Study explores how emergency drills can serve as a tool to assess and improve institutional preparedness for drought response in Guatemala

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Emergency drills can become a valuable tool when responding to slow-onset disasters such as drought since is a more proactive risk management approach. 

In a recently published study, researchers explore how emergency drills can be used to assess and improve institutional preparedness for drought response. Every year, the livelihoods and food security of Guatemalan farmers are threatened by the “canícula” a period of drought that lasts from June to August, although this period may vary. In theory, drought as a slow-onset disaster leaves sufficient preparation time for a more proactive risk management approaches to avoid worsening the food security situation.

Climate change will intensify the extended dry, which represents an important risk for the agricultural production of rural families. Additionally, it will endanger their livelihoods and food security. Accordingly, it is necessary that Guatemala develops a stronger climate risk management strategy.

That is why actors in the field joined forces. Bioversity International, the Tropical Agronomic Center for Research and Education (CATIE), Acción Contra el Hambre and officials of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food (MAGA), the National Coordination for Disaster Reduction (CONRED) worked together. They participated in the design and exercise of two emergency drills to assess and improve drought response in the Chiquimula region of Guatemala. This exercise was funded by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI).

Simultaneously to the drills, the institutional response protocol as defined in the Institutional Response Plan (PIR) was tested. This plan seeks to guide decision-making in order to reduce the impacts of droughts on agricultural infrastructure, crops and human lives.

Although the PIR is structured, a reactive approach to climate risks continues to prevail in the responses of public actors and institutions in Guatemala. For instance, the prolonged drought in July 2018 significantly impacted small-scale production. But almost six months passed between the occurrence of the drought and the implementation of the public support program.

So, why use emergency drills?

Drills are a common tool in disaster risk management and normally applied for training in emergencies as fires or earthquakes. Until today emergency drills have not been used so far for slow-onset disasters. The assumption behind the study was that drills could be a useful tool to test the preparedness of MAGA and at the same time build capacity through providing opportunities for organizational learning.

Drills have several advantages. They link tacit and formal knowledge through action and experience and provide a space for experiential learning under real conditions. Using drills can also reduce the cost of trial-and-error learning and provide useful insights on how to improve emergency response protocols.

Through the drills, different areas of improvements for effective drought response of MAGA were revealed. It is necessary to:

  1. increase the knowledge on the different emergency response protocols, 
  2. improve information quality of standardized data collection formats for decision-making and
  3. improve the communication and coordination between organizations involved in drought management and emergency response on the ground.

This case study's lead author says:

The most important result is that drills can be used to assess organizational preparedness also for slow-onset emergencies as droughts. They provide a secure setting for experiential learning, trigger discussion and motivate staff and stakeholder.

But we also found that for drills to be transformative in terms of emergency response to drought, the structural context plays an important role. Drills can create organizational capacity and knowledge, but the institutional context has a big influence on whether or not drills trigger processes of organizational learning and behavior change. What we recommend in conclusion is that public actors as the MAGA include drills in a broader strategy of organizational capacity building in emergency response.”

Anna Müller, Bioversity International 

To conclude, this case study opens a space for discussion on the use of drills as an emergency response. However, institutions must be aware that this needs to be accompanied by capacity building and response protocols need to be enforced. Only then, a region is prepared to face natural disasters.

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