The central value in this publication is the focus it provides on just how hard it can be for governments to alter key policy directions, even where it is clear that reform is needed. Governments are often presented with very hard policy choices, and often they are found wanting. But here a crisis galvanized action, and Ministers and civil servants took the opportunity offered. Here, it appears the federal and state governments have responded strongly to the drought related problems confronting Brazil. We can only hope that the very positive reform process can be sustained long enough to achieve ongoing positive outcomes.

As the subtitle suggests, this book describes recent efforts in Brazil to move management of drought away from its historical crisis management framework towards a risk based, more proactive framework. Many of its 35 editors and authors are or were Brazilian politicians and senior civil servants, and officers of the World Bank.

A clear message from the early chapters of this book is that drought is a part of life in Brazil: historically, Brazil sought to manage these droughts as and when they unfolded, adapting the elements of government support from drought to drought. By and large until recently the national government typically assisted affected areas through provision of emergency water supplies, Keynesian-style work support activities, crop insurance and sale of grain at subsidised prices. After successive droughts, governments often expanded water storage capacity. The storage capacity in the state of Ceara in the Northeast is illustrative. There, since 1960, storage capacity has expanded seven fold. The book describes how discussions around the need for a proactive national policy ebbed and flowed with each cycle of drought, but little changed.

The 2010–2015 drought in the semi-arid part of Brazil's Northeast region, which has a population of over 22 million and covers an area of around a million km2 provided a major catalyst for change. While this area has experienced no fewer than 15 major droughts since 1900, the severity of the drought focused national political attention. When combined with precipitous falls in reservoir levels in dams servicing the huge city of Sao Paulo in Brazil's Southeast, the attention of politicians at federal and state levels was locked in, resulting in an internal dialogue for change. These discussions were supported by World Bank input and learnings from experiences of a number of countries (the USA, Mexico and Spain) facing similar problems. Chapters 1 through 9 provide elucidation on parts of this story.

The focus of the new proactive approach is on three central ‘pillars', set out in Chapter 3. The first covers forecasting, monitoring and early warning of droughts – it incorporates a drought plan, decision support tools and indicators. The second involves resilience and impact assessment – risks are identified and monitored. The third pillar involves mitigation and response planning, to develop proactive measures to reduce risks and boost community resilience. Key tools (a drought monitor, and drought preparedness plans) were developed first on a pilot basis in the Northeast region of Brazil. This material is quite accessible to the general reader, and interested policy makers and advisors.

As can be expected, the book is largely silent about whether the paradigm shift as discussed will be fully implemented, and what impact it will have. The book provides ample evidence that the conversation about the need for reform has been advanced in recent years, but we are not yet in a position to judge whether fundamental reform of drought policy will be successfully embedded in policy and in the behaviour of institutions and key actors.

The final three chapters of the book are quite lengthy technical papers drawing out elements of the central pillars: Chapter 11 provides a description of the Northeast Drought Monitor (a key tool to monitor changes in the state of the drought); and Chapter 12 outlines the role of drought preparedness plans to reduce the various impacts of drought. These papers are less accessible, and at some levels unsatisfying. Chapter 10 on economic costs of the 2010 drought in the Northeast does not, for example, discuss the benefits that might accrue from a major shift in the policy framework. Attempting to do this would assist evaluation of the case for the change. This might reflect the collective view of the authors (a view that I share) that the case is so overwhelming it should not require setting out. Be that as it may, the fact that it has taken this long to get this far would suggest significant value in spelling out in detail the key elements of the case for a new approach.

It is disappointing that the book does not provide more detail on Brazil's water policy framework, and its sustainability now and into the future. Chapter 5 sets out some aspects of water policy. Its discussion of water supply and drought preparedness plans outlines approaches to planning at a river basin level, then drills down to planning by water utilities, irrigation schemes, hydro-systems, dispersed rural systems and rain-fed agriculture. It would be interesting to understand more about Table 5.2, which describes briefly the nature of actions on allocation of water and water use permits as drought conditions worsen.

How water is managed can affect significantly the impact of drought on economic activity and the ongoing flow of environmental services. The emphasis in this volume seems to be very much on better managing the development process. The environment is given limited treatment in either the text or the index. One can only hope that these issues are being given serious treatment in policy and implementation well before the impact of climate change is fully felt.