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A Global Tour of 7 Recent Droughts

This blog post is based on a presentation for GE and the Wharton School of Business, entitled “The Economic Power of Water.” Learn more about the event.

Every inhabited continent, to varying degrees, faces extremely high water stress. That means that in certain areas more than 80 percent of the local water supply is withdrawn by businesses, farmers, residents and other consumers every year. Not all of that water is consumed - it may flow back into a river after it’s used and be available again downstream - but the demand still creates competition where it is needed.

These “stressed” areas are also the ones most vulnerable to episodic droughts. With chronic over-use of water resources, it only takes a string of a few bad rainfall years or poor management decisions to plunge a region into crisis and chaos.

And indeed, that is what we appear to be seeing across the world over the past few years. Here’s a look at seven extreme droughts that have occurred in the past decade:

Australia’s one-in-a-thousand-year drought

Australia’s “Millennium” drought began in 1995 and continued country-wide until late 2009. Reservoir levels fell precipitously, as did crop production and industrial water use. A number of cities, including Melbourne, Sydney and Perth, built desalination plants in an effort to partially drought-proof themselves, while other areas pursued grey water recycling projects. Between 2001 and 2012, the federal government provided $4.5 billion in assistance to drought-affected farmers and small businesses .

In 2010-11, following quickly on the heels of the drought, Australia experienced its worst flooding in half a century, as an area of Queensland larger than the size of France and Germany combined flooded, affecting 200,000 people and costing at least $10 billion.

Spain imports water by ship

Drought in Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia grew so severe in 2008 that Barcelona began importing water by ship from France. About 70 percent of Spain’s water goes to agriculture, much of which is “wasted in antiquated irrigation systems and the cultivation of thirsty crops unsuitable for arid lands,” according to The Independent . Other critics pointed to low water prices as the culprit for the crisis. Low water prices, it is often argued, result in profligate water use and low investment in water-efficient infrastructure.

Northern India’s groundwater loss can be seen from space

Twin satellites from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) are able to detect changes in the Earth’s gravity field brought about by changes in mass distribution, including changes in groundwater storage. Nowhere on Earth are groundwater declines greater than in northern India; NASA found that large-scale irrigation caused 108 cubic kilometers of groundwater loss in Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, and Delhi between 2002 and 2008. The study’s lead, Matt Rodell, observed that “The region has become dependent on irrigation to maximize agricultural productivity. If measures are not taken to ensure sustainable groundwater usage, the consequences for the 114 million residents of the region may include a collapse of agricultural output and severe shortages of potable water. "

In July 2012, roughly half of India’s population – about 670 million people or 10 percent of the world’s population – temporarily lost power following a massive grid failure. Some experts laid the blame on the severe drought affecting northern India. Low rainfall restricted the amount of power delivered by hydroelectric dams, and farmers used more power than usual to run water pumps to irrigate their crops .

The dark side of China’s boom

Much of northern China is relatively dry, not unlike California and the rest of the U.S. West. Yet it’s also traditionally produced significant amounts of wheat and other grains, thanks to flood irrigation. Add to this inefficient system skyrocketing water use by industry, energy and municipalities, and China’s future might be drying up .

Government officials are starting to take action. Water is now one of China’s public policy priorities, and the central government recently launched a “Three Red Lines” policy to improve water use efficiency and place caps on water demand. Yet it remains unclear whether these policies are sufficient to overcome the country’s vast water challenges.

Mesopotamian nightmare

From 2006 through 2011, Syria suffered its worst drought and crop failure in recorded history. The GRACE satellite data revealed “an alarming rate of decrease in total water storage in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, which [at the time had] the second fastest rate of groundwater storage loss on Earth, after India. ” While many other factors – political, social and religious – have contributed to the Syrian military conflict, experts argue that “the decrease in water availability, water mismanagement, agricultural failures, and related economic deterioration contributed to population dislocations and the migration of rural communities to nearby cities. These factors further contributed to urban unemployment, economic dislocations, food insecurity for more than a million people, and subsequent social unrest. ”

Southeastern Brazil on the brink

Parts of southeastern Brazil, including the cities of São Paolo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte, are struggling through the worst drought in 84 years, with 40 million people and the nation’s “economic heartbeat” at risk. Reservoirs that supply water to these cities are at dangerously low levels. They’re also highly polluted, complicating things even further.

Unfortunately, politicians have failed to act decisively to take steps to minimize the impact of the crisis, raising levels of public distrust and frustration. There has even been talk of exporting “water refugees” and bringing in the military to help out if matters grow worse.

