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United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

How do poor people adapt to weather variability and natural disasters today?

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Human Development Report Office Occasional Paper 2007/24

Philip Dobie, Barry Shapiro, Patrick Webb and Mark Winslow

Human Development Report Office

SARPN acknowledges United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as a source of this document:
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Poor people in much of the world are constantly threatened by the variability of the weather that they experience from year to year. Even without the effects of climate change, weather variability threatens the livelihoods of poor people. Poor people have become very good at adapting to the vicissitudes of their weather, and the capacities that they have developed to cope with current variability are indicative of those that will be needed to adapt to the effects of climate change. Unfortunately, poor people are already close to the limits of their capacities to cope, and the added effects of climate change may push them beyond their coping capacities unless real efforts are made to prepare for changes in climate.

Figure 1 shows the variability in rainfall across the Western Sahel from 1949 to 1990. The data are averages of measurements taken at 38 weather stations and are expressed as standard deviations around the long-term mean. There was a long-term decrease in mean rainfall between 1950 and 1970, but what is more important is the year-to-year variability in rainfall that has occurred throughout the period. Even during the years of worst drought, between 1970 and 1985, there were years when the rainfall was close to or above average. During the “good” years of the 1950s rainfall varied drastically from year to year. This variation is an indication of the situation that is expected to be exacerbated by climate change: an increase in catastrophic events – in this case periodic drought years. The effects in the Sahel of this drying associated with year-to-year variability have been serious. During the wetter periods, the occurrence of dry years made it very difficult for farmers to predict what would happen to different kinds of crops. Root crops that would grow in a good year and provide a valuable addition to the diet would fail in dry years. Maize began to be grown increasingly in areas that had traditionally been used for the more drought-tolerant sorghum or millet, but maize now fails frequently during dryer years. By the 1970s crop options became reduced in much of the rainfed Sahel to the truly drought-tolerant crops, but even they did poorly in the worst years. Farmers found it more and more difficult to survive poor years without selling assets, which reduced the ability of farmers to recover in subsequent years. The 1970s saw severe food shortages and considerable numbers of people moving permanently from their homes.

However, despite these pressures, the 1980s and 19990s were marked by a remarkable turn-around in the economy of the Sahel, with Mali at one point becoming Africa’s main producer of cotton. The people of the Sahel are clearly extremely good at managing very difficult conditions.

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