Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink!

As we mark the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought – let’s explore how Innovations in digital technology, along with some harsh lessons from past disasters – are improving the way we predict droughts

June 17, 2021



Blog by Paul Conrad, Climate Change Early Warning and Preparedness Specialist, UNDP Crisis Bureau


A few years ago, I was working with a small island village off the coast of Cambodia, which was facing the early phases of a drought. The local well, along with nearby wells and reservoirs on the mainland had recently gone dry, forcing villagers to ship in fresh water from outside the region - at great expense. This was starting to have a major impact on the health and livelihoods of the villagers, with the poor, elderly and vulnerable being most severely impacted. Because we were surrounded by water, it really was a case of “Water, water everywhere, but not a drink.”

This water shortage in this community was part of the 2015-2016 El Niño event, which turned out to cause the worst drought that Cambodia had faced in more than 50 years. More than 90,000 families were affected. All over the country livestock and crops were killed, resulting in increased vulnerability, poverty and suffering. But it didn’t have to be like this in Cambodia. All indications from mid-2015 onwards were that severe drought was a strong possibility. However, it took until mid-June 2016 for major response and recovery operations to take place in Asia.

At the same time, countries such as Kenya successfully used their existing safety net system to deliver timely aid in response to forecasts. Other countries in Eastern Africa were also able to prepare. And because they had plans in place to address the extreme weather, the El Nino event had relatively less impact on lives and livelihoods compared to the size and scale of past El Nino events in the region. When you compare the effect that El Nino had on these countries compared to the effect it had on Cambodia, the benefits of early warning systems become obvious. In Eastern Africa, there was reliable data to suggest there would be a strong El Niño effect in the area. As a result, evidence-based decision making was possible (and UNDP played a significant role in this process by developing an El Niño Strategy.) 



In many Asian countries, drought has typically been viewed as something to react to rather than proactively prepare for, which fails to meaningfully address underlying vulnerabilities. In Cambodia, this mindset, combined with lack of access to reliable data meant there was minimal preparation for the severity of the subsequent drought. Had humanitarian agencies in Cambodia been presented with enough credible data in 2015, their preparation and response may have been different.

Whether it is systems to forewarn about floods, tsunamis, landslides or glacial outbursts, UNDP has been involved in disaster early warning systems for many years, helping countries to protect lives and livelihoods through enhanced evidence-based decision making, including in the areas of migration, conflict and extremism. As UNDP places a renewed focus on early warning and preparedness, enabling better access to data is becoming an increasingly important priority. There are a number of ways this can support countries to prepare for drought and prevent further land degradation. Examples include:

·         Data management: ensuring access to comprehensive data
Decision-makers need to have access to a broad range of reliable data, so they can prepare for slow-onset disasters. Often though information may be held across a broad range of sectors and departments. Data needs to be aggregated in one place to provide an accurate picture of the situation. UNDP’s Early Warning and Preparedness Service Offer is being utilized by several countries to improve shared databases – between different parts of the government – and between countries to develop a regional picture and improve early warning systems.

·         Crowd-sourced data: aggregating and formalizing alternative information sources
There is a lot of power behind social, crowd-based information, which can be utilized to bring the voices of people from communities directly at risk to the forefront. The aggregation of crowd-generated inputs—such as text messages, social media feeds, or recent imagery—to develop data sets or geographic data and maps can provide near real-time, interactive information on events as they unfold. UNDP is supporting several crowd-sourcing platforms around the world.

·         Collective intelligence: ensuring inclusive access to data
Promoting access to information at all levels and across all sectors builds collective intelligence to ensure that decisions are not made in silos. This ensures that information to support preparedness and response action, such as community contact details, health center information, or even national drought related data – is not coming from the top down, but is accessible and usable by everyone. UNDP can promote this by helping to put in place tools, such as websites that increase transparency and allow for information to be shared freely.   



In Asia at least, there is a need to shift from a culture of a reacting to drought to developing policies that promote preparedness. The experience of so many communities in Cambodia shows the devastating effects of drought on people’s lives and livelihoods. It is my hope that improved data access will enable swifter, informed anticipatory actions so people can better prepare for such disaster.

Find out more about the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought

Find out more about UNDP’s Early Warning and Preparedness Service Offer