Drought Data Shows ‘Unprecedented Emergency on a Planetary Scale’
Drought in Burkina Faso

Drought data shows “an unprecedented emergency on a planetary scale”, according to a report released as the world leaders meet in Dubai at the annual climate summit, COP28, to discuss response to climate change.

The report warns that the “massive” impacts of human-induced droughts are only beginning to unfold, with data showing that droughts are worsening across the world.  Asia, particularly China, and the Horn of Africa, are the worst-hit. Up to 85% people affected by droughts live in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC).

The report was launched by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in collaboration with International Drought Resilience Alliance (IDRA).

Africa’s drought-related economic losses in the past 50 years are estimated to amount to $70 billion. Meanwhile, Argentina’s soybean harvest this year is expected to drop by 44% compared to the average of the past five years thanks to drought. It would make this the lowest yield since 1989 for the country and is set to cause a 3% drop in the country’s GDP this year.

Unlike other disasters that attract media attention, droughts happen silently, often going unnoticed and failing to provoke an immediate public and political response. This silent devastation perpetuates a cycle of neglect, leaving affected populations to bear the burden in isolation,” said Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Secretary of UNCCD.

UNCCD is one of three conventions that originated at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The other two address climate change, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and biodiversity, the UN Convention on Biodiversity (UN CBD). 

IDRA is a global coalition of 34 countries that aims to create political momentum, mobilize finance and technical resources for a drought-resilience.

Worsening droughts are causing the loss of grazing land and forests, according to the latest UN data.

China, Horn of Africa – most vulnerable regions

In China around 15-20% of the population is likely to face frequent moderate to severe droughts by the turn of this century and the intensity of these is expected to rise by 80%. In the Horn of Africa, drought had already made 23 million people food insecure by the end of December 2022.

In North America, countries like the US are also facing worse drought periods, while the 2022 drought in Europe was the worst in 500 years. 

A key impact of droughts has been the reduction of food production, which has consequently affected the health and nutrition of dependent communities. Between 2016 and 2018, 70% of cereal crops were damaged by drought in the Mediterranean region. 

“With the frequency and severity of drought events increasing, as reservoir levels dwindle and crop yields decline, as we continue to lose biological diversity and famines spread, transformational change is needed,” Thiaw said, calling this report a wake-up call. The report draws on existing research and evidence from a range of agencies around the world.

Even if the average global temperature rise is restricted to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to the pre-industrial period, 120 million people will experience extreme drought. If the temperature rise continues on the current trajectory, this number would swell to 170 million, according to the report.

Global carbon emissions are continuing to rise in 2023, according to the latest data from the World Meteorological Organization WMO). At this point, research places the future global temperature rise at anywhere between two to three degrees Celsius

“Several countries are already experiencing climate-change-induced famine,” the report said. “Forced migration surges globally; violent water conflicts are on the rise; the ecological base that enables all life on earth is eroding more quickly than at any time in known human history.”

Nearly a third of grazing land in South Africa has been lost to drought and the expected forest loss in the Mediterranean region in the high emission scenario is twice to thrice the current rate of forest loss, the report said.  

Apart from causing a rise in water stress for local communities, animals and forests, droughts are also affecting the shipping industry.  

During 2022, ships’ arrivals and departures were delayed in Europe due to low water levels on the Rhine River and this led to a 75% reduction in cargo capacity of some vessels. Low water levels in the Mississippi River in the US caused an economic loss of $20 billion as it led to supply chain disruptions.

What response could look like

The report also clearly spells out what the response to worsening droughts could look like, underlining that land restoration, sustainable land management and nature-positive agricultural practices are critical to building drought resilience.

“Urban intensification, active family planning, and curbing rapid population growth are prerequisites for societal development that respects planetary boundaries,” the report said.

The reduction or further conversion of global forests and natural land for agriculture could be halted if consumers cut their consumption of animal products such as pork, chicken, beef and milk.

Early warning systems are an important response to building drought resilience, according to the report. Efficient water management is another key component of global drought resilience. This includes investing in sustainable water supply systems, conservation measures and the promotion of water-efficient technologies.

The adoption of early warning systems is another key response to prepare for drought. Investing in meteorological monitoring, data collection and risk assessment tools can help respond quickly to drought emergencies and minimize impacts. Building global drought resilience requires international cooperation, knowledge sharing and environmental and social justice.

Global cooperation will be the key, the report added. “We need to reach binding global agreements for proactive measures that are to be taken by nations to curtail the spells of drought,” the report said. 

Image Credits: Yoda Adaman/ Unsplash.

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