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Archive for September 24th, 2013

Crop failure would have been a national disaster with global consequences.

Posted by African Press International on September 24, 2013

Droughts seem to be increasing, but so are methods to survive them

STOCKHOLM,  – Droughts are rarely seen as a positive development. Historically equated with divine punishment, they can be fatal to local economies and human lives alike.

But they can also provide a crucial test for water management systems, which – when they function effectively – may allow regions to shake off severe droughts that would have otherwise led to widespread loss of life.

“Droughts provide an opportunity for action as well as learning lessons. There is often a sense of community, a greater political will and a heightened awareness of conservation issues,” said Roberto Lenton, from the University of Nebraska’s Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute in the US.

“We have been experiencing, over the last couple of years, some major droughts around the world that have reinforced the growing recognition that we are going to be facing more climate extremes – droughts and floods – and we need to learn how to deal with them more effectively.”

Statistics on natural catastrophic events collected by insurers Munich Re show that the “number of major weather-related natural catastrophes has almost tripled since 1980.” They report “an increase in the length, frequency or intensity of warm-weather periods” and predict that droughts are “likely to become more frequent”.

In a globalized food market, droughts – even those in the developed world – can quickly impact the world’s poorest, as in the 2007-2008 food price crisis, which was aggravated in part by drought in Australia.

So what have we learned from current and recent water shortages?

Water storage and risk management 

The current drought in northeastern Brazil is the most severe water shortage the area has seen in last 100 years. Last year, it caused the deaths of five million cattle.

The federal government has responded with some relief actions, including trucking in water, providing agricultural schemes for farmers, and investing in water infrastructure like dams and reservoirs.

“Whenever you have droughts, over the last 100 years, you see a rapid rise in water stocks and reservoirs,” said Francisco de Assis de Souza Filho, director of the Brazil office of the Columbia Water Center, who added that politicians are often short-sighted when it comes to risk management because they “are only focused on the four years of their mandate”.

Droughts – in Brazil and many other parts of the world – can be a key spur for politicians to invest in dams, water management and resilience, even if prevention strategies would have be more cost-effective.

“Brazil needs to change from reactive drought crisis management to proactive drought risk management. We have a good institutional approach to water research management, but we don’t have a focus on drought management,” said de Souza Filho.

Michael Hayes, director of the US-based National Drought Mitigation Center, says investment in mitigation, planning, monitoring and early warning pays-off when drought strikes.

“If our only focus is on crisis management, we don’t take any steps to reduce our risk to future events.”

As destructive as droughts can be, they can provide the catalyst for better preventive action:

“Droughts provide windows of opportunity to engage the stakeholders,” said Hayes.

Motivating farmers and decision makers is key to making change happen.

“Political will is the foundation of drought management policy,” said Thierry Facon, senior regional management officer for the Asia and Pacific region at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).


Like Brazil, the US state of Nebraska also suffered a severe drought in 2012, though with a rather different outcome. Nebraska is the country’s biggest producer of red meat, number two for ethanol production, and fourth nationally for the value of its crops.

Crop failure would have been a national disaster with global consequences.

“Droughts provide windows of opportunity to engage the stakeholders”

But the last major drought in the state, in the 1950s, had spurred massive investment in irrigation, and the state’s irrigated land now covers a similar surface area to irrigated farms in entire countries, like Turkey, Egypt and Spain.

By tapping into the groundwater held in the High Plains aquifer, US farmers were able to see through the drought. In fact, production of irrigated corn – thanks to the increased sunshine and longer growing season – actually increased by 5.6 percent.

But while groundwater can provide a useful water supply during drought, the global norm is for unsustainable use of groundwater, prompted by inadequate systems of water management.

In Gujarat, India, the only way to stop farmers from using too much groundwater has been to ration electricity supplies to farmers in an attempt to limit overuse of pumps.


Recent droughts have shown the strength of technological developments in a variety of sectors, from soil moisture sensors that help boost the efficiency of irrigation to satellite imaging used to track global weather patterns.

