'No country is immune': UN warns of greater risks from drought, urges action

People standing next to dead cattle in the village of Hargududo, Ethiopia, on April 7, 2022. There has been hardly any rain in Hargududo in 18 months. PHOTO: AFP
Low water levels in the Tigris River, in Baghdad, Iraq, on May 10, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
A UN report says an estimated 700 million people will be at risk of being displaced by drought by 2030. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - Humanity faces increasingly severe and damaging droughts because of climate change and land degradation, and nations need to take urgent action to reduce the threat as global demand for food grows, a UN report released on Wednesday (May 11) says.

Drought In Numbers, 2022, from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), says the number and duration of droughts have risen 29 per cent since 2000 and that an estimated 700 million people will be at risk of being displaced by drought by 2030 unless action is stepped up.

"When more than 2.3 billion people already face water stress, this is a huge problem," Mr Ibrahim Thiaw, executive secretary of the UNCCD, says in the report. "More and more of us will be living in areas with extreme water shortages, including an estimated one in four children by 2040. No country is immune to drought."

Droughts are expected to worsen as the planet heats up, affecting not only rainfall patterns but also causing water to evaporate faster, meaning soils dry out more quickly.

Add to this widespread land degradation because of poor agricultural practices, deforestation, mining and pollution. The UNCCD said in a separate report recently that up to 40 per cent of the planet's land surface is degraded and in urgent need of restoration.

Longer and more severe droughts risk slashing crop yields, kill livestock, reduce water supplies and turn forests and grasslands into tinderboxes, priming them for deadly wildfires of the sort suffered in recent years by Australia, Brazil, California, Indonesia and Siberia.

More than 1.4 billion people were affected by drought between 2000 and 2019, says the report, the majority of them in poorer nations but increasingly in wealthy countries too. Only floods affected more people during that period.

At present, severe droughts are affecting the Horn of Africa as well as much of the western United States.

Africa suffered from it more frequently than any other continent with 134 droughts, of which 70 occurred in East Africa, the report says. But severe droughts also affect Asia, cutting crop yields, hurting incomes and causing food prices to spike.

Droughts create and perpetuate a vicious circle of poverty, particularly in developing nations. For example, farmers who take out loans for seeds and fertiliser to plant crops can struggle to make repayments when the rains fail, leaving them indebted.

Women and girls in emerging and developing countries are particularly vulnerable in terms of education, nutrition, health, sanitation and safety, the report says. More broadly, children are at a great risk, with nearly 160 million of them exposed to severe and prolonged droughts.

Droughts in wealthier nations, such as Australia and the United States, can have global impacts by reducing exports of grains such as wheat, oil seeds, meat and other foods. During Australia's Millennium Drought, total agricultural productivity fell by 18 per cent between 2002 to 2010. Severe drought in 2019-20 also helped trigger record fires on Australia's east coast.

A dead fish on a section of dry lakebed along drought-stricken Lake Mead in Nevada, in the US, on May 9, 2022. PHOTO: AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The report says urgent action can reduce future risks. Steps include cutting greenhouse gas emissions, early warning systems, shifting to plant-based diets and investing in ways to grow more food on less land and less water.

"One of the best and most comprehensive ways to do so is through land restoration, which addresses many of the underlying factors of degraded water cycles and the loss of soil fertility," said Mr Thiaw.

"We must build and rebuild our landscapes better, mimicking nature wherever possible and creating functional ecological systems." 

Restoration, he said, helps vulnerable communities adapt to droughts by, for example, increasing water infiltration and retention, which in turn increases agricultural production.

Investing in soil health also makes business sense, he added. For instance, increasing soil organic matter means soils can retain more water and also helps lock in more carbon, thereby acting as a natural tool to fight climate change. 

Every dollar invested in land restoration can generate up to US$30 (S$42) in ecosystem services, he said, referring to the services that nature provides, such as clean air, water and the soils in which to grow crops.

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