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 That means that in certain areas more than 80 percent of the local water supply is withdrawn by businesses, farmers, residents and other consumers every year.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
By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere hit a new record in 2019 and have continued climbing this year, despite lockdowns and other measures to curb the pandemic, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said on Monday, citing preliminary data.
- 13 Must-Read Climate Change Reports for 2020 - EcoWatch ›
- Large Methane Leaks Soar 32% Despite Lockdowns and Green ... ›
These black-and-white lizards could be the punchline of a joke, except the situation is no laughing matter.
By Isabella Garcia
September in Portland, Oregon, usually brings a slight chill to the air and an orange tinge to the leaves. This year, it brought smoke so thick it burned your throat and made your eyes strain to see more than 20 feet in front of you.
- 16 Essential Books About Environmental Justice, Racism and Activism ›
- 7 Devastating Photos of Wildfires in California, Oregon and ... ›
- Several West Coast Cities Have the World's Worst Air - EcoWatch ›
- Extremely Rare Leopard Cubs Born in Connecticut Zoo - EcoWatch ›
- Small Wild Cats Face Big Threats Including Lack of Conservation ... ›
- 5 Species Bouncing Back From the Brink of Extinction - EcoWatch ›