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BARCELONA/HARARE, June 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - W hen a big earthquake, flash flood or other sudden disaster hits, aid agencies spring into action with emergency responses and public appeals for donations. With droughts, it's different.
If the rains don't come, it can take months for the effects to be felt by poor rural families. Hunger kicks in only after crops fail, food stocks are exhausted and livestock start dying - but by then, help often comes too late to head off the worst.
The humanitarian world is still struggling to find a timely way to tackle "slow-onset" crises like droughts.
But a UK-based coalition of 42 relief groups from five continents, aiming to make aid delivery more effective, thinks it might have an answer.
The Start Network, funded by the British, Dutch and Irish governments, is putting together a new financing facility to enable a faster and more coordinated response to droughts, and plans to test its model in Pakistan and Zimbabwe.
In May, the network convened local and international agencies in Harare to discuss how it might work in the southern African nation still smarting from a devastating 2015-2016 drought, driven by the El Nino climate pattern, which left some 4 million people in need of food aid.
A 2016 U.N.-led appeal for more than $350 million to respond to the drought was less than 50 percent covered by donors.
"We realised humanitarian responses were not kicking in fast," said Emily Montier, manager of the drought project for the Start Network. "There was a long period of procrastination with some decisions having to be made far away, resulting in delays."
The "drought financing facility" aims to combine contingency funds, insurance and new modelling technology to shift humanitarian response from reaction to anticipation, she added.
"This will save more lives, livelihoods and assets, and significantly reduce costs," she said.
Montier said many aid groups responding to drought had tried to access the Start Network's existing fund for swift relief in small-scale crises, but it backs 45-day projects which is too short for drawn-out situations like droughts.
"Droughts were coming to that mechanism purely because there was nothing else out there," Montier told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Other efforts to provide cash in time to stop droughts turning into hunger crises are gathering steam, including the African Risk Capacity, which provides payouts to African governments that take out cover, and index-based insurance for farmers, now growing in popularity from Kenya to India.
The Start Network facility aims to be more flexible while still operating on a national level, releasing its own funds for aid organisations to respond to smaller crises and tapping insurance payouts for large emergencies.
How it functions will differ according to the country. In Zimbabwe, a lot is already happening to help communities weather drought but that needs to be stepped up when conditions worsen, whereas in Pakistan, chronic dryness in some areas has created humanitarian needs that are simply going unmet, said Montier.
Shahida Arif, Asia regional learning adviser for the Start Network, said water shortages in Pakistani provinces like Sindh cause long-term nutritional problems and food insecurity.
With little help at hand, poor families are forced to sell off their cattle and other meagre assets to survive.
"The government agencies do not have any plan so far to respond to drought," said Arif.
That could change after Pakistan's National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) announced in February it would join the Start partnership to test the new facility in places like Sindh where tens of thousands of people were suffering the effects of drought.
With work near completion on web-based scientific models to calculate drought risks and potential funding options, the Start Network is talking to donor governments about funding the next stage of implementing the facility in Pakistan and Zimbabwe.
Josh Ling of Mercy Corps in Pakistan said the project had "huge potential" to improve the lives of drought-hit communities, as it is designed to allow agencies to act rapidly and on a far bigger scale than individual insurance policies.
In Zimbabwe, some of the agencies involved - which include CARE International, Christian Aid and ActionAid - suggested the facility could be expanded to cover drought impacts on livestock as well as crops, and should also be used for floods.
If successful, the model may be applied to other natural hazards, Montier said. "There is a real need to gather more evidence around these approaches and how they work in practice," she added. (Reporting by Andrew Mambondiyani in Harare and Megan Rowling in Barcelona; editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate)