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Asian Development Bank

Chapter 14.4 Drought, food security and famine

Promoting food security

Photo: Asian Development Bank

14.4.1 Integrating approaches

Drought-related food insecurity initiatives should address the different dimensions of the problem, using an appropriate range of methods. An example of this range is given in Table 14.1, which highlights the main interventions in a joint UNICEF/World Health Organisation project some years ago that covered 600 villages in Iringa, Tanzania. The project was a response to persistent food insecurity and malnutrition rather than to an individual disaster, and specifically nutritional aspects are emphasised in the interventions, but the basic approach is one of risk management, seeking to limit the likelihood of future disaster. Measures to combat chronic food insecurity are an important element of anti-famine initiatives.

Table 14.1 Interventions against malnutrition in Tanzania

Problem Possible causes Programme interventions
1. Inadequate food in households (most severe a few months before the harvest)
  • Lack of household planning
  • Wrong crops chosen
  • Failure of rains
  • Poor crop management
  • Storage losses
  • Shortage of agricultural inputs
  • Lack of income to buy food
  • Training of trainers in household food planning
  • Promotion of drought-resistant crops
  • Improved storage
 2. Inadequate nutrient intake (especially in children)
  • Poor economic resources
  • Nutritionally poor diet
  • Shortage of fuelwood
  • Shortage of fruits and vegetables
  • Scarcity of meat
  • Scarcity of beans and other legumes
  • Too heavy workload for mothers
  • Promotion of income-generating activities
  • Nutrition education, especially to mothers, through health workers
  • Training and other inputs for village afforestation and home gardening
  • Training and inputs for small animal keeping
  • Promotion of grain milling and appropriate technology
3. Lack of awareness of good weaning practices
  • Lack of awareness of children’s nutritional needs
  • Inadequate feeding frequency
  • Scarcity of energy-dense foods
  • Dietary bulk
  • Provide weaning recipes based on local foods
  • Mobilise communities to provide extra food at child care posts
  • Campaign on use of kimea (flour with high nutritional value)
M. Hubbard, Improving Food Security: A Guide for Rural Development Managers (London: IT Publications, 1995).

As far as possible, interventions should be linked to household coping strategies. As affected people employ a variety of strategies, and may alter the type and mix of coping methods they use, agencies need to be flexible in their approach. Some of the components that might make up an integrated approach are outlined in the following sections. The overall aim should be to diversify crop production and other food production activities in order to maximise opportunities and spread the risks from environmental stress.

Case Study 14.2 An integrated approach to food and livelihood security

Marginalised communities in Nepal’s mid-western districts face chronic food shortages due to frequent droughts, declining harvests and the rising cost of imported food. World Vision has been working with a community in Jumla to improve long-term food security and household resilience. A large part of this work focused on methods for improving agricultural production: terracing slopes to make land available for agriculture, distributing seeds, building greenhouses to grow crops and saplings, setting up seed banks, training in composting techniques and repairing and maintaining irrigation canals. World Vision also supported the creation of community groups, such as greenhouse groups and seed banks.

Farmers involved in the project reported increased yields of 50–100%. They grew a variety of crops – barley, wheat, beans, potatoes, maize and apples – on the terraces. This helped to change local diets and reduced child malnutrition. Members of the Jumla greenhouse group achieved food security all year round, as well as setting up a savings and credit scheme with money from the sale of surplus vegetables, which is used to maintain the greenhouses, build new ones and make loans to group members.

The community was encouraged to identify and document local climate changes – there is often considerable local variation – and indigenous coping practices. Some farmers were already adapting to climate changes by creating apple orchards. However, the apples needed appropriate storage to stop them rotting before they could be brought to market. The project worked with farmers to construct 12 apple cellars, each with a storage capacity of seven tonnes, enabling them to preserve the apples and take advantage of higher off-season prices for their produce. The project also helped to improve local roads to markets. However, it remained difficult to get people to take part in activities benefiting the community as a whole, such as maintaining irrigation systems, because they remained more concerned with the short-term food insecurity many of them faced for several months a year.

M. Ibrahim and N. Ward, Promoting Local Adaptive Capacity: Experiences from Africa and Asia (Milton Keynes: World Vision UK, 2012),

14.4.2 Protecting food production

The improvement and protection of soils is crucial in supporting agricultural ecosystems in the face of weather variability and extremes. Regeneration of degraded land through tree-planting, improved land use management and other agro-ecological interventions can have a significant impact on soil fertility and hence on crop yields (see Case Study 14.3: Land regeneration and food production).