“Through these kinds of [satellite] systems, we get a better understanding and learn how to predict, so there are ways to actually know when a drought is coming up,” Mats Eriksson, director of climate change and water at the Stockholm International Water Institute, told IRIN.

As a slow-onset hazard, droughts have often caught governments unawares – though as the 2011 drought in Somalia showed, awareness does not always lead to effective preventive action.

“I think the problem is more communicating this kind of knowledge in a tailor-made format, down to a more local context where people can actually utilize and benefit and plan based on these predictions,” said Eriksson.

Studying past droughts has helped scientists refine their predictive models, and it has helped build technology that can offer greater resilience.

“Technologies have played a great role in mitigating these shortages of water. Science and technology is going to play an increasing role in the future,” said Dilip Kulkarni, head of the Agri-food Division at India’s Jain Irrigation Systems, Ltd.

He stresses that in the developing world, water technologies can be extremely beneficial in helping farmers survive water scarcity – as long as the methods have been adapted to the smallholder farms that predominate in places like sub-Saharan Africa and India.

Biotechnology has helped provide drought-resistant plants, while adapted farming practices, like avoiding tillage in dry areas, helped farmers in Nebraska avoid a repeat of the ‘dustbowl years’ in the 1930s.

“Droughts spur technological innovation,” said Lenton. But greater water efficiency does not necessarily mean lower water use, something that is frequently forgotten in discussions about the wonders of drought-resistant technologies.

Learning lessons

In 1877, around half a million people died because of drought in northeastern Brazil, according to de Souza Filho. Economic development and technology have since helped reduce the human cost of drought in Brazil and many parts of the world, though as the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa showed, widespread loss of human life still occurs.

While well-resourced farmers in formal, well-governed water systems, like those in Nebraska, may have learned to survive even severe droughts, poverty continues to leave others exposed.

And the lessons learned in such formal water systems may not even be applicable in tropical informal governance areas, warns Facon.

Communities used to living in arid lands have, of course, knowledge about dealing with drought that has been passed down through generations – for example, mixing pastoral and agrarian ways of life to cope with times of water scarcity.

“In many parts of the world, drought is part of the natural environment. That means that people have developed means and methods to overcome drought,” said Eriksson.

But climate change poses new challenges, particularly with weather extremes that traditional systems, based on historic weather patterns, may not be adequate for.

“Maybe the old traditional systems don’t work anymore, so you have to find ways of maybe supporting them [the systems] if they’re good enough. Or in other cases, the kind of livelihood system that you relied on doesn’t really work anymore – and you have to add other things,” said Eriksson

Climate change maybe creating new lessons to learn.

jj/rz  source

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A home from home: Reaping the rewards

Posted by African Press International on September 24, 2013

Fewer babies dying

MQANDULI,  – Mothers and children in South Africa are still dying in alarming numbers, and the country is among only a few worldwide where child deaths are rising. But a rural hospital in the Eastern Cape province has managed to drastically reduce infant mortality rates over the past six years, against the backdrop of a health system that is virtually at a standstill.

report on the deepening crisis, launched this week by activists from the newly formed Eastern Cape Health Crisis Coalition, says the freezing of critical posts has contributed to the loss of scarce skills, and some rural facilities have lost more than half of their nursing staff. Chronic shortages of basic medical equipment and essential drugs persist and mobile clinics are no longer running, depriving rural patients of access to essential health services.

Zithulele Hospital in Mqanduli, a town about 30km south of Mthatha, the provincial capital, is the only hospital in an area of nearly 1,000, serving a population of about 150,000 that is one of the poorest in the country, with low education levels and very high rates of unemployment and crime. For decades many men left the area to become mine workers and the legacy of the migrant labour system still has a negative impact on the communities living there.

