The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
Every inhabited continent, to varying degrees, faces extremely high water stress. That means that in certain areas more than 80 percent of the local water supply is withdrawn by businesses, farmers, residents and other consumers every year. Not all of that water is consumed—it may flow back into a river after it’s used and be available again downstream—but the demand still creates competition where it is needed.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
These “stressed” areas are also the ones most vulnerable to episodic droughts. With chronic over-use of water resources, it only takes a string of a few bad rainfall years or poor management decisions to plunge a region into crisis and chaos.
And indeed, that is what we appear to be seeing across the world over the past few years. Here’s a look at seven extreme droughts that have occurred in the past decade:
1. Australia’s one-in-a-thousand-year drought
Australia’s “Millennium” drought began in 1995 and continued country-wide until late 2009. Reservoir levels fell precipitously, as did crop production and industrial water use. A number of cities, including Melbourne, Sydney and Perth, built desalination plants in an effort to partially drought-proof themselves, while other areas pursued grey water recycling projects. Between 2001 and 2012, the federal government provided $4.5 billion in assistance to drought-affected farmers and small businesses.
In 2010-11, following quickly on the heels of the drought, Australia experienced its worst flooding in half a century, as an area of Queensland larger than the size of France and Germany combined flooded, affecting 200,000 people and costing at least $10 billion.
2. Spain imports water by ship
Drought in Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia grew so severe in 2008 that Barcelona began importing water by ship from France. About 70 percent of Spain’s water goes to agriculture, much of which is “wasted in antiquated irrigation systems and the cultivation of thirsty crops unsuitable for arid lands,” according to The Independent. Other critics pointed to low water prices as the culprit for the crisis. Low water prices, it is often argued, result in profligate water use and low investment in water-efficient infrastructure.
3. Northern India’s groundwater loss can be seen from space
Twin satellites from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) are able to detect changes in the Earth’s gravity field brought about by changes in mass distribution, including changes in groundwater storage. Nowhere on Earth are groundwater declines greater than in northern India; NASA found that large-scale irrigation caused 108 cubic kilometers of groundwater loss in Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, and Delhi between 2002 and 2008. The study’s lead, Matt Rodell, observed that “The region has become dependent on irrigation to maximize agricultural productivity. If measures are not taken to ensure sustainable groundwater usage, the consequences for the 114 million residents of the region may include a collapse of agricultural output and severe shortages of potable water."
In July 2012, roughly half of India’s population—about 670 million people or 10 percent of the world’s population—temporarily lost power following a massive grid failure. Some experts laid the blame on the severe drought affecting northern India. Low rainfall restricted the amount of power delivered by hydroelectric dams, and farmers used more power than usual to run water pumps to irrigate their crops.
4. The dark side of China’s boom
Much of northern China is relatively dry, not unlike California and the rest of the U.S. West. Yet it’s also traditionally produced significant amounts of wheat and other grains, thanks to flood irrigation. Add to this inefficient system skyrocketing water use by industry, energy and municipalities, and China’s future might be drying up.
Government officials are starting to take action. Water is now one of China’s public policy priorities, and the central government recently launched a “Three Red Lines” policy to improve water use efficiency and place caps on water demand. Yet it remains unclear whether these policies are sufficient to overcome the country’s vast water challenges.
5. Mesopotamian nightmare
From 2006 through 2011, Syria suffered its worst drought and crop failure in recorded history. The GRACE satellite data revealed “an alarming rate of decrease in total water storage in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, which [at the time had] the second fastest rate of groundwater storage loss on Earth, after India.” While many other factors—political, social and religious—have contributed to the Syrian military conflict, experts argue that “the decrease in water availability, water mismanagement, agricultural failures, and related economic deterioration contributed to population dislocations and the migration of rural communities to nearby cities. These factors further contributed to urban unemployment, economic dislocations, food insecurity for more than a million people, and subsequent social unrest.”
6. Southeastern Brazil on the brink
Parts of southeastern Brazil, including the cities of São Paolo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte, are struggling through the worst drought in 84 years, with 40 million people and the nation’s “economic heartbeat” at risk. Reservoirs that supply water to these cities are at dangerously low levels. They’re also highly polluted, complicating things even further.
Unfortunately, politicians have failed to act decisively to take steps to minimize the impact of the crisis, raising levels of public distrust and frustration. There has even been talk of exporting “water refugees” and bringing in the military to help out if matters grow worse.
7. Turning now to California
California is in the throes of an unprecedented drought, now in its fourth year. Gov. Jerry Brown ordered mandatory restrictions on water use by state municipalities early last month, and a group of farmers with senior rights have since given up a quarter of their water this year in exchange for being spared deeper mandatory cuts. The situation is bad—even desperate for some farmers. As I argued in a recent blog, the state needs to improve its water governance in order to protect its economic interests and its citizens.
The situation is poised to worsen
World Resources Institute’s Aqueduct project’s forthcoming projections for global water stress in 2020, 2030 and 2040 indicate that the global water picture is likely going to get worse over the next few decades. Larger populations and growing economies demand more water, and in some places, climate change will likely reduce available water supply. While our vulnerability to drought grows, the incidence of extreme weather events, including drought, will grow as well, according to most climate change experts.
Yet in this knowledge lies power. We know that drought risk is high and growing worldwide. We’re already seeing the impact water scarcity has on citizens, on the environment and on economies. Sustainable water-management plans, clear government monitoring and management policies and wise natural and engineered infrastructure investments could have helped to shore up the dwindling water supply, alleviating impacts on people, planet and economy.
It’s time to put this information into action. Businesses, governments and all water managers must quickly and intelligently take measures to reduce vulnerability to drought events.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Tensions are continuing to rise in Canada over a controversial pipeline project as protesters enter their 12th day blockading railways, demonstrating on streets and highways, and paralyzing the nation's rail system
Colorado River Has Lost 1.5 Billion Tons of Water to the Climate Crisis, 'Severe Water Shortages' May Follow
California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.
The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.
"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."
While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.
The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.
"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.
Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.
Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.
"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.
NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.
As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.
"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.
The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.
"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."
- Is California heading for another drought? - Los Angeles Times ›
- CA wildfire season: Will rain, snow weather forecast end risk? | The ... ›
- California Fires Now Rage All Year as Drought Creates Tinderbox ... ›
- California weather stays dry as rain and snow come up short | The ... ›
- California Emerged From Drought and Is Still Catching Fire - The ... ›
A warm day in winter used to be a rare and uplifting relief.
Now such days are routine reminders of climate change – all the more foreboding when they coincide with news stories about unprecedented wildfires, record-breaking "rain bombs," or the accelerated melting of polar ice sheets.
Where, then, can one turn for hope in these dark months of the year?