Coexisting with drought

Despite the regime of sparse rains and relatively high temperatures, the Brazilian semi-arid is far from being considered a sterile area.

Jaguarari, Bahia. Family benefited by the construction of a cistern harvests bean grains. Credits: Leo Drummond / ASA

During the 1980s, Brazilian institutions started to understand it was no longer possible to “combat” or “face” drought. After that, there was enhanced understanding of the meaning of coexistence that would be more appropriate to face this grave problem. Even though, a climatic event has been difficult to foresee, some interventions can help populations to better coexist with drought, a climatic phenomenon affecting food security and survival of over 2 billion people occupying 41% of the land areas on the planet. This occurs currently in 37 countries — 29 of those are in Africa — they need external help to assure their populations food supplies, according to the report on Harvest and food situation Perspectives, published in December 2017 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The Horn of Africa region on the African continent suffers most from this impact, where the drought negatively impacts over 12 million people. In Brazil, around 8 million people are directly affected by the most serious drought in the last 40 years. Added to economic, social, and environmental vulnerability, this prolonged drought has provoked nefarious effects in the affected regions, such as the paralysis of food production, pasture exhaustion, and increased migratory flow to urban areas. Also, “There is a dire need to determine the scale and possible impact from the prolonged drought on the “growing” season and immediately intervene. It is equally important to extract lessons from previous experiences and implement proven interventions in resilient construction, such as previous positioning of water infrastructure, supplemental food supply, and disease inspection in livestock”, states Chimimba David Phiri, sub-regional coordinator of FAO for Southern Africa.

Brazil has done the following

Agricultural practices in more sensitive-drought areas in Brazil face similar challenges as those found on the African continent, such as: climatic and environmental conditions, logistic deficiencies, outdated technology, lack of credit and technical support. In the past few years, Brazil has invested in social low-cost technologies for water storage, programs such as: P1MC (One Million Rural Cisterns) and P1+2 (One Land Two Waters) — the latter one was inspired by an experiment performed in China to transform this scenario. “The fundamental role of these initiatives is to serve rural populations in extremely vulnerable regions, regarding climatic and environmental points of view. The impacts from these programs on family farms, or in other words, the rural zone population, have been favorable”, defends Humberto Barbosa, a researcher from the Atmospheric Institute of Sciences at the Alagoas Federal University (ICAT) and who is co-author of the book A Century of Drought. He reminds that Brazil also developed social programs that played an important role in removing the country from the hunger map. “These policies have already been consolidated in Brazil and they can be adapted to eastern African countries, such as Ethiopia and Horn of Africa regions. These Brazilian government implemented policies have been recognized globally”, he defends. “However, it is necessary to make some adjustments to improve their efficiency, the example of initiatives related to care of the quality of rainwater stored in cisterns. The programs for combating hunger also need to be aligned to provide access to education and to improve it”.

The Brazilian semi-arid region has been going through an extremely dry cycle for six years, considered by meteorologists and other climate researchers, as one of the longest registered dry periods in this Brazilian region, affecting 9 million people. Data from the Semi-Arid National Institute (INSA) has stated that over half of the 452 monitored water reservoirs operate at less than 10% of their water storage capacity. Besides that, 4 million animals died just in 2012. Paradoxically, in the last few years, the official data has not accounted for typical calamities from previous droughts, such as deaths of children and food warehouse looting. The migration of the population affected by the drought has been different from other periods of dry seasons. “Reduced social impacts from the last drought were possible due to new social trends in organizations that have implemented actions to deal with semi-arid climates, combined with the implementation of public policies specifically focused on this purpose”, evaluates Avanildo Duque, the administrator of the ActionAid programs in Brazil. Rural retirement increased minimum wages, and the publication of edicts for providing technical support to rural populations are some of these policies.

Investments in science and technology are another element employed by Brazil. Since 1975, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), has been operating a specific research center for the Brazilian Semi-Arid region, where they perform studies on regions where agriculture and livestock are dependent on rainfall, irrigated farming, and natural resources. “Technology is the most important productive factor that positively impacts production and productivity, much more than labor, land, and capital. Technical support most commonly makes the difference in a productive property, and thereby generating work and income. The size of the property does not matter”, explains Sérgio Guilherme de Azevedo, Head Assistant of the Technology Transfer Department at Semi-Arid Embrapa Regional Center. The biggest challenge, according to him, is to make these technologies reach its target audience in a universal manner.

The following are some important players. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) that has been operating in the country since 1978, and it has already supplied over US$ 18 billion in donations and low interest loans for funding projects in the driest regions. Currently, (FIDA) is funding six ongoing projects (Procase, Viva Semiárido, Dom Távora, Paulo Freire, Pró-Semiárido, Projeto Dom Helder Câmara) and two new projects are in the developmental phase, and thereby benefiting 300 thousand rural families. The ASA (Semi-Arid Region Articulation) network is another important player. It is made up of 3 thousand different types of civil organizations, such as rural labor unions, agricultural associations and cooperatives, and NGOs. The ASA defends, propagates, and coexists with Semi-Arid regions.

Caiçara, Minas Gerais: Cisterns supply a rural community. Credits: Leo Drummond / ASA


Sharing experiences

Technologies developed in Brazil, whether social or not, are being exported to other regions. “We have contacts and cooperative projects in most official research entities in African countries. Contextualization, socioeconomic as well as edaphoclimatic defines the characteristics of the soil and climate, as this is the first step for technology transfers. The tropicalization of crops, tropical soil handling, dairy and beef cattle, and research management are among the main topics for current cooperative initiatives”, comments Sérgio Guilherme de Azevedo, from Embrapa Semiárido.

Since the ActionAid organization promotes international exchange programs for farmers and technicians, so that they can learn more about other regions impacted by drought, especially in Africa. “ActionAid has systematized the P1MC experience in a video, in appropriate and adequate languages that will be widely disclosed in organization member countries and other spaces for universal policymakers, such as work committees from FAO”, tells Avanildo Duque, from ActionAid in Brazil.

A rich region

The semi-arid region in Brazil cannot be considered a sterile zone, despite of scant rainfall and relatively high temperatures. It is mostly composed of scrub forest biomes, yet it features varied microclimates, providing diverse economic possibilities, such as livestock, dry croplands, irrigated areas, ore production, tourism, and renewable energy generation.

The center of irrigated croplands is in the cities of Juazeiro and Petrolina, an example of regional competitive capacity in tropical fruit and grape growing, ever since the 1980s. Even other types of fruit are being introduced and evaluated. Mendoza, Argentina, nowadays is one of the key wine producers in the Americas, and features similar climatic conditions.

Rural workers in Somalia’s drought-hit region. Credits: F. Nyakairu_FAO

The threat

The progress Brazil has achieved in the drought coexistence requisite may be threatened due to the lack of investments in this field, and possibly lack of political interest on this topic or new strategies due to the deficit economic reality facing the Country for the past few years. The Federal budget for 2018, has allocated practically no resources for the Foodstuff Acquisition Program. Technical support has undergone a 70% cutback in its resources, and its execution is being centralized in governmental bodies. The credit funding modalities for family farming have also suffered from budget cuts. “The conjuncture from this dismantling has brought about serious impacts, Brazil could even return to the FAO Hunger Map, it had been removed from in 2014”, laments Avanildo Duque, from Action Aid.