Coping with Drought

Drought is one of the main constraints that affect food security and the survival of more than two billion people who live in 41% of the areas on the planet. The phenomenon can be defined as a rainfall deficiency for an extended period of time, resulting in water scarcity (Solh & Ginkel, 2014). The worst affected areas in Brazil are in the semi-arid region. In 2012 and 2013, more than 1,400 municipalities in Northeastern Brazil and in the North of Minas Gerais state faced a punishing drought
Future scenarios indicate temperature increases and rainfall decrease, especially in these areas. If this scenario becomes reality, droughts will be an increasingly common phenomenon (Santos et al., 2009). Productive efficiency in the regions that are more susceptible to droughts depends on several measures to monitor and mitigate the negative effects of this phenomenon, through the rational and sustainable use of water, soils, and biodiversity resources.
A report released by the National Water Agency reveals that, by the year 2025, more than 70% of cities with population over 5,000 inhabitants of the semi-arid region will face a crisis in the water supply for human consumption. In short, between the predicted impacts due to climate change in the Brazilian semi-arid region, we could mention: changes in the Caatinga vegetation; decrease of water quantities in lakes, dams and reservoirs; greater vulnerability to torrential rain concentrated in a short space of time, resulting in floodings and severe environmental impacts; higher frequency of consecutive dry days and heat waves; inviability of the subsistence farming in large areas; and increased migration .
Historical observations and models show evidence of changes in weather systems in various parts of the world, related to natural events or mainly attributed to human activities. The effects of the latter are consequences of changes in the atmospheric composition. Arid and semi-arid areas are among the most likely to experience the impacts of climate change, suffering strong rainfall reduction and increase in evaporation due to temperature increases, with serious impacts on the availability of water, food production and, consequently, on food security, on ecosystems and even on the electrical infrastructure (IPCC, 2007; AWC; WWC, 2009). For Brazil, an increase in the severity of droughts, alongside increased evapotranspiration rates, extended periods of drought and reduction in arable areas are forecast(World Bank, 2012).
Brazilian biodiversity is considered one of the richest in the world, accounting for approximately 20% of all world diversity, showing many endemic species and several yet unknown genetic resources (Valois, 2014) (VALOIS, 2014). One of the most drought-affected biomes in Brazil is the Caatinga. It represents more than 734,478 km², and 22% of this area are currently threatened by desertification. Despite this threat, it is a rich biodiversity with numerous species of plants, animals and microorganisms, many endemic ones, which turn this biome into a strategic one for bioprospecting. However, from a scientific point of view, it is one of the lesser-known ecosystems of South America (MMA, 1998).
The physical structure of the soils is generally little suitable for agriculture, and extensive areas are occupied with livestock, especially small ruminants. Approximately 50% of agricultural establishments in the Northeast do not adopt any type of soil conservation practice. According to the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment (2002), the areas with extreme signs of degradation, known as desertification nuclei, correspond to 15% of the Caatinga area.
The practice of agriculture in the areas that are most susceptible to drought in Brazil face challenges ranging from climate and environmental issues, faulty logistics, technological gap, lack of credit and lack of technical assistance. The major current challenge for the development of this agriculture is to improve production systems in order to overcome limitations, with the use of appropriate technologies for the local context, aiming at regional development, the inclusion of family agriculture in a modern and efficient production system with access to credit, technical assistance and inputs (IPEA, 2012).
The losses that the latest droughts have caused to livestock production are linked directly to animal losses. According to IBGE, in 2012, in the Northeast region, producers lost 1.3 million bovines, 696,000 caprine, 784,000 ovines and 755,000 birds, with losses also in herds of pigs and equidae. The losses were higher in the states of Bahia (40%), Paraíba (28%) and Pernambuco (24%).
On the other hand, the technology used in regional production is, in many cases, obsolete in comparison to the one used in similar activities in the rest of the country, or at least in those places with the best productivity indexes in the same activities (IPEA, 2012). The results are shown in crops below productive potential. Combined with this technological backwardness, which actually explain the issue in part, is the question of access to technical assistance for farmers. Most of the Northeast agricultural establishments do not have access to any kind of technical assistance.
Strategies to cope with droughts are, above all, preventive and, once the phenomenon is present, few options or practical actions remain to combat its effects on agricultural activities. A research that assessed the situation of agriculture in the region suggests, mainly, what needs to be done after this critical period, so when a drought at these magnitude comes back, families will be more prepared, and its effects will be minimized.
Within this perspective, Embrapa, through a research center located in the Brazilian Semi-arid region, as well as other research institutions in the region, proposed interventions to reduce the fragility of production systems and in the view of economic opportunities more resilient to drought phenomena, always emphasizing that the diversity of natural and social framework of the Semi-arid requires special alternatives for technical innovations and public policy actions. Among the contributions of Embrapa researches that, integrated to government development programs and civil society can reduce the effects of drought on the rural population, stand out the collection, storage and use of rainwater, appreciation of the Caatinga's biodiversity and livestock production, with emphasis on goats and sheep.
Drought is a climatic event difficult to be predicted, but interventions and strategies can help people to be more prepared to live with the phenomenon. Some strategies that showed to be successful in other regions of the world are associated with geographical changes in agricultural systems, dryland systems resilient to climate changes and more efficient irrigation systems (Solh & Ginkel, 2014). In the Brazilian case, it is necessary to explore these and other alternatives, within more transversal contexts related to issues concerning the use of water, soil and biodiversity, connected to the climate and climate change scenarios, as well as more applied contexts related to plant and animal production, bioenergy and integrated systems, in order to propose technological solutions suitable for the Brazilian reality.