Sihle Tyelinzima, 18, and more than eight months pregnant, is sitting on small wooden bench outside the rondavel (hut) she shares with two other pregnant women. The rondavel, a few hundred metres from the medical wards at Zithulele Hospital, has been her home for nearly two weeks. “I miss being home with my family and friends but I don’t regret coming to live at the hospital,” Tyelinzima says. “I would rather be homesick than risk losing my baby.”

She lives in Mancamu, about 30km away from Zithulele Hospital, one of several villages near Mqanduli. The distance may seem short, but if she were to go into labour while at home, the heavily pregnant Tyelinzima would have to walk over hilly countryside and cross a stream before reaching a road from where an ambulance or a hired car could take her to hospital.

If she should go into labour at night she would have to wait until morning or give birth at home. Home birth is common in the villages around Mqanduli, but in most cases this is because pregnant women don’t have transport or can’t afford to hire a car to take them to hospital.

A home from home

For this reason the hospital management decided to convert two rondavels once used as nurses’ quarters into homes to accommodate pregnant women nearing the end of their term.

Dr Ben Gaunt, the hospital’s clinical manager, noted that the cost of transport prevents even those living close to roads from getting to the hospital in time. “Hiring a car to bring you to hospital from one of the villages can cost between R600 (US$60) and R1,000 (US$100), depending how far you are coming, and for most families this is half of their monthly household income,” he said.

The maternal waiting homes have had a positive impact on the perinatal mortality rate at Zithulele hospital. Four years ago, when the concept was introduced, 34 out of 1,000 babies delivered at the facility were dying, but this decreased to about 20 per 1,000 live births last year.

Gaunt said the maternal waiting homes were not the only factor causing significant change to the statistics for perinatal mortality at Zithulele. “There were other important contributors, like reinstituting 24-hour caesarean section service; retraining of midwives; reaching out to our feeder clinics through a system that allowed input into primary level antenatal care, and developing protocols for the safe induction of labour.”

In 2005 the hospital faced severe shortages of clinical staff and medical equipment, which worsened a poorly organised maternity service offering sub-standard care. “The maternity service had inexperienced, inadequately supervised staff, and protocols were not properly followed,” he said.

“The partogram (a graphical representation of the changes that occur during labour) was not frequently used; there were shortages of resuscitation equipment, and only two delivery packs with doubtful sterilization in between cases.” The arrival of new senior staff members brought welcome changes.

The Perinatal Problem Identification Programme (PPIP), a monthly audit tool managed by the Medical Research Council, was introduced in 2005. The programme allows the user to analyse basic data and identify avoidable factors associated with each perinatal death. These issues as well as obstetric clinical topics and preventive or pre-emptive factors are discussed at monthly meetings.

Reaping the rewards

The efforts are beginning to pay off. “We have been seeing a steady decline in perinatal mortality in the past eight years,” said hospital manager Nonsikelelo Matebese.

Evidence of this success was noted by Gaunt in the February 2010 edition of the South African Medical Journal, when he pointed out in an article that in the last six months of 2005 the perinatal mortality rate had been 49.1 per 1,000 births, but over the same period in 2008 this had dramatically decreased to 22.4 per 1,000 births.

At the time deliveries at the hospital increased from 745 in 2005 to 1,143 in 2008. “The perinatal care index (PCI) – a marker of the quality of care of newborns that corrects for low birth-weight infants – declined from a very high 3.7 during 2006 and 2007 to 2.4 in 2008,” Gaunt wrote.

While statistics show that the perinatal mortality rate in Zithulele Hospital has been declining, more needs to be done to ensure that babies don’t die from preventable causes. 2013 so far has been difficult for the rural district hospital and the number of perinatal deaths is higher when compared to previous years since the changes were introduced.

Gaunt said four out of about 20 of the deaths in the first six months of 2013 could have been avoided, but attributed this shortcoming largely to challenges that include maintaining equipment, improving relationships with local clinics, integrating care more efficiently, and dealing with the socio-economic factors that influence pregnancy and health-seeking behaviour.

lm/kn/he  source

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