Back

Discover CALS

See how our current work and research is bringing new thinking and new solutions to some of today's biggest challenges.

|
By Lydia Ngonzi and Jessica Pedro-Pascual ’26
Share
  • Department of Global Development
  • Environment
  • Global Development

The Humphrey PACT (Practitioner - Assistant - Collaborative - Training) Program pairs undergraduate students in Global Development with Hubert H. Humphrey Fellows to work on a research endeavor in the fields of agriculture, rural development, and natural resource management. In this bilateral exchange, each undergrad is assigned as a research assistant, contributing to the Humphrey Fellow’s work from their home countries. Humphrey Fellows, who are mid-career professionals from around the world, gain support from students, while students get direct experiences with real-world development projects. 

In this field note, Lydia Ngonzi (Humphrey Fellow from Uganda) and Jessica Pedro-Pascual ’26 (International Agriculture and Rural Development), confront the global drought crisis. Their comparative analysis explores the effects of the mega drought on the Horn of Africa, which is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years, and the Southwestern United States, where the mega drought is at its worst in 1200 years. Drawing on examples of U.S. policy, they propose interventions that could improve livelihoods and economic development in Eastern Africa.

 

In 2022, the Biden-Harris administration announced the White House Action Plan on Global Water Security, highlighting the administration’s plan to build resilience to worsening drought conditions due to climate change.

The Action Plan, which elevates water security as a “foreign policy priority” in the United States and abroad, was spot on: the catastrophic drought ravaging the Horn of Africa would not have happened without the human-induced impact of climate change.

Findings from the recently concluded study by the World Weather Attribution group of scientists confirm that aside from the lack of rainfall, higher temperatures driven by global warming have increased  evaporation rates making soils and pastures in the region exceedingly dry. By a cautious calculation, climate change had made droughts, such as the current drought in the Horn of Africa, 100 times more likely to happen.

Findings from our comparative analysis of coping strategies to prolonged droughts show that the lack of commitment to strengthening proactive planning has perpetuated a system of reliance on humanitarian aid. This aid is not designed to respond to cyclical shocks, but rather the humanitarian crisis. A recent visit by Jill Biden to Kenya confirmed the flaws inherent in relying on humanitarian aid as a short-term fix for a prolonged drought problem – more and more people are in need, resources are limited, and the end of the drought is uncertain.

Prolonged droughts are not a new phenomenon in the Horn of Africa. Records show that since 2005 droughts in the region have become more pronounced, resulting in longer-term impacts. The current drought is  the worst on record in the last 40 years, affecting over 50 million people and leaving 20 million at risk of famine.

Similar to the Horn of Africa, the Southwestern region of the United States is experiencing a 22-year long mega drought. As part of our PACT project at Cornell, we developed a proposal in response to the dire need to change strategy in Eastern Africa, drawing on tactics and strategies utilized by the United States to cope with mega droughts.

Invest in infrastructure

First, the Biden-Harris administration has prioritized investment in infrastructure. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) more than $50 billion has been committed to boost state-level investments in water-related infrastructure to enhance resilience. Africa faces an annual water infrastructure investment gap of about $45-$54 billion and yet millions of dollars are spent on very costly long term water trucking services. In Ethiopia, for example, the per capita cost of treating and trucking water over a 10-year period is 35 times the per capita cost of piped water supplies for a 20-year project duration. Investing in smart resilient water systems infrastructure must be prioritized.

Advance in monitoring and preparedness

Second, the United States has invested in monitoring systems and institutions to ensure rigorous monitoring and preparedness at federal, state, local and tribal levels. Multi-institutional partnerships such as  NIDIS, U.S. Drought Monitor, Drought Risk Atlas, and National Drought Mitigation Center generate tools, information and knowledge to aid planning in the short- and long-term and at different spatial scales. In the Horn of Africa, despite FEWS NET efforts in issuing famine and food insecurity warnings, responses remain shockingly slow at local, national, and regional level. In addition, existing systems are inadequate in monitoring acute water scarcity (water insecurity).

Investing in multi-institutional national partnerships to advance monitoring and forecasting, research, and knowledge extension services to support long-term planning and development outcomes is essential. Restructuring FEWS NET to increase ownership and usability of information is a good first step. Improved forecasting and monitoring must be combined with improved policies to enhance resilience especially in the face of climate change.

Integrate livelihood strategies

Third, through targeted financial livelihood pre-disaster support programs, the United States government (via its federal and state agencies) has managed to integrate resilient livelihood strategies into overall drought response planning. East African governments must invest in pre-disaster mitigation by making funds available at the local level to plan for and implement sustainable cost-effective resilience measures. Attention to reduce risks to individuals, households and infrastructure from future drought hazards would undoubtedly reduce emergency relief and humanitarian aid later.

The United States, for example, saves $2 dollars for every $1 spent on drought mitigation and preparedness. Investing in livestock and crop diversification, local water infrastructure, knowledge and technologies, and ecosystem conservation among other things has helped protect livelihoods of local communities, especially indigenous communities, enabling them to become more resilient to mega droughts. Similar programs targeting most at risk communities, particularly marginalized farmers in Eastern Africa, would help avert mass migration, loss of livelihoods and school dropouts. Further research is needed to evaluate the cost of long-tern droughts.

Overall, short-term reactive humanitarian emergency programs have dominated the drought response space in East Africa despite increased duration, frequency, and severity of droughts. Our findings show that going forward emphasis should be placed on planning for long-tern resilience. The White House Action Plan on Global Water Security provides a platform to kickstart this effort.

About the authors

Lydia Ngonzi headshot

Lydia is a consultant at Industrial Economics Incorporated in Uganda. She specializes in the planning and management of water and environmental resources with a focus on addressing risks that hinder socio-economic development.

Headshot of Jessica Pedro-Pascual

Jessica is a freshman studying International Agriculture and Rural Development at Cornell University.

Keep Exploring

Sea cucumber for sale in a market

News

After sampling food markets in Chinatown districts, Cornell researchers found evidence that some threatened species of sea cucumbers – a pricey, nutritious delicacy – get sold to consumers.

  • Cornell Atkinson
  • Biodiversity
  • Food
a Baltimore Oriole on a brand with pink flowers

News

Cocaine trafficking harms the environment and threatens habitats important to dozens of species of migratory birds, according to a new study.

  • Lab of Ornithology
  • Environment
  • Animals