By Emma Farge
GENEVA (Reuters) - U.N. agencies want to strengthen national drought policies after warnings that climate change would increase their frequency and severity.
Droughts cause more deaths and displacement than floods or earthquakes, making them the world's most destructive natural hazard, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, one of the groups taking part.
"We must boost national capacity to cope before droughts occur," Ann Tutwiler, FAO deputy director-general told the five-day talks on drought in Geneva attended by scientists, politicians and development agencies.
"Unless we shift towards such policies, we face the prospect of repeated humanitarian catastrophes and the repeated threat of drought to global food security."
In 2012, the United States experienced the worst drought since the 1930s "dustbowl", pushing grains prices to record highs. In the past years, droughts have also affected the Horn of Africa and the Sahel region as well as China, Russia and southeast Europe.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in December that extreme weather was the "new normal", adding that drought had decimated essential crops from the United States to India, from Ukraine to Brazil.
"No one is immune to climate change - rich or poor. It is an existential challenge for the whole human race - our way of life, our plans for the future," he said at the time.
However, governments have often been slow to act on drought as, unlike other natural disasters, they tend to develop more gradually and often do not generate an instant media buzz.
"As opposed to other natural disasters it's a slow creeping phenomenon," said Mannava Sivakumar a director for the World Meteorological Organisation's (WMO) climate prediction and adaptation division who assisted with the talks.
"If people say let's what and see what happens, before you realise it, you see crops dying, orchards dying and millions of dollars in damage," he added.
The four U.N. bodies that launched the "National Drought Management Policies Initiative" were the FAO, the WMO, the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification and the U.N.-Water Decade Programme on Capacity Development.
The project aims to develop early warning systems, following the example of the U.S. National Integrated Drought Information System, and mitigation measures which might include helping farmers change their planting schedule to adapt to water shortages.
They said they would proceed through four regional workshops in eastern Europe, Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean throughout 2013.
The conference also urged governments to develop stronger regional and global cooperation to improve observation systems and to put in place national emergency relief measures.