Thirty years after the signing of the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification and Drought (UNCCD), 4 billion people in the world, nearly one in two, are experiencing extreme drought conditions for one month each year. The number of drought events has increased by 29% since 2000 compared to the previous two decades, and no country is immune.
From 1979 to 2019, drought-related deaths are estimated at 650,000, 90% of them in developing countries, while worldwide there will be 250 to 700 million people (according to World Bank and UNCCD estimates, respectively) who may have to migrate in search of water in 2030. Those suffering the greatest consequences of the lack of water are women and children who are unable to access satisfactory levels of nutrition and, as a result, of health and education. Economic losses from drought are not estimated by the UNCCD, which does, however, record an increase in such losses in recent decades.
The World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought was celebrated in Madrid on Friday – but the two phenomena, obscured in the media by war, COVID and interest rate spreads, are among the most dramatic, worrying and currently visible effects of climate change. The dry river beds in spring in Italy are the most emblematic proof of this.
The irony is that on the global level, rainfall is actually increasing due to global warming and evaporation-transpiration – but as we know, fresh water is unevenly distributed over the earth’s surface, both due to purely geographical aspects as well as socio-economic differences. Our climate gone mad is turning both into disasters.
A map of the planet compiled using three million high-resolution photos from the Landsat satellite shows that the distribution of fresh water surface in lakes, rivers and reservoirs has changed enormously over the past three decades: from 1984 to 2015, 90,000 square kilometers of surface water was lost, predominantly (70%) in the Middle East and Central Asia, while twice as much new surface water was formed across the globe (184,000 square kilometers), everywhere except in Oceania, where a 1% loss was recorded instead (World Atlas of Desertification, JRC, 2018). This phenomenon can be explained by the melting of glaciers, which is causing, for example, a 20% expansion of the lakes on the Tibetan Plateau, and particularly by the massive construction of dams around the world, which – while they ensure water supply, flood control and hydropower production – also cause environmental damage and significant impacts on local communities.
As water migrates across the planet, people migrate as well, because drought, in particular, “fuels the vicious cycle of poverty,” causing widening inequalities within and between countries having to contend with unequal development processes, as the latest IPCC climate change impact report points out. The number of refugees in the world is growing, and according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, this is also due to the severe drought that in recent years has particularly affected Afghanistan, countries in southeastern Africa and the Horn of Africa as well as Uganda, Chad and Sudan, where climate crisis and armed conflict are only exacerbating each other.
As we know, we are not sheltered from these effects in Europe: the Po and Danube rivers are suffering a crisis that has few precedents in the last century, and today, according to the European Environment Agency, 15% of Europe’s land area and 17% of its population is affected by water scarcity. In the United States, crop loss and other damages associated with drought are quantified at $249 billion from 1980 to the present (NOAA-NCEI, 2021). In Australia, because of what is now called the Australian Millennium Drought, agricultural productivity declined by 18 percent from 2002 to 2010.
However, drought and its effects can be prevented, mitigated and fought, where there is political will and where communities are empowered to deal with them. According to UNCCD, countries are “radically changing the way they address water scarcity, desertification, and soil degradation.” Within the Convention, 128 states have expressed political will to achieve land degradation neutrality, that is, to work to halt the loss of soil fertility. Some of the examples are encouraging: in Niger, the introduction of agroecology and agroforestry systems has succeeded in greatly reducing the risk of drought over an area of 5 million hectares over 20 years, at the very low cost of $20 per hectare, because fertile soil rich in organic matter is better able to retain water and optimize its water needs.
Regenerative agriculture and natural forest regeneration programs have an initial cost of $50-$800 per hectare, with annual maintenance costs at $150-$1500 per hectare, but these generate an economic return of $250-$3500 per hectare. When will people realize that regeneration can also be good business?
Naturally, drought event cannot be prevented unless the fight against global warming is also intensified by cutting climate-altering emissions, in compliance with the Paris Accords, because every increase in temperature of a hundredth of a degree increases the risk of drought in some parts of the world, while increasing the risk of flooding in others.