Case Study 14.3 Land regeneration and food production

In parts of Niger, a great deal of land has become unproductive because of land degradation and erosion, largely due to extensive deforestation. Since 1985, farmers in southern Niger have been managing the regeneration of trees and bushes on their land as part of a farmer-led movement called Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR). Where FMNR is practised, degraded land has been restored and crop yields have increased. Some 5m hectares have been ‘re-greened’ in this way. As a result, small-scale farmers are producing an additional 500,000 tons of cereals a year, helping to feed 2.5m people. Financial benefits from increased grain and livestock production and sales of tree products are estimated at up to $250 a hectare and income has risen by 18–24% per household member.

P. Gubbels, Escaping the Hunger Cycle: Pathways to Resilience in the Sahel (London: Sahel Working Group), 2011,

Methods of protecting the soil against erosion from wind and water and preventing water run-off include terracing, digging furrows and ridges, planting grasses, bushes and trees, building walls of stone or earth, planting in holes and pits and mulching. The most appropriate method for each location depends upon its physical features (the nature of the soil, the terrain and climatic conditions) and local capacities (the materials, skills and other resources available).

Intercropping (mixing different crops in the same plot) is a traditional coping strategy. Where the crops chosen differ in their resilience to drought, diseases or pests, intercropping increases the probability that some crops will survive. It can also be beneficial to growth: some plants give shelter or shade to others, or provide nutrients to the soil. Other beneficial agricultural practices include crop rotation, composting, application of green manures and planting cover crops. Integrated pest management, based on intercropping and the use of insect-repelling plants, crops or pesticides (including those made from traditional recipes using local plants) is another feature of many successful food security initiatives.

Research has revealed extensive indigenous knowledge of agricultural plants and how to grow them. By protecting and sharing such knowledge, and the traditional seed varieties concerned, food security projects can widen the options open to communities and increase their resilience to hazards. Seed banks, fairs and demonstration plots are effective methods of preserving, promoting and sharing traditional plant varieties (e.g. Case Study 14.4: Improving food security in a drought-prone area). Local genetic diversity protects crops and livestock against diseases and environmental changes. Government agricultural extension services and NGOs have sometimes promoted new, hybrid versions of staple food crops at the expense of traditional varieties. These newer varieties can give higher yields, but in many cases require favourable conditions with ample water and fertilizers, whereas traditional varieties tend to be more resilient to environmental stresses such as drought. Promoting new commercial seed varieties can also threaten biodiversity and undermine traditional knowledge of alternative varieties.

Case Study 14.4 Improving food security in a drought-prone area

Chivi District, in Zimbabwe’s Masvingo Province, is an area of poor soils and low rainfall. In 1990, Intermediate Technology (now Practical Action) began to explore methods of working with communities and local organisations in the district’s Ward 21 to improve food security among the 1,300 households there. This coincided with a period of drought that killed many cattle in Chivi.

The project intended a strongly participatory approach from the start, but had to overcome considerable local cynicism about the value of outside agencies. Many villagers were puzzled that the NGO had not come with a pre-formulated programme and was not offering financial or material support. An extensive assessment process carried out with the community identified a wide range of problems in producing food and sustaining livelihoods. Only after six months of consultation did the project begin to set priorities and make plans – again, involving the community, many of whom had never gone through a participatory process of this kind. It worked with two main local institutions: farmers’ clubs and women’s garden groups, as these were most directly involved in food production.

The first phase of implementation addressed the need for water for fields and gardens, pest and disease control and fencing to protect gardens from animals. At the same time, over 1,800 community members took part in training to improve their capacity to identify problems and solutions, communicate and manage their own organisations.

During the first two years, a range of technologies was tried out by farmers and gardeners, and those found to be most effective were quickly taken up by other community members. They included sub-surface irrigation using clay pipes, pots and bottles; terracing, rock catchments, ‘tied’ ridges, infiltration pits, mulching and underground plastic sheeting to increase water retention; digging and improving wells; winter ploughing, intercropping and use of termite soil as fertilizer and moisture retainer; and growing ‘live’ fences of sisal. Seed fairs were held to revive local crop varieties, share information on them and demonstrate their value. Surveys and discussions showed that many farmers knew of local plants that could be used to make effective pesticides, but were reluctant to tell others because they feared their knowledge would be thought too old-fashioned in an age of modern chemical pesticides. The project made sure that their knowledge was recorded and shared.

