29 Nov 2022

Exploring the potential for anticipatory action ahead of drought: farmers in Lao PDR have their say

Drought is an increasingly urgent issue in Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). In 2019, for instance, the Mekong River was at its lowest level in 100 years and monsoon rains were below the normal amount. Consequently, in the northern provinces where the drought hit hardest, 18 per cent of planted paddy fields were damaged.

However, droughts do not have to lead to disasters. Evidence shows that anticipating crises can reduce their impacts on agricultural livelihoods, and in turn on food insecurity. Moreover, linking anticipatory action with social protection systems can capitalize on the existing service infrastructure in a country to reach vulnerable populations ahead of forecast shocks.

To promote these complementary approaches, the Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) established the three-year Pilot Programmatic Partnership to enhance the capacity of five countries – Bangladesh, Lao PDR, Pakistan, Philippines and Viet Nam – to build anticipatory action systems and explore how anticipatory action can be delivered through national social protection systems.

In Lao PDR, FAO has been working with partners and government stakeholders, including the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, to develop an anticipatory action system for agricultural drought in two target provinces: Luang Prabang and Savannakhet.

Actions that meet communities’ needs

Luang Prabang province, in northern Lao PDR, has a population of 460,000 people. Rainfed agriculture is the mainstay of the economy. The most vulnerable households rely heavily on upland paddy (rice) production for subsistence, often living in remote mountain villages with limited land to cultivate and a lack of infrastructure. Drought can have direct impacts on both food security and farming households’ income.

Following consultations with communities in Savannakhet in May 2022, FAO staff met with communities in Luang Prabang in June to ensure that the anticipatory actions shortlisted by provincial government partners were appropriate to these contexts and met the needs of communities at risk of agricultural drought. The following testimonies capture some of the challenges posed by drought in this region.

Ms Bouala Bounnaly, a farmer in Phonexay district, Luang Prabang province, is the head of her household and looks after her mother since her father passed away recently. She farms rice and maize to eat and for their income, as well as raising pigs, ducks and chickens, which she sells to buy rice (when her own yields are low) and household goods.

When there is a drought, her maize yield significantly declines, meaning insufficient food for her family and animals. In 2021, Bouala and other farmers also had to stop rice production right before the harvest, due to the drought: “We produced the yields, but we could not sell them (as) they were spoiled.” This forced her to plant grass for her livestock instead, but damage to her staple crops left her family with less income and insufficient rice to feed themselves.

During the consultation, Bouala emphasized that early warning notifications for drought would be helpful for mitigating the impact of these events in the future. “During the drought," she explains, “when production leads to no yield, I have to leave the village to make some earnings for a certain period, and then return home to financially support the family.”

Other families choose to grow vegetables such as chillies and eggplants for sale as an alternative source of income. For this, they rely on getting water from small creeks around the village, which vary in volume depending on the year. Bouala highlights the need for skill training on “planting, breeding, and maintenance [of the crops]” and the importance of knowing “techniques on storing and maintaining during the dry season and rainy season, so that the crops will not be damaged”.

For Mr Khamphone Senghoungkham, along with other farmers in Phonexay village, drought is a recurrent hazard. He grows broom grass, maize and figs, but drought directly impacts the growth of these crops, lowering the yields and often destroying them. A lack of rain during the monsoon season and high temperatures are his main worries: “[During drought], growing crops could be followed by diseases and caterpillars that eat the leaves, causing them to rot because they turn yellow. The soil dries out and lacks moisture; the corn leaves turn dry. Some could not produce a good yield.” To address the impacts, he urges the early provision of drought-resistant rice seeds, as farmers who have access to these can produce better yields.

In addition to growing crops, raising pigs and chickens is the most important activity for his family, but it becomes extremely difficult during drought. “During the dry season, the animals eat heated grass and they drink hot water. [This] causes diarrhoea and flatulence,” he explains. He also recalls losing pigs to drought-induced diseases. For this, he stresses the need for medicine and vaccinations for livestock, which will help keep them alive.

Ms Mun Maniphone is a representative of the village chief and a rice farmer in Phonexay village. Rice farming has long been the most important livelihood activity for her family, as well as a source of staple food. There are two things she would like to secure her livelihood from drought: “Number one is rice to eat. Number two is to not lack money to spend on my family.”

Delays in the monsoon rains have a significant impact on rice farming. “In the years when there is no rain at the start of the [wet] season, there is a delay in planting,” she explains, as this means she cannot plant rice in time. Repairing irrigation infrastructure in her village would help farmers cope with drought.

Having more money would also mean she could buy livestock as an alternative source of income when rice crops are damaged: “Some families have land to grow grass and raise livestock, but do not have money to buy livestock.” Unconditional cash transfers ahead of a drought may help farmers like Mun diversify their income and meet their immediate needs during a drought.

The work continues

Anticipatory action practitioners need to ensure that their efforts make a meaningful difference. Community consultations, such as those held in Lao PDR, enable farmers like Khamphone, Mun and Bouala to voice their needs and participate in the decision-making processes that help to build an effective anticipatory action system. In particular, farmers are key partners in deciding the interventions that FAO will deliver ahead of agricultural drought. The selected actions are expected to not only help vulnerable families cope with drought, but also to increase their resilience to future shocks.

The consultations also revealed some of the practical challenges that anticipatory action practitioners need to be aware of. For example, poor road conditions in mountainous areas can limit communities’ physical access to markets, making them more vulnerable when a climate hazard strikes. Anticipatory action systems need to be innovative and creative, for example providing alternative transport methods such as motorbikes to move goods, organizing travelling markets to help with access to goods, and establishing unconditional cash transfers that take transport costs into account.

Throughout the process, government partners at multiple levels, including the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, played a central role in convening community consultations in both Luang Prabang and Savannakhet provinces. Close coordination with the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare in planning and implementing drought measures is key to ensuring anticipatory actions align with ongoing plans for disaster risk management, and help to establish how they can be woven into these frameworks.

This article was written by Inyoung Jang, Catherine Jones, Rayane AbouJaoude, Phetvilay Panyada, Kara Jenkinson and Bounmee Maokhamphiou (all FAO). For any questions, please contact inyoung.jang@fao.org