Coping with Risk

Photo: R. Toth

Research Focus

Land use by smallholders in drylands is to a large extent driven by high climate risk. Traditional and new ways exist to cope with this type of risk. Traditional strategies include, for instance, pastoral mobility or the use of social networks to deal with droughts. New opportunities to manage risk are the use of financial instruments such as weather-index insurance or the use of trucks to transport animals.

In POLISES we have a strong focus on social-ecological impacts of global food security policies that aim to reduce climate risk. Specifically, we are interested in three points:

  1. What is the appropriate design of policy instruments to cope with risks for livestock production with respect to the social-ecological resilience of smallholders? How do they interact with policies in other domains?
  2. What are the chances and risks of new risk coping strategies (such as weather-index insurance) compared to traditional strategies (mobility, social networks) under global change?
  3. Do these policy instruments increase polarisation between smallholders? If so, how can this be avoided?


Müller, B., Johnson, L., Kreuer, D. (2017). Maladaptive outcomes of climate insurance in agriculture. Global Environmental Change 46, 23-33. doi. Interactive map.

Agricultural insurance is praised as a promising tool in the face of climate risk, but studies on social and ecological consequences have produced inconclusive results. In this review study, we offer a systematic overview of potential effects of ‘climate insurance.’ It becomes evident that insurance may generate serious economic, social, and ecological consequences. Based on our discussion, we suggest principles and recommendations for avoiding maladaptive outcomes.

Müller, B., Kreuer, D. (2016). Ecologists Should Care about Insurance, too. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 31(1), 1-2. doi.

This short letter is a response to a paper published earlier in the same journal, which had addressed the growing influence of financial markets on ecological systems. We specifically point out index-based microinsurance and its potentially harmful, yet under-studied social-ecological adverse effects. As the German federal government, among others, allocates large amounts of funding to such insurance products in the context of the G7 initiative, a broad debate seems crucial to us.

Martin, R., Linstädter, A., Frank, K., Müller, B. (2016). Livelihood security in face of drought – Assessing the vulnerability of pastoral households. Environmental Modelling & Software 75, 414-423. doi.

The purpose of this study is to assess the relevance of drought as a driving force for losses of livelihood security leading to a specific systemic change – households abandoning transhumant pastoralism. The High Atlas Mountains of Morocco serve as a case study. Our results indicate that drought is the main threat to livelihood security in only a few cases; other processes of global change (such as social change and land use change) were found to be the main driving force for vulnerability.

Müller, B., Schulze, J., Kreuer, D., Linstädter, A., Frank, K. (2015). How to avoid unsustainable side effects of managing climate risk in drylands - The supplementary feeding controversy. Agricultural Systems 139, 153-165. doi.
Schulze, J., Frank, K., Müller, B. (2016). Governmental response to climate risk: Model-based assessment of livestock supplementation in drylands. Land Use Policy 54, 47–57. doi.

These two studies tackle the question whether supplementary feeding strategies in times of drought can be designed to reduce livestock asset risk, but avoid or at least reduce unsustainable side effects on pastures. In the first model, we compare three supplementation strategies for one pastoralist. It turns out that it may be useful to additionally supplement in the year after a drought in order to rest the pasture. The second study shows that government supplementation programs are only cost-efficient if they are regionalized and adapted to the specific ecological characteristics of the rangeland utilization systems in question.