All of these methods were widely adopted and effective in boosting production. However, as the project progressed it was clear that it needed to pay more attention to marketing. Women gardeners carried out surveys of demand and prices for various vegetables, and as a result the groups began diversifying their production to meet these opportunities.

As the project took off, with widespread adoption of the various techniques and growing numbers of local people taking part, it also expanded into other wards. Reviews and evaluations found increased and more reliable crop yields and a steady increase in the variety of crops being grown. Buyers began bringing trucks into the area to purchase surpluses, and women began sending their husbands to neighbouring areas to sell the produce from their vegetable gardens. Some garden groups set up a revolving loan fund, and community organisations became more confident in managing their own affairs and in their relationships with outside agencies and government agricultural extension workers. After the project formally came to an end, local farmers formed a trust to continue the work. The trust was managed and directed by local people, though it relied to some extent on external support and resources.

K. Murwira et al., Beating Hunger: The Chivi Experience (London: IT Publications, 2000); A. Masendeke, SARD Initiative Retrospective Study – Chivi Food Security Project (Harare: ITDG Zimbabwe, undated),

Food production is inseparable from issues of improved access to land and more secure land ownership. Many of the problems poor communities face in drought-prone areas arise from unequal distribution of land and natural resources. Determined advocacy may be needed to protect common resources such as forests and grazing land.

14.4.3 Storing food and seeds

Crop stores and seed banks help to ensure that there is food to eat and that there are seeds to plant. They offer security against rising food prices during the hungry season, and by storing a wide variety of local seeds they maintain biodiversity. They can also protect crops and seeds against other natural hazards, such as floods.

Many drought mitigation projects include crop and seed storage among their interventions, and there is plenty of guidance on this subject.+For example, I. Carter, Improving Food Security: A PILLARS Guide (Teddington: Tearfund, 2001),; M. Hubbard, Improving Food Security: A Guide for Rural Development Managers (London: IT Publications, 1995). This storage falls into two main categories: household stores and community grain and seed banks. Inadequate storage can lead to crops rotting, becoming diseased or contaminated, or being eaten by pests. Low-cost techniques and materials can often be used to make stores, and traditional knowledge and methods can be adopted or adapted: examples include sealed clay pots, baskets lined with clay or plaster, plastic sheeting, sacks, metal bins and underground storage such as lined and covered pits. Stores can be raised above the ground on wooden poles to protect them against rats and mice (with guards made of tin cans on the poles to prevent the animals from climbing up). Some varieties of crop and seed may be more resistant to pests and disease than others, and it is useful to explore traditional knowledge on this. Traditional pesticides such as ash, some types of edible oil and certain local plants may preserve crops against insect attack. Some crops can be preserved for longer by drying or smoking them. In other cases crop processing – into flour, oil, jams or pickles, for instance – is an effective preservative, as well as creating a product for sale. Exchange visits enable farmers to see different storage and preserving practices and discuss their effectiveness.

A few words of caution are needed here. First, it is important to identify whether crop losses in storage result from poor storage, or from harvesting and post-harvest preservation practices. If the latter are inadequate and introduce disease or contamination into the crops, good storage systems will make little or no difference. Second, community seed or grain banks present storage and management challenges that are quite different from domestic stores. The storage problems are technical, arising from the scale on which produce has to be stored, but in many cases similar technologies to those employed by households can be used. The real challenge is management. A seed or grain bank is a bank, not merely a store. These banks can be run in different ways but the principles are standard: usually they buy grain from their members and sell it back at below-market rates, or they run as savings and credit schemes. Procedures governing how households deposit seeds or grain with the stores, how to sell or lend seeds and grain back to them and how to deal with defaulters must be worked out carefully, and must be transparent.

Grain/seed banks must be planned with communities, built by them and managed by them and, crucially, run on behalf of the whole community. This may require training in organisational development, literacy and accounting procedures. Start-up funding may be needed to build stores and purchase initial grain stocks, and top-up funds or grain may be necessary. Outside organisations attempting to introduce such schemes need a high level of skill and experience in community development, and there has to be a high level of trust between the community and the organisation that is helping it, which may take years to build. Seed or grain banks should also be part of an integrated food security or rural development programme. On their own, they cannot provide complete food security.

14.4.4 Water conservation

Water shortages affect crops, livestock and people. Town dwellers rely on large-scale water infrastructure, but in the countryside communities may have access to a variety of sources: rivers, ponds, wells and dams. The extent of access depends on distance, ownership of the water resource and the cost and technical difficulty involved in collecting or extracting water.

