Is it time to devise a faster response to slow onset disasters?

An area in Somalia affected by the drought in 2011. Photo by: FMSC / CC BY

Drought alarm bells began to ring in Somalia in early November 2016.

By late November, the Somalia NGO Consortium published a clear statement about what they saw happening in the African country — namely that Somalia went through a strikingly similar situation in 2011, when “two failed rain seasons, overlapping shocks, restricted action and a late response resulted in large-scale human catastrophe.”

The indicators now — such as poor and erratic rain since late September, low rate of water availability, high rate of livestock loss and dependence on uncovered water sources — “are the same indicators that we had in 2010” and present a similarly crucial opportunity to respond early before conditions reach famine levels, InterAction Director of Humanitarian Practice Julien Schopp told Devex.

But donors, much like during those early warning stages six years ago, still aren’t acting decisively enough on current reports, Schopp said. Now, experts tell Devex, it is either time to bolster drought indicators and better define action tied to early warning systems, or rethink aid frameworks altogether.

The Somalia NGO Consortium’s plea for donors and other stakeholders to act follows many INGOs’ disappointment at the slow response to Vietnam’s 2015-2016 El Niño-induced drought, when a lack of closely monitored triggers allowed it to become a “creeping emergency” but never the disaster necessary to unleash crucial donor funding, according to Olle Castell, Plan International disaster risk manager in Asia.

Still, the prolonged drought plunged thousands of people back into poverty.

The situations in Vietnam and Somalia both shed light on separate but interconnected issues: Traditional methods of monitoring the impact of a swift disaster such as flooding or a typhoon don’t apply to drought, a slow onset disaster that can fall through the crack between humanitarian response and development frameworks. And even when triggers and warning mechanisms are geared toward slow onset, the donor and aid community are often not responding fast enough.

In the aid world it remains easier, Schopp said, to fix a problem in front of your eyes — and take credit for it — than to prevent the problem altogether, which explains slow responses to often invisible early drought situations.

Establishing community-level baseline indicators such as access to safe water, how many meals people are eating per day, what type of food they have in their meals and how many seeds they have for the next harvesting season could help identify the most vulnerable groups and allow quicker response to a disaster like drought, Castell noted.

But overall, there are already clear triggers for slow onset disasters and especially droughts — such as the prices of basic commodities or sale of cattle as assets — though they exist mainly in geographical contexts the humanitarian response community is already familiar with, such as the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, according to Schopp.

“It might be time to cast the net wider in terms of monitoring if climate change is going to affect more countries,” he said.

More importantly, he noted, is that once triggers are clearly agreed upon, there must also be a firm commitment from donor countries to act when those triggers are reached. Donors require early warning systems in order to dictate funding, “but only react when the situation approaches the catastrophic,” Schopp said.

Mercy Corps is currently in the beginning stages of addressing quicker action at their own organization by creating an internal crisis tracker — which would pull data from needs assessment and analysis groups such as ACAPS and other security or environmental reports — to monitor and better anticipate slow moving emergencies.

One of the things they’ve found, according to Mercy Corps Humanitarian Response Manager Marjie Sackett, is that defining corresponding action to indicators is as important as identifying from which sources to pull data.

Their team is currently working to identify indicators to clearly mark when to move from watching a situation to a “warning” phase and finally an “act” phase — although a situation could move from watch to warn or even from watch immediately to act, Sackett said. At Mercy Corps, these moments are referred to as “decision gates.”

“Figuring out what the thresholds are for when you move between those phases … We see it, agencywide, as extremely important,” Sackett said

Castell noted it might even be time to define an additional type of humanitarian crises to build in better slow onset response. Investing millions of dollars to lift people out of poverty and having them drawn back in is a humanitarian emergency, slow onset or not.

“Development and humanitarian crisis are two sets of frameworks for how to respond, maybe we need a third that is more applicable [for slow onset],” Castell said.

But for Schopp, the answer is not a new framework or new agency, but better collaboration.

“It’s kind of sometimes the problem, we create a new agency or system for every new problem, when more needs to be done in coordination ... more coherence rather than more mechanisms.”

One way to address this, Schopp suggested, could be to create a geographically flexible “drought global fund” that would consolidate current information and available data, define criteria for early interventions and collect funding on a yearly basis.

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.