Turning now to California

California is in the throes of an unprecedented drought, now in its fourth year. Governor Jerry Brown ordered mandatory restrictions on water use by state municipalities early last month, and a group of farmers with senior rights have since given up a quarter of their water this year in exchange for being spared deeper mandatory cuts . The situation is bad – even desperate for some farmers. As I argued in a recent blog, the state needs to improve its water governance in order to protect its economic interests and its citizens.

The Situation Is Poised to Worsen

WRI’s Aqueduct project’s forthcoming projections for global water stress in 2020, 2030 and 2040 indicate that the global water picture is likely going to get worse over the next few decades. Larger populations and growing economies demand more water, and in some places, climate change will likely reduce available water supply. While our vulnerability to drought grows, the incidence of extreme weather events, including drought, will grow as well, according to most climate change experts.

Yet in this knowledge lies power. We know that drought risk is high and growing worldwide. We’re already seeing the impact water scarcity has on citizens, on the environment and on economies. Sustainable water-management plans, clear government monitoring and management policies and wise natural and engineered infrastructure investments could have helped to shore up the dwindling water supply, alleviating impacts on people, planet and economy.

It’s time to put this information into action. Businesses, governments and all water managers must quickly and intelligently and take measures to reduce vulnerability to drought events.


In Central Amèrica, and could be the same in others áreas, mining industry extract and take out, away millons of galons of fresh wáter from the mountains; dry the mountain is part of the process, and pollution of rivers and lakes due to agriculture, not treatment plants in some cities and villages,

Input Data, Analysis, Period - Great to see this article, and that this 'global mapping' work is being done. Please note, large areas of northern New South Wales and southern Queensland (eastern Australia) which show as extreme drought in the mapping presented, have recently received record flooding - similar to that reported for Queensland in this article. It would be great if future articles such as this could also present some reference to the data sets, analysis, and 'mapping period' for which the maps have been produced, or at least a link. Thanks again.

WRI again lead in critical discussions to repair the 300+ years of stripping of the baseline assets soil, water, vegetation and atmosphere. I refer to your release today from Bonn “a pathway to reach the COP15 decision of securing $100 billion of climate finance annually by 2020” and the simultaneous release “The Economic Power of Water.” No responsible financial / insurance corporation will risk B$100 on the proposed Bonn plan.
There is however, a science nature based protocol to lower 300 yrs of CO2e, reverse droughts, deserts, poverty, by 2020 with serious expanding perpetual annual returns. Well planned returns for all actors by 2020 and perpetual, meeting UNFCCC 100 yr rules!
Invited by the UN USG I sat on committees of the Kyoto protocol 1996-00 travelling the world to assemblies detouring to deserts and poverty regions.
Replicating Nature C/Change Earth repair a 1.2 minute clip growing soil in deserts. (How soil atmosphere grew on Earth) Income generating!
Invited by PRC government 2005 I advise seven ministers and lecturer at Agriculture, Forestry, Science, Law universities of the science and low cost of growing soil, soil-carbon, sequestering large volumes of CO2e. (The area of desert to soil agreement 200m hectares 19%) by 2020 (see Google)
I respectfully suggest that WRI and indeed the Bonn assembly can achieve Earth reparation by 2020. The protocol lowers mass volumes of CO2e, reversing deserts, growing appropriate science-based native vegetation that excite historical transpiration evaporation rain cycles back to upper catchments.
For any responsible financial organization they will demand a precise business plan to show how any investment will ensure lowering mass volumes of the 300 years of CO2e buildup! With minimum research they will demand a plan for sustainable vegetation to excite transpiring coastal rains back to and over the mountain ranges and upper catchments. Without such a precise proven model plan the proposed B$100 ad hoc reparation model will be most unattractive to any investor. The however is, by replicating nature as we have done in China, and shortly in Australia and other countries the combined effort will also excite the essential rain cycles back to land locked countries and states (most of whom are keepers of the upper catchments).

With respect your scenarios 1-2-3-4 would be most unattractive to financial investors under proposed regime. As described in the paragraphs above reparation of Earth must be a “we” initiative. The reparation scenarios basically you outlined are doomed to fail! To get the essential rain-water back to catchments and storage totally dependent upon current or re-exciting historical wind and rain cycles from seas catchment. Therefore funding one particular country in isolation to undertake any form of reparation is a risk that no responsible insurance company would entertain let alone a financial institution.
The simple Kyoto protocol 1997 put in place by a wide array of true experts how to lower 300 years of CO2e and desert was, to plant out from coast to catchment the 2-4% of earth’s vegetation capable of converting CO2e to grow soil. Well planned fodder year 1, year 2-3 crops and as soil expands year’s 5-7 forestry. (Trees, rice, cotton, most grain vegetables take their biomass carbon and elements from the soil not atmosphere. They are motors not engines).
The bottom line is Earth is a