There are two main options for increasing water supplies. The first is to improve access to underground water sources, for instance by deepening wells or digging new boreholes. Such measures may be beyond the financial or technical resources of poor communities, but there have been many successful water supply projects involving external support. If the water is fed into irrigation schemes, then the cost of installing and maintaining irrigation pipes and channels must be added. The second method is ‘rainwater harvesting’. There are many different methods of harvesting rainwater for agricultural and domestic use. They include:

  • building water-storing dams and percolation dams (dams that slow the rate of rainwater run-off and so increase absorption into the soil, thereby recharging local groundwater);
  • building community or domestic storage tanks;
  • lining ponds with plastic to improve water retention; and
  • putting up stone or earth bunds to improve absorption and reduce soil loss (brushwood and strips of grass or other plants can also be used).

Many of these methods are traditional and the knowledge and skills needed to build and maintain them are present in the community. In other cases, it is relatively easy to acquire the relevant technical expertise, such as site surveying and designing structures, though perhaps harder to know how to choose the most appropriate techniques for different geographical and socio-economic contexts. The choice of approach to water provision varies according to location, and may vary over even a small area according to such factors as the topography, the level of dependence on irrigation compared to rainfall and the moisture-retaining capacity of different soils.

Most rainwater harvesting methods are cheap compared to digging wells and pumping water from more remote sources. Communities can provide labour and in some cases building materials – bunds and dams use just stones and earth. Many readily available materials can be used to catch, channel and store rainwater, including tin sheets, palm leaves, plastic sheets, the stems of plants such as bananas and bamboos, tree trunks and more conventional gutter pipes and tanks. The task of constructing larger-scale structures such as tanks and dams is substantial, and collective action is needed. Construction of community rainwater harvesting structures may require the community or external agencies to provide labour, materials or financial resources. Some of these activities, such as digging water-retaining earthworks, are time-consuming and labour-intensive. Design, construction and ongoing maintenance need to be managed carefully, ideally through community ownership and collective effort.

In some cases, the problem may be one of access to water, not its physical availability. Equitable water distribution is the goal. Communities in drought-prone areas often have sophisticated systems for this. Local management structures should be reinforced where necessary.

Rainwater harvesting can be highly effective. India, for example, appears to have had considerable success: there are over 120,000 small reservoirs in the country’s semi-arid regions, providing irrigation water for more than 4m hectares.+V. Anbumuzhi et al., ‘Towards Improved Performance of Irrigation Tanks in Semi-arid Regions of India: Modernization Opportunities and Challenges’, Irrigation and Drainage Systems, 15, 2001, The expansion of rainwater harvesting in India has been assisted by the existence of centuries-old traditions and techniques, coupled with technical support and vigorous advocacy from Indian NGOs.

14.4.5 Preserving livestock

Livestock are a valuable asset, providing food, income and agricultural inputs (manure, pulling ploughs and carts). Some livestock, such as goats and camels, are good at withstanding water shortages. A one-year drought may have little effect on the size of a herd since the animals can be moved. But when the drought is prolonged poor people are often forced to sell animals to raise money for food (breeding animals are usually kept and others sold). If this happens on any scale it drives livestock prices down, generally at the same time as grain prices are rising with scarcity. This can result in severe depletion of herds, from which it may take many years to recover.

Agency interventions to protect livestock-dependent communities during drought crises are generally of the following main kinds:

  • Increasing grain and fodder supplies to the area (the former to help keep grain prices down, the latter to keep animals fed).
  • Removing surplus animals (e.g. by buying, slaughtering and processing them).
  • Giving broader support to communities’ livelihoods, so that they do not have to sell their breeding animals.
  • Restocking with new animals.

Pastoralists have long-established methods of coping with drought, based largely on moving animals to other areas and partly on livestock sales. But with traditional grazing lands increasingly under threat from privatisation for ranching or other forms of development, coupled with the spread of conflict in African countries in particular, it is becoming harder for them to put these coping strategies into practice (see Chapter 15). Where communities are heavily dependent on livestock that cannot easily be herded elsewhere (e.g. dairy cows), collective schemes might be established to maintain fodder supplies during droughts through bulk purchase and community-managed plantations. This can be effective, but is likely to need strong institutional support.

14.4.6 Food aid and nutrition

Monitoring and combating malnutrition is an important component of food security work, including early warning. Assessment of nutritional deficiencies requires specialist expertise and is beyond the scope of this book, but several major agencies have produced technical guidelines for the management of nutrition in crises: the Emergency Nutrition Network website ( is a good place to look for this kind of information.

Advances in nutritional assessment methods have increased agencies’ ability to monitor and manage crises as they enter the acute stage. Since the early 1990s nutritionists have widened the focus of their work from malnourished individuals to larger populations, and from a narrow set of technical interventions to combat malnutrition to a broader range of strategies, policies and programmes that take account of related causal factors such as water, sanitation, health and social care. Multi-sectoral approaches are ideal in theory, but their complexity causes problems. In practice, nutrition initiatives often have to make the difficult choice between concentrating their resources on the direct alleviation of malnutrition – usually through feeding programmes – or addressing underlying causes.

14.4.7 Protecting livelihoods

Where support to livelihoods is concerned, many of the steps that organisations will need to take in drought-prone communities can be regarded as general development interventions as much as DRR (see also Chapter 9). A broad range of interventions is needed to stimulate local economies so that poor people are no longer so dependent on agriculture for their food and income. Economic diversification is the key here, through on- and off-farm enterprises. Where a family’s income comes from a range of different economic activities, there is a greater degree of protection against the failure of any one activity (e.g. harvest failure due to drought). Diversification of agricultural production is part of this. Many food security projects encourage farmers to grow a wider range of crops, establish kitchen gardens and orchards, keep poultry or set up fish ponds. This has the twin objectives of improving food supplies and generating produce that can be sold. Technical assistance, if needed, must be supplemented by training in business skills and marketing, and organising production to meet market demands.

Many drought mitigation projects support household gardens in addition to farms. The gardens are typically used to grow vegetables that will give a more varied diet and can be sold. In many cases they are managed by women, who thereby gain more control over household food supplies and income. Another common approach to enhancing livelihoods is the processing of agricultural products – for example grain milling, oil processing, making jam and peanut butter, fruit and vegetable drying or bee-keeping. Processing preserves crops and often adds value.

Off-farm employment may be regarded as more secure against drought than agriculture, but this impression can be misleading. Local industries that depend on water or agricultural products are vulnerable too: for instance, a grain mill stops working when there is no more grain to mill. In such cases the impact of the drought may be delayed until some time after crops have failed, but this is only a delay. The collapse of the agricultural economy also affects rural people’s purchasing power and so has a knock-on effect on shopkeepers and traders supplying goods. Plans for local economic diversification must take hazards into account and, where possible, find productive activities that are unlikely to be directly affected. Artisanal crafts may be a suitable activity, as the supply of raw materials may not be affected by a drought or other hazard and markets may be some distance from the affected area. Creating alternative enterprises is a complex task, requiring specialist support in technical and business skills, credit and market access.

Well-functioning local markets make it easier for vulnerable people to buy and sell in times of need and, by distributing efficiently and moderating shortages, help to keep the prices of essential items down. Development and disaster planners may need to act to strengthen local markets and improve poor producers’ access to them, for instance by improving local transport infrastructure, helping to disseminate information about prices, lobbying against damaging market restrictions, promoting more efficient methods of storing, preserving and transporting perishable goods such as food products, supporting small-scale decentralised processing facilities (e.g. grain milling) and providing credit and training in small enterprise management.

While communities with high incomes generally suffer less from malnutrition, the link between wealth and nutrition is not clear-cut: there can be considerable differences within communities and households. Other factors play an important role. For example, the level of education among women has a great influence on dietary, hygiene and health practices. The benefits of increased income also depend on who earns and controls the money.

14.4.8 Maintaining natural resources

Maintaining natural resources such as forests, grazing land and sources of water is very important to food security, especially where these are held in common. More intensive use of common property – for grazing, collection of wild food and roots or fishing – is a valuable drought coping strategy and is important for the very poor and landless at any time. Preserving these resources against encroachment by private interests or their destruction by alternative forms of commercial or state-sponsored development, such as farming, logging and dam construction, is usually difficult. Local voices are unlikely to be heard unless their campaigns are supported by other organisations with resources and lobbying skills.

Reforestation to mitigate drought or other hazards can be highly effective (see Case Study 14.3: Land regeneration and food production), but can also present significant challenges. Communities need to be convinced of the need for it, and must have strong incentives for investing in trees that may not produce anything of economic value for many years. Expertise in forest management is essential. There are many anecdotal accounts of tree-planting initiatives as part of DRR programmes (protecting land from erosion or providing wood for disaster-resistant housing) that failed because project managers lacked experience of this kind of work.