‘Everybody’s problem is drought’: One in four children could live with water shortages in 2040, UN warns

An estimated one in four children will live with water shortages by 2040

Ethan Freedman
Climate Reporter, New York
Wednesday 11 May 2022 15:35 BST
Horn of Africa drought drives 20 million towards hunger

Drought risk has increased by 29 per cent in the past twenty years — and the climate crisis threatens to make water shortage issues even worse, warns a new United Nations report.

Drought is a global problem, but sub-Saharan Africa, southern Asia, Eastern Europe and parts of Latin America are especially vulnerable, says the new research from the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

As the climate crisis deepens, a growing proportion of people around the world will live with water shortages, the report notes, including an estimated one in four children by 2040. However reductions in projected warming and land conservation can help mitigate these risks.

This report “unambiguously tells the world: everybody’s problem is drought,” Barron Orr, lead scientist at UNCCD, told The Independent.

“It’s everywhere. And it’s very large.”

The report was published during UNCCD’s conference in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire attended by representatives from nearly 200 countries.

Droughts are a multi-pronged threat, impacting both direct human health and the systems that undergird society.

More than 1.4 billion people have felt the direct impact of drought since 2000, the report notes, though the consequences weren’t evenly distributed. Africa had the most droughts of any continent, they point out.

The Horn of Africa, including countries like Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia in the continent’s east, is currently facing a devastating drought that has killed millions of livestock and put millions of livelihoods at risk, reports AP.

In addition to geographic differences, water-collecting efforts — a time- and effort-intensive process — often falls to women and girls.

Water shortages can lead to agricultural crises with significant repercussions for food and economies. Crop productivity dropped by 18 per cent during a multi-year drought in Australia in the early 2000s, the UNCCD notes.

Parts of the world where more people rely directly on subsistence agriculture for livelihoods are likely to be more vulnerable to complications from drought, Dr Orr says. But even places like the American West — which is at serious risk of drought but has fewer people directly working the land — will face issues if reservoirs run dry, he adds.

These issues will be exacerbated in the future. The reports states that while 40 per cent of livestock in Angola already face drought risk, that number will rise toward 70 per cent.

By 2050, the report states, drought and other climate impacts could force hundreds of millions of people to search for a new place to live.

Mitigating these issues is complicated. For one, governments and scientists can’t simply make it rain.

Addressing the climate crisis would help. The report notes that restricting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would limit risk from extreme drought. This week, the World Meteorological Organization warned that there’s a 50 per cent chance the world may at least temporarily hit 1.5C of warming by 2026.

Keeping lands healthy through forest and grassland regeneration, erosion control and agroforestry — maintaining trees and plant growth within farms and ranches — can also help limit drought impacts, the report notes.

“When you rehabilitate your land, you’re helping the land to be able to capture more water,” Daniel Tsegai, an officer with UNCCD, told The Independent.

Some of that comes from ensuring healthy soils by avoiding heavy use of chemical fertilizers and incorporating more plant matter back into the ground, Dr Orr says.

“The use of water in a soil that has organic matter is far, far more efficient than in a soil that doesn’t,” he says.

Both Dr Tsegai and Dr Orr also stressed the importance of coordinating and cooperation among different groups to prepare for drought — and for preparation in general.

“We cannot wait for a disaster or a drought to happen,” says Dr Tsegai. “We need to be prepared for drought.”

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