Consolata and her daughter Elizabeth carry jerry cans from a watering hole during drought in Kenya in 2017 

Photo: Alice Oldenburg/ActionAid

Why drought can devastate communities

Drought is difficult to forecast - and it cannot be stopped. When it is not managed effectively it can have huge socio-economic consequences, including mass migration, famine and death, as well as long-term degredation of natural resources.6

But the severity of drought depends on a number of other issues present in a region, including:

  • Demographic pressure on the environment
  • Food insecurity
  • Economic systems strictly dependent on agriculture
  • Poor infrastructure e.g. irrigation and water supply and sanitation systems
  • Poor health status of the population before the disaster
  • Time of the year, with the most critical period being before the harvest
  • Absence of warning systems
  • Population displacement
  • Other concurrent situations: economic crisis, political instability, armed conflict.7

Why women and girls are the hardest hit by drought

As in all emergencies, women and girls are nearly always hardest hit by drought. They are often responsible for care-giving in their families, which means walking increasingly long distances for water, putting them at greater risk of violence and sexual assault. 

Owing to cultural customs, women often eat least, and last, in their families, increasing their risk of malnutrition.

Within the home, women can also often face aggression and domestic violence as the burden to find food and water increases.

Meanwhile girls are usually the first to be taken out of school in order to help support the family.

They may even be forced into child marriage in order to ease the burden on their family.

ActionAid’s policy manager in Kenya, Ruth Masime, says:

As a result of the drought women and girls face a triple burden in some cases: to survive, care for their families and evade sexual violence in the process. Urgent action is needed to avert severe hunger, sexual violence and community breakdown.” 

Drought in Somaliland: Dahabo’s story

Like tens of thousands of others in Somaliland, Dahabo has been forced to flee her home due to the catastrophic drought.

Before the drought, she'd lived a comfortable life as a pastoralist.

She owned 100 camels and sold milk and meat to make a living. 

She was forced to make a dangerous journey in order to find a place to stay, ending up in a temporary camp for displaced people. 

There, she and her cousin Safia and relied on the generosity of strangers, before receiving help and support from ActionAid.

ActionAid is delivering life-saving supplies in displacement camps in Somaliland, and supporting vulnerable women and girls who are at increased risk of sexual violence and abuse. 

Tens of thousands of people are being forced to flee their homes due to drought in Somaliland

Karin Schermbrucker/ActionAid

ActionAid’s approach to drought

In high-risk countries around the world, ActionAid works with communities to build their long-term resilience to drought, including by:

  • Training people to develop more climate-resilient agricultural techniques
  • Supporting the building of sustainable water sources
  • Helping people, especially women, to develop alternative income sources.

In a drought emergency, ActionAid and our local partners work to save lives in affected communities, putting women and girls at the heart of our response, including by: 

  • Distributing food, water and water purification tablets
  • Distributing essentials kit, including items tailored to the needs of the community
  • Ensuring women and girls can safely access supplies
  • Supporting women and girls at risk of sexual violence.

Drought in Zimbabwe: Alice’s story

After a devastating drought in Zimbabwe, Alice was struggling to survive and provide her two children with enough food. 

The lack of water in her region was causing a spike in the number of waterborne diseases, as people were forced to drink dirty water from a nearby river.

But ActionAid supported Alice's community by building a borehole in the community.

Not only has this reduced cases of diseases like typhoid, but it also means Alice doesn't have to walk long distances for water.

This means less of a chance of being exposed to violence or harassment.

ActionAid works to develop long-term, sustainable solutions in communities like Alice's, so families can become more resilient to the changing climate

Millions of people were affected by drought in East Africa between 2017 and 2019

Samantha Reinders/ActionAid


  • 1https://www.unccd.int/issues/land-and-drought
  • 2http://www.fao.org/3/aq191e/aq191e.pdf
  • 3http://www.fao.org/3/aq191e/aq191e.pdf
  • 4http://www.fao.org/el-nino/en/
  • 5http://www.fao.org/land-water/water/drought/en/
  • 6http://www.fao.org/land-water/water/drought/en/
  • 7https://www.who.int/hac/techguidance/ems/drought/en/

Top image: Hinda and her family have been forced to flee their home in Somaliland due to drought. Ashley Hamer /ActionAid

Page updated 4 June 2021