A Global Agricultural Research Partnership

Technology to tackle drought

Cattle herders at Goraye in Ethiopia's drought-stricken lowland Oromiya region. Photo: AHeaven

As drought tightens its grip in many parts of the developing world, causing human suffering and massive economic losses, planners are turning their attention to promising ways of harnessing science to lessen the impact.

Monitoring and early warning systems, water saving technologies and risk management measures are just some of the strategies being explored for better drought preparedness. A High-level Meeting on National Drought Policy (HMNDP), due to be held in Geneva from March 11-15, will seek to “provide practical insight into useful, science-based actions to address (the) key drought issues,” say organizers.

One promising new tool, developed by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and partners, is helping plant breeders to comb through plant genetic resource collections more rapidly and accurately – to identify precious traits such as drought tolerance, resistance to extreme temperatures or diseases that are now more prevalent due to changing climate patterns. Scientists will then be able to use these characteristics to create crop varieties that can withstand higher temperatures and need less water.

ICARDA reports that its tool – Focused Identification of Germplasm Strategy (FIGS) –  is bringing researchers closer to the 6 million crop genetic resources housed in the world’s 1700 agricultural genebanks. Using a set of sophisticated algorithms FIGS ilters masses of plant genetic information – matching agro-ecological data with data on plant traits and characteristics.

Remote sensing for crop forecasts

Meanwhile, a joint project between the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University (IRI) and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is exploring how satellite data can improve the accuracy of crop yield forecasting. Crop yield predictions can be useful for agricultural insurance schemes and help improve the resilience of rural livelihoods and food systems to climate-related risk. A CCAFS blog reveals that promising results in using remote sensing to forecast crop performance on large-scale farms is now being followed up by research into how to adapt these techniques for smallholder farms.

In parts of India, where rainfed rice production is the major livelihood of farmers, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) scientists are using time series satellite imagery to map communities prone to drought and other stresses. The information generated will enable rice scientists and planners to develop adaptive measures and help farmers vulnerable to drought to reduce their losses by using improved varieties and appropriate crop management technologies.

Time-honored systems have long stored precious water in underground cisterns in countries such as Iraq and Syria. But from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) comes news of how this member of the CGIAR Consortium is working with partners to investigate technology that could use below ground storage to alleviate both floods and drought.

Focusing on Thailand’s Chao Phraya River basin, scientists are seeking to harness natural processes to “turn the menace of floodwater into an opportunity.” The scheme involves providing incentives to farmers to allow parts of their land to percolate floodwaters and storing that water below ground for times of drought.

Insurance pays off for farmers

Insurance for farmers is proving an effective risk management strategy for drought prone areas in Africa and India. The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which has been instrumental in developing index-based livestock insurance in the Marsabit district of northern Kenya and the nearby Borana region of southern Ethiopia, says the system is providing valuable protection for vulnerable pastoralists in some of the world’s harshest climates.

In most of East Africa . . . insurance and similar types of risk management tools are not available to vulnerable pastoralists or smallholder farmers,“ ILRI researcher Andrew Mude, told an ILRI blog. “Without insurance, herders’ families have little protection against the hunger and poverty that can come as a result of a significant drought.

Calculations for payments are based on satellite images from NASA, which show the state of vegetation, an indicator of livestock health. The insurance pays out when evidence shows that drought stricken grazing lands are so poor that herders are expected to lose at least 15 percent of their herd.

In India, technology is being used to offer weather-based insurance to protect farmers from the impact of extreme weather events such as drought. The scheme uses a network of weather stations together with crop modeling and statistical techniques to work out the relationships between crop output and weather parameters. Farmers are insured against crop yield loss using a pre-established weather index.

Citing the system as an impressive model for climate smart agriculture, CCFAS explains that farmers receive an automatic payout when the weather veers above or below this mean level. Premium costs are affordable since insurance companies do not have to visit farmers’ fields to assess losses. More than 9 million farmers had signed up for the insurance program by the 2010/2011 growing season.

“Drought has major implications in terms of human lives lost and, increasingly, in terms of short-term and long-term economic losses,” says the draft declaration from top government officials due to attend the upcoming meeting on drought. “Societies need to be empowered with improved preparedness plans and related measures for better management of drought risks.

Drought has also been described as “by far the most damaging of all natural disasters”. Exploration of technologies to build insurance, crop prediction and water conservation schemes form a crucial step on the path to ensuring that drought prone countries are better able to withstand the impact when disaster strikes.

Links for more information:
Scientists look to the skies to improve crop predictions on earth (CCAFS)
Index-based insurance arms farmers against uncertainty (CCAFS)
FIGS – a new tool for rapid mining of agricultural genebanks (ICARDA)
Herders in drought-stricken northern Kenya get first livestock insurance payments (ILRI)
Zeroing-in on drought-stressed rice areas (IRRI)
Below ground storage could alleviate floods and drought (IWMI)
Balancing-out floods and droughts: Opportunities to utilize floodwater harvesting and groundwater storage for agricultural development in Thailand (IWMI)

ICARDA, ILRI, IRRI and IWMI are members of the CGIAR Consortium.  CCAFS is one of the 16 CGIAR Research Programs which align the research of the 15 CGIAR Consortium members and their partners into efficient, coherent, multidisciplinary programs to realize the full potential of collaborative research for tackling complex development issues.

Photo credit: AHeavens

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