Hot & Hungry: Disaster Management

By John Magrath, Leslie Morris-Iveson 9 June, 2014

Oxfam's Magrath & Morris-Iveson on water & climate change risks and the need for local response plans

Climate change will increase compeition for water; can't afford to forget small farmers who feed 1.5-2bn people
Gaps in crop irrigation & irrigation's vulnerability to weather are 'alarming' finds in Oxfam's report
Need to work more with local communities & get better data to reduce vulnerabilities & ensure food security

Impacts of climate change on the poor

Climate change is all about water; a hotter world with more extreme and chaotic weather will profoundly affect the water cycle and every nation will see impacts. The recent United States National Climate Assessment has been the most forthright report to say that people in the USA are being affected by such changes right now.

Climate change is all about water; a hotter world with more extreme and chaotic weather will profoundly affect the water cycle

Summers are longer and hotter, with extended periods of unusual heat, bringing increased chances of drought.  Rain comes in heavier downpours, increasing the risk of floods. In every country where Oxfam works, the people we work with, predominantly smallholder farmers, have been reporting similar changes … squeezed growing seasons and more erratic and violent rainfall are having major impacts on their ability to grow enough food for themselves and their families.

Unfortunately, the situation is on track to be even more difficult shortly.  Within just the next couple of decades – as the world is on a path to a much warmer future as greenhouse gases continue to be emitted and accumulate in the atmosphere.

Even without global warming, competition for freshwater is becoming ever more intense

Even without warming the world faces enormous challenges when it comes to water. Competition for scarce freshwater is becoming ever more intense as demand grows from agriculture, power generation and simply for drinking and washing, putting enormous strain on the water needed to maintain natural systems.

Warming will increase the polarisation of water resources both geographically – as wet areas, generally, get wetter and dry areas, generally, drier – but also socially as it exacerbates the situation that poor people lose out.  For example, an Oxfam study in Bantayan Island in the Philippines, found that  poor households are less likely to be connected to a safe water source, either because they cannot afford it or they live in unplanned settlements.  As in many other places, the poorest pay some of the highest prices water because they buy bottled water. After Typhoon Haiyan the price of bottled water increased 36%. Those who can least afford it are paying a huge mark up on their water, at times when they are most vulnerable.

Impacts on smallholders

As the climate warms it therefore becomes even more imperative that poor smallholders – who support an estimated 1.5–2 billion people with food – get a fair allocation of water resources to enable them to grow the food that they need.

Imperative that poor smallholders who support 1.5–2 billion people with food get a fair allocation of water resources

Oxfam’s recent report ‘Hot and hungry – how to stop climate change derailing the fight against hunger‘ assessed 10 key factors that influence a country’s ability to feed its people in a warming world, including weather monitoring systems, social safety nets and agricultural research. One of the most alarming gaps Oxfam identified was in crop irrigation. In Africa 95% of agriculture is rain-fed but in Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad, where farmers are confronting cyclical droughts, irrigation covers less than one per cent of arable land.

Gaps in crop irrigation was an ‘alarming’ find in Oxfam’s “Hot & hungry” report … current irrigation systems are not immune to unprecedented weather events

Furthermore, when irrigation is available, poor farmers may miss out because they have less priority – and current irrigation systems are not immune to unprecedented weather events.

In Zimbabwe Oxfam developed a 60-hectare gravity-fed irrigation project farmed by 270 families. It was extremely successful for three years; people were able to grow three crops a year instead of one, food security and nutrition improved markedly and the income of the poorest participants almost tripled.

However, the drought of 2013 was so severe that lake levels fell dramatically, reducing water flow.

The water authority took the decision to reserve what water there was for the big sugar estates downstream. The drought was followed by unusually torrential rains, which filled the dam but tumbled boulders against the irrigation pipeline, cracking it and once again reducing the water flow to the scheme.

Community risk reduction

As climate risks increase, along with other environmental and economic pressures, Oxfam sees how it is becoming ever more crucial to work with communities to understand the changing nature of risks and help them plan responses. Water resource management is fundamental to this approach, which aims to bring together disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. The aim is to reduce underlying vulnerabilities.

Water resource management is fundamental in working with communities to bring together disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation

For instance after the disastrous floods in Pakistan in 2010  an in-depth evaluation of the Community-based Disaster Risk Management and Livelihoods  Programme found  that when people had access to alerts about impending floods, and knew how to act on them by implementing a rapid evacuation plan, they lost fewer assets and recovered much more quickly.

What made for success was the ability of Oxfam’s local partner organisations to interpret  and simplify technical information about rainfall and flood risk so that it was readily understandable.

Most importantly of all, this led to the creation of a demand for information among participating villages, who then further disseminated it to their neighbours. As the evaluators observed, “information flows faster than water”.

Ensuring a more equitable future

Improving water management in a resource constrained world is a whole new way of looking at the work that Oxfam, and other NGOs do.  The growing threat of water scarcity and the need for finding solutions which address wise management of resources in a world of increasing disaster risk is a critical area.  However, as we’ve discussed, not only do changing climate patterns cause increasingly more severe risk of disaster, but the implications on hunger are huge as well.

Changing climate patterns cause increasingly more severe risk of disaster, but the implications on hunger are huge …

… there are opportunities to ensure better preparedness

Impacts of climate change on agriculture, especially for smallholder farmers are caused by shifting patterns of rainfall and rising temperatures, as we’ve shown in the “Hot and Hungry” report.  There are opportunities to ensure better preparedness however gaps in preparedness are are driven by poverty, inequality and lack of political will as discussed in the report.

Like many other institutions, key in our responding approaches is a need to focus our programming work on better and more high quality analysis. Also we need to look to longer timelines, and look into possibilities of setting goals outside of project time frames.  Looking into these areas will continue to challenge the way we work, however it is clear that resilience building requires underlying inequalities to be addressed.

Further Reading

What’s being discussed & done about climate change

  • Water Risk & National Security – With the China’s largest surface freshwater reserves, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau glaciers shrinking by 15% (an area equivalent to 11.5 “Singapores’), we review US military views on how climate change impacts national security & China’s current stance 
  • Philanthropy: Catalysing Water for All – Water philanthropy in China can play a catalytic role in ensuring water for all in Asia. Lisa Genasci, CEO of ADM Capital Foundation on why philanthropists should take more risk by supporting research, public education, pilot projects & advocay
  • Business & Society: Building Trust – Given pressing societal issues, companies are now expected to lead the change across their business value chain. Edelman’s Ashley Hegland on why businesses need to reprioritize value to include such societal benefits to build & maintain trust or face reputational brand damage
  • AIDF Water Summit: 5 Takeaways – Dawn McGregor gives us her 5 takeaways from AIDF’s Asia Water Security Summit ranging from exposure of GDP to water risk to the crucial need for un-siloed approaches and key areas of improvement in the water sector
  • The Case for Company & Community Cooperation – Companies have experienced material adverse impact on profits because of a lack of cooperation on water with communities. Sustainalytics’ Dujardin says it’s time to start in the face of more droughts & floods


  • Irrigation: Big Gains in Small Farms – With 95% of farms in China are less than two hectares compared to 86% in India, Syngenta’s Dr Sandhikar discusses why the training of the smallholder to adopt water efficient tech in small farms is key. Panipipes, drip irrigation with Plastic Mulch can help reduce groundwater usage and falling groundwater tables
John Magrath
Author: John Magrath
John has worked for Oxfam GB for nearly 30 years in a variety of roles. His background is a journalist, writer and researcher. His work in the Research Team has focused mainly on climate change and its implications for Oxfam GB's work, particularly climate change impacts on farming and food systems. He has written, edited and assisted on many research reports on this subject that are available on Policy and Practice.
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Leslie Morris-Iveson
Author: Leslie Morris-Iveson
Leslie joined Oxfam GB in July 2011 and works around water security and water resource management, developing Oxfam's strategy in these areas, and supporting countries in related programming linked to policy. Leslie has 15 years experience in the environment, development and water sector. Prior to joining Oxfam, Leslie worked primarily with UNICEF as a WASH specialist in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Philippines, Haiti and New York headquarters, including working in several emergencies as the WASH Cluster Coordinator. Leslie most recently worked as an independent consultant in WASH on a number of projects for donors and NGOs including sector evaluations and developing capacity building guidelines. Before moving to the international aid and development sector, she worked for the Canadian government and private sector as an environmental planner. Leslie is a qualified urban and regional planner and holds an MA in environment, development and policy from the University of Sussex.
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