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ON THE LEFT: Drought a worldwide problem

Dr Peter Gleick, scientist

ON THE LEFT: Drought a worldwide problem

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Should Barbados fear economic fallout from the recent drought?


Populations around the world face many severe water challenges, from scarcity to contamination, from political or violent conflict to economic disruption.

As populations and economies grow, peak water pressures on existing renewable water resources also tend to grow up to the point that natural scarcity begins to constrain the options of water planners and managers.

At this point, the effects of natural fluctuations in water availability in the form of extreme weather events become even more potentially disruptive than normal. In particular, droughts begin to bite deeply into human well-being.

This has been a bad few years for people exposed to droughts around the world. Even normally occurring droughts have begun to be made more severe by rising global temperatures and climate changes.

A particularly severe El Niño has played an important role: droughts are typically more widespread and severe than normal during El Niño years. Indeed, precipitation variability on land is strongly controlled by the characteristics of El Niño events.

At any given time, some regions and some populations are being afflicted by droughts.

Right now, however, the first four months of 2016 – and indeed, for the past year – water shortages are afflicting a large number of people, over a wide area. Here is the current state of drought around the world:

India: Overall, ten of India’s 29 states and 330 million people – a quarter of India’s population – have been affected in 2016 by a combination of failed rains, contaminated supplies, and water mismanagement.

The Caribbean: A severe drought in the northern part of the Caribbean, including eastern Cuba and Haiti, has led to water rationing for over four million people on multiple islands. In Haiti, the drought has persisted for three years and is contributing to hunger and worsening poverty.

South America: Brazil has been suffering from severe drought for several years now, and impacts extend to Colombia and Venezuela, which are suffering from water shortages, lost hydroelectricity, and agricultural failures.

Southern Africa: Extensive areas of southern Africa are also experiencing severe drought, including Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. South Africa suffered its driest year on record in 2015, influenced by El Niño.

Somalia, the Eastern Mediterranean: Further north in the Horn of Africa, famine could kill thousands of people this year in drought-hit Somalia, according to the United Nations, which is seeking emergency drought aid. The larger region around the eastern Mediterranean is also suffering long-term drought.

Southeast Asia/the Mekong Basin: Drought-induced water shortages are appearing in Vietnam. The worst drought in decades in Southeast Asia has cut flows in the Mekong so much that salt water is moving up the river, damaging rice production and affecting fishing communities.

California: Finally, in the United States a severe multi-year drought hurt the Texas economy and then ended with historical flooding, while California has just entered the fifth year of below-normal precipitation, abnormally high temperatures, and reduced water availability. Studies identifying the influence of climate changes on the California drought have also recently been highlighting how a combination of natural variability with growing human influences may increasingly be a problem for societies struggling to deal with growing water-related challenges.


Dr. Peter Gleick is an American scientist, innovator, and communicator on global water, environment, and climate issues.