts more compelling and actionable.

Participants also emphasised that such local empowerment approaches require that resources are provided to support local actions and to ensure that local representatives and community leaders have seats at the table during decision-making processes. This fosters ownership and accountability.

Addressing resource allocation and financing

A significant challenge identified was inadequate allocation of resources and funding to resilience interventions. Participants reflected on the existing financing structures and highlighted the dominance of humanitarian responses that consume most available funds and leave limited resources for long-term resilience-building. This imbalance hinders the implementation of long-term resilience-building. It was also observed that not all institutions that play a crucial role in drought response are adequately resourced, which hampers their effectiveness.  To address this issue, participants called for greater advocacy for equitable resource distribution and increased investments in resilience programs targeted to enhance community drought management capacities. It is also important to look beyond the normal channels to explore innovative financing mechanisms and partnerships, involving, for example, private sector companies with motivations to invest in drought response and resilience-building efforts.

Cattle quench their thirst at a watering point in Isiolo County, Kenya (photo credit: ILRI/Geoffrey Njenga).

Adapting research agendas

Reflecting on the discussions, Guyo Malicha Roba, head of the Observatory, argued that achieving effective responses at the local level requires a comprehensive understanding of the challenges. These challenges include limited access to information, insufficient resources, coordination gaps, strained local capacities and challenging socioeconomic and political factors. He particularly called for much greater recognition and valuing of local knowledge and experiences of local communities.

It is also time, he said, for the research community to step up and bridge gaps in our shared knowledge and understanding of the drylands. Conventional reactive measures are no longer sufficient to address the complexities of prolonged dry periods. Researchers need to offer new approaches that re-imagine drought responses, shift our mindsets to emphasise anticipatory actions, informed prediction of likely impacts, reliable early warning systems and true community engagement. If the research community can adapt and take on these challenges, it offers the best gateway to unlock innovative and adaptive context-specific solutions that solve today’s crisis while fostering long-term resilience.

Read the other posts:

Community of practice meeting / Drought and food security datathon / Conversations with pastoralist elders

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