Climate change is fuelling the intensity of drought in already vulnerable regions while tightening its grip on not-so-vulnerable areas
Arguably, this is the first time that drought as a disaster has become planetary. In Africa, Europe, North America and Asia, nearly 300 million people are in the grip of drought.
East Africa is reeling under its worst drought in four decades; nearly half of the US is dry; and countries like France and Portugal are enduring the worst drought on record.
In India, states like Odisha, Jharkhand and those in the North East are already under drought-like conditions, notwithstanding the severe floods that hit these areas in August.
Currently, no matter where one is, he or she will be hit by the spectre of drought with unusual intensity. Drought is a disaster that one can see coming. It gives enough warning to a country to prepare.
The failure of seasonal rain, long dry spells and gradual drying up of moisture in land with effects on crops are the usual stages that lead up to a drought emergency. In the current spell too, signs of severe drought were visible for many countries since the start of last year.
But this spell is marked by its sweep and severity and the utter failure of existing drought management regimes to foresee and address it. This spell also reveals the worst facet of the changing climate as it affects two fundamental resources: Land and water.
It has hit both the poor and rich in developed and developing countries, although the intensity of impact is more for the poor. Since 2000, several UN agencies point out, the frequency and duration of droughts have increased by nearly 33 per cent.
Every fifth citizen in the world faces water stress as an impact of dry spells and frequent droughts. Though Africa holds the highest burden of this disaster, Europe has also witnessed 45 major droughts in the last century. On average, 15 per cent of Europe’s land is hit by drought, but the current spell has affected over 60 per cent of areas.
There are clear indications of drought becoming a lethal disaster: It accounts for 15 per cent of natural disasters in the world but has killed 0.65 million during 1970-2019, making it the deadliest one.
The world loses 12 million hectares of land every year to drought and desertification, according to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).
Forecasts by agencies like the International Organization for Migration show that by 2050, some 215 million people could be displaced due to drought and other climate-related factors. Two-thirds of the world population could be affected by drought by 2050.
Climate change is fuelling the intensity of drought in the already vulnerable regions while tightening its grip on not-so-vulnerable areas. According to UNCCD, “within the next few decades, 129 countries will experience an increase in drought — 23 primarily due to population growth and 38 because of their interaction between climate change and population growth.”
If the global warming level reaches 3°C by 2100, “drought losses could be five times higher than they are today, with the largest increase in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic regions of Europe.”
What we see now reflects this. As drought evolves into a planetary hazard, it has the potential to not only curb access to water but also severely diminish food production. With the population still rising and level of consumption increasing among certain groups, drought may be a threat to overall food security — a scenario seen in east Africa could be a reality for Europe as well.
Drought has been an existential hazard for those who depend on natural resources such as land for sustenance. Communities in countries like India, where half of the area is drought-prone, have developed adaptation measures for this.
These are mostly water and soil conservation measures that protect agriculture from dry spells and ensure enough water for domestic consumption. They are decentralised and sustained through either community or government support. So, the world, both rich and poor, must return to its roots and to indigenous communities who have mastered ways to tame disasters.
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