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Better drought impact assessments thanks to new model

29 August 2022
Impact assessments for future droughts can be improved by taking into account individual countermeasures taken by farmers. This is one of the findings from the PhD research of geographer and drought scientist Marthe Wens. She developed a social-hydrological model for calculating drought risks centred around the decisions people make in combatting drought.

Until now, the fact that people can take various measures to reduce the impact of drought has hardly been taken into account in drought risk models. Small farmers in particular can improve the availability of water in their fields, for instance by digging wells or by covering their land with mulch (crop residues) to reduce water evaporation. The government can also support farmers in implementing these measures, for example with seasonal drought forecasts, by making available certain knowledge or by ensuring a good credit market. That is why models for calculating drought risks that ignore the decisions people make about these kinds of measures are often inaccurate.

Integration of human behaviour
The new model integrates the adaptative behaviour of individual farmers and other stakeholders into a drought and crop model. This makes it possible to simulate small-scale agricultural measures being implemented in response to drought risks, as well as the effect of these measures. The results of Wens’ research will lead to a better understanding and more accurate modelling of the ways in which humans and water interact in the context of drought risks. Governments and non-profit organisations can use the model to test which proactive measures reduce farmers’ vulnerability, which would in turn reduce the risks of income loss and food shortages.

Other agricultural regions
Wens conducted her research using a model she developed to assess the drought risk exposure of small farmers in Kenya, a country which has had four consecutive dry seasons and could now be facing famine. Drought scientists at VU Amsterdam’s Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM), where Wens works, are now using her model to make assessments for other agricultural regions around the world. Researchers from IVM’s Water and Climate Risk department also advise on the International Drought Management Platform, in addition to sharing their expertise in the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management’s Freshwater and Drought Expertise Network. As a result, their research findings are translated into policies that can help mitigate the effects of droughts, such as those now occurring in the Horn of Africa and Europe.