Simulating Small-Scale Agricultural Adaptation Decisions in Response to Drought Risk: An Empirical Agent-Based Model for Semi-Arid Kenya

Marthe Wens*, Ted I.E. Veldkamp, Moses Mwangi, J. Michael Johnson, Ralph Lasage, Toon Haer, Jeroen C.J.H. Aerts

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


In Eastern Africa, increasing climate variability and changing socioeconomic conditions are exacerbating the frequency and intensity of drought disasters. Droughts pose a severe threat to food security in this region, which is characterized by a large dependency on smallholder rain-fed agriculture and a low level of technological development in the food production systems. Future drought risk will be determined by the adaptation choices made by farmers, yet few drought risk models … incorporate adaptive behavior in the estimation of drought risk. Here, we present an innovative dynamic drought risk adaptation model, ADOPT, to evaluate the factors that influence adaptation decisions and the subsequent adoption of measures, and how this affects drought risk for agricultural production. ADOPT combines socio-hydrological and agent-based modeling approaches by coupling the FAO crop model AquacropOS with a behavioral model capable of simulating different adaptive behavioral theories. In this paper, we compare the protection motivation theory, which describes bounded rationality, with a business-as-usual and an economic rational adaptive behavior. The inclusion of these scenarios serves to evaluate and compare the effect of different assumptions about adaptive behavior on the evolution of drought risk over time. Applied to a semi-arid case in Kenya, ADOPT is parameterized using field data collected from 250 households in the Kitui region and discussions with local decision-makers. The results show that estimations of drought risk and the need for emergency food aid can be improved using an agent-based approach: we show that ignoring individual household characteristics leads to an underestimation of food-aid needs. Moreover, we show that the bounded rational scenario is better able to reflect historic food security, poverty levels, and crop yields. Thus, we demonstrate that the reality of complex human adaptation decisions can best be described assuming bounded rational adaptive behavior; furthermore, an agent-based approach and the choice of adaptation theory matter when quantifying risk and estimating emergency aid needs.

Original languageEnglish
Article number15
Pages (from-to)1-21
Number of pages21
JournalFrontiers in water
Issue numberJuly
Early online date17 Jul 2020
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We gratefully acknowledge funding from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) VICI research project number 453-582 13-006. The authors are grateful to Mr. Mutinda from SASOL foundation for his insights on the drought adaptation measures in Kitui and to Dr. Snelders (Center for International Cooperation, VU Amsterdam) for sharing the contacts acquired during the long collaboration between the VU in the Netherlands and SEKU in Kenya. The authors also want to thank Nick, Stella, Bobsammy, Nicholas, Emmanuel for their contribution to the data collection. Lastly, the authors acknowledge the constructive feedback and interesting comments of the three reviewers, which helped improving this manuscript significantly.

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2020 Wens, Veldkamp, Mwangi, Johnson, Lasage, Haer and Aerts.


  • adaptation decisions
  • adaptive behavior
  • agent-based model
  • drought adaptation
  • drought risk
  • socio-hydrology


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