Coping with climatic variability for livelihood security is part of everyday life for rural communities in semi-arid and dry sub-humid savannas. Water scarcity caused by rainfall fluctuations is common, causing meteorological droughts and dry spells. However, this paper indicates, based on experiences in sub-Saharan Africa and India, that the social impact on rural societies of climatically induced droughts is exaggerated. Instead, water scarcity causing food deficits is more often caused by management induced droughts and dry spells. A conceptual framework to distinguish between manageable and unmanageable droughts is presented. It is suggested that climatic droughts require focus on social resilience building instead of land and water resource management. Focus is then set on the manageable part of climatic variability, namely the almost annual occurrence of dry spells, short 2–4 week periods of no rainfall, affecting farmer yields. On-farm experiences in savannas of sub-Saharan Africa of water harvesting systems for dry spell mitigation are presented. It is shown that bridging dry spells combined with soil fertility management can double and even triple on-farm yield levels. Combined with innovative systems to ensure maximum plant water availability and water uptake capacity, through adoption of soil fertility improvement and conservation tillage systems, there is a clear opportunity to upgrade rainfed farming systems in vulnerable savanna environments, through appropriate local management of climatic variability.

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