Australia to Zimbabwe: Contrasts in Drought Resiliency

The world has grown more informed about how to handle drought after observing southern Australia weather 12 years of one.  We’ve learned lessons about water conservation and efficiency, about recycling water and finding previously untapped supplies.  Yet, when a relatively shorter drought of less than a year hit Zimbabwe last year, the country suffered a great deal. Curious about what distinguishes the relative resiliency of these two countries and seeking to go beyond my immediate judgement that it’s because Australia is a well-developed economy and Zimbabwe is far less so,  I turned to ND-GAIN for insights.  Here’s what I learned:

  • Australia, at No. 5 on the ND-GAIN index, has continued to move up the ranks – it’s now well ahead of the U.S. at 13.
  • Zimbabwe, at 171 on the ND-GAIN index, sits five places from the bottom of the Index. It has fallen 35 places. Its food important dependency of 28 percent contrasts to Australia’s 3 percent.
  • Though its rural population is also declining, 64 percent of its population lives in rural areas to Australia’s 11 percent.
  • Zimbabwe also gets a growing amount of energy from both hydropower – prone to drought-related variability - and imported sources, while Australia’s dependence on foreign oil is smaller and decreasing.
  • The most striking variance in vulnerability, perhaps, lies in the two countries’ dependence on natural capital: Zimbabwe scores 38 percent and Australia four percent (and decreasing). This may explain why their natural systems responded so differently even though water-related vulnerabilities including precipitation and temperature change don’t differ markedly between the two countries.

But the big reveal that, unfortunately, supports many a hunch is that Australia’s readiness to adapt to climate change – as measured by economic, governance and social indicators – is two-to-three times greater than Zimbabwe’s.  Political stability, an economic environment conducive to business and the quality of the rule of law, to cite some specific readiness measures, all help countries weather the stress of drought.

While we should all take lessons from Australia’s deft handling of its drought – learned over time through trial and error – we also should continue to support efforts to shore up the readiness of a lower-income country as a way to ensure that Zimbabwe and others keep pace with the adaptations needed in a climate-changed world.