As 2017 is coming to an end, you may be tempted to call it Year of the Hurricanes. However, a slower and more silent phenomenon could be better awarded with such a title. On the other side of the deluge coin, there is drought.
After a three-year-long dry spell, flames devoured more than a million acres in California, while some of Europe’s most parched spots, particularly in Portugal, were reduced to ash. Seventeen African countries, from Angola to Tanzania, from Sudan to Malawi, have endured the second consecutive year of drought. Israel is in its fourth, and the arid conditions are crippling its high-tech agriculture.
Repeated droughts are destroying enough farm produce to feed 81 million people, said the World Bank in a recent report, aptly named Uncharted Waters. ‘The 21st century is witnessing the collision of two powerful trends – rising human populations coupled with a changing climate,’ the financial institution argues. It’s no small matter, as the collision could be brutal.
Slightly more than 70 per cent of our planet is covered with water. Yet, 97 per cent of it is salted. Most of the meagre three per cent of freshwater is locked in glaciers. The remaining slice (0.5 per cent) is mostly composed by underground aquifers (equivalent to four trillion Olympic-sized swimming pools), followed by rainfall (47 billion pools), lakes (36 billion), man-made reservoirs (two billion) and rivers (848 million pools). In other words, on a planet awash with water, the water at mankind’s disposal is just a tiny fraction of the total. Meanwhile, mankind has grown to pass the 7.5 billion population mark.
Rain scarcity, the World Bank estimates, is four times more costly than floods. Not to mention its long-term consequences, like cropland expansion into forested areas. Climate change may accelerate this pattern, ‘leading to a harmful cycle where rainfall shocks induce deforestation, thereby increasing carbon dioxide emissions, and, in turn, further exacerbating rainfall extremes.’
Those extremes – downpours and droughts – were predicted by climatologists decades ago. The prediction includes an escalation in weather pattern disruptions, well similar to the ones we have witnessed in 2017. ‘How much worse can it get?’ is the question.
This was published in the December 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.