Drought and Man

By R.V. Garcia

Chapter 5: Responses to Drought-Induced National Disasters


When considering different countries or regions and their type of response to drought situations, most countries can be classified between two polar-opposite situations: those with an underlying stable system, and those with instability and volatility underlying their system. While a few examples may find themselves at either end of this response spectrum, the vast majority of countries and regions find themselves enmeshed in the gray area between both poles. Over time, both the countries’ response to climactic change, and the countries themselves change.


When looking at countries with drought-induced situations, structural problems inherent in them are rarely looked at as the culprits. Instead, symptoms such as climate, population pressure and the misuse of soil are taken as causes.  International awareness has not acknowledged the true problem: lack of access to food due to poor distribution of means.




The measures usually adopted to deal with these problems – when drought and famine situations get extreme – have been coined the Red Cross Approach (RCA). While RCA is a valuable tool used in dire situations, there are two main criticisms to this approach:


1        The first criticism is that RCA is to countries in need of help what an analgesic is to a tooth with a cavity. While it may reduce the suffering, the underlying problem will in fact continue to get worse.

2        The second criticism is that the international use of RCA is in essence a foreign policy tool, with humanitarian considerations trailing behind economic and political agendas.


Not only does RCA help the wrong “cure” for drought induced situations, but help in its form (internationally supplied) usually arrives too late or in insufficient amounts, due to political mismanagement. An example of a failed attempt at international RCA can be seen with the Sahelian famine in the early 1970’s.


Example: Sahelian Famine


During this crisis of the early 1970’s, the insufficiency of aid provided was blamed on two factors:


1.      Lack of and untimely information, which prevented help from arriving on time.

2.      There was not enough available help for such a large “world food problem.”


To refute the first justification, all that is needed is to quote a report showing the extent to which there was in fact a detailed knowledge of the situation:


To the AID and FAO bureaucracies from 1968 onward came significant and ever-increasing intelligence on the catastrophe overtaking the Sahel. The scope, depth and momentum of the drought year by year were methodically recorded in the annual public reports by AID on disaster relief. The 1969 report spoke of the ‘prolonged drought across West Africa.’ … By 1970, there were more than three million people requiring emergency food… ‘Hunger, if not starvation, has become increasingly frequent (and) emergency imports have become the rule rather than the exception,’ concluded the 1970 report.[i]


The second justification is wrong in claiming insufficient amounts of aid, since there was in fact an excess of food stocks! While in 1972/3 only 700,000 tons of grain were requested as relief for the Sahel, this was only “little over one-tenth of 1% of the amount of grain used for animal feeding in developed countries; 2.7% of the grain bought by USSR in 1972/3; one-third of the ‘error’ found in UNCTAD and FAO annual Statistics on grain trade.”


RCA at the National Level


At the country level RCA may be applied with much more success, where the organization and planning can be more localized. A good example of this can be seen with India, during the Maharastra drought of 1970/3, where the official response was quick and effective in a time of minimum grain imports and hardly any external help. India did deplete its reserves, however, and had the drought continued for a longer period of time, the results would surely have been devastating. This unfortunately shows that domestic RCA can be only considered a short-term response.


Time and time again the limit to this solution has been blamed on overpopulation; whatever stocks a given country may have, it can certainly not deal with the continual increase in population and a drought. How can this be claimed, however, when countries like India are in fact net exporters of food? Whatever problems of nutrition India has are instead due to the overall structure of food distribution, production and trade. Vulnerability to drought is “a property of the whole system and cannot be explained away be referring to the direct ‘impact’ of a drought on the crops.”




With continual improvements in communications networks, grain production and transportation it is clear that RCA is becoming more efficient. This is enough for some to justify its usefulness and support its further implementation. However, it still must be asked whether that is enough.


After successful RCA intervention, the drought-affected region involved will return to pre-drought conditions, “which were bad and now probably worsening.” This gets at the heart of the main problem with RCA, that it merely deals with symptoms of a much larger problem; “the world’s stable death toll from malnutrition is probably higher, by a factor of 10 or 20, than that caused by the sum of all droughts.” Malnutrition is in fact the background situation of most drought victims, but it does not bring nearly as much international attention as droughts do.


Since malnutrition is mostly neglected as the precondition that leads to famine through droughts, there is an obvious distortion in the way that solutions are sought. There in fact seems to be a very disturbing trend developing as the problem of malnutrition continues to be ignored. While RCA methods continue to become increasingly efficient and effective at dealing with drought victims, the much broader base of malnutrition victims will continue to go unaccounted for. This in turn will lead to a deterioration of the underlying social structure of these regions, further weakening their stability to the point where another drought would be catastrophic and far out of the reach of RCA efforts.


Triage Method & Population Traps


If it is still believed that population lies at the heart of the problem, then nothing can be done for this growing problem other than helping some people some of the time. In extreme form, a “triage” method is developed. The triage method was invented by military health services in times of war when the number of wounded far outnumbered the available medical infrastructure. In such cases, the wounded were divided into three categories:


1.      Those who had no realistic hope of survival

2.      Those who would only survive with the proper medical attention

3.      Those who would be able to survive anyhow


Of these three categories, only the second were helped. In the case of our study, countries and regions in countries would be divided into comparable categories, where only the second would receive any aid.


Fortunately there is an opposing view to this “population trap” idea. This is based on the growing conviction that there is indeed enough grain to feed the people involved, only that it has to be distributed in a more equitable way. For example, international figures[ii] show that the “caloric deficit” of poor countries is equivalent to approximately 37 million tons of wheat; this is about 3% of the world’s total grain population. As another example, we could compare the average daily consumption of US citizens (11,886) to that of Indian citizens (2,636).


Who is to Blame?


While figures such as those seen above seem to place blame on the “average” American citizen (or citizen of any First World country, for that matter) for the extreme inequality witnessed throughout the world, this would be a mistake. While there is definite immorality at the root of this erred distribution, this immorality should not be attributed to people living with certain eating habits that are socially acceptable to that society. Not only is it not their fault, the solution is not easily in their hands, either. The problem was created through the “coercion,” the “merciless exploitation,” the “sacking of certain countries by other countries, of certain sectors of the population by other sectors of the population gradually leading in the last centuries to the situation we have been describing.” And this situation is now deeply rooted in the current world socio-economic systems where readily available needs are out of reach of much of the world’s population. Even in all the “overeaters” of the world reduced consumption, it would not help.


There is another aspect of the problem that further complicates matters, and that is the fact that much of the readily available information – which in many instances is used when explaining decisions – does not paint a clear picture of the true situation of the world. Statistical averages, when dealing with entire populations of countries, can be extremely deceiving. Just as there are massive inequalities between countries, there are also incredible polarities within poor countries that are obfuscated by the statistical numbers. For example, the country of Gabon, while stricken with one of the lowest life expectancies in the world still manages to have an income close to the GNP of France.


Since much of what is going on within countries is hidden behind deceptive statistics, it is important to closely study what truly goes on within the borders of countries. It is here that the main problem (and therefore the possibility of solution) lay when it comes to malnutrition. The severe disequilibrium between food production and food consumption within developing nations can be explained through the part agriculture plays in the path towards industrialization.


Agriculture must play two roles in countries attempting to industrialize:


1.      As a source of currency necessary to “import raw materials, manufactured products and technology for the industrial sector.”

2.      As a source of cheap food for the working class (high prices of food would force wages and therefore production costs to rise).


This duality in the agrarian system therefore forces different sectors of the population to react differently to external and internal markets. The support of the state, through credits and investment usually goes to the first agricultural sector, leaving the second – poor – part of the system in a difficult position.


With this duality in mind, it is now easier to understand how a natural disaster such as a drought can affect so many people through famine, while at the same time plenty of food is being produced within the same country. The poor, undernourished segment of the population carries the enormous burden of state development policies, and as a consequence suffers greatly from any unexpected disasters.



Summary by Nick Smallwood

[i] H. Sheets and R. Morris, “Disaster in the Desert: Failures of International Relief in the West African Drought”, Special Report, The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

[ii] FAO, “The Fourth World Food Survey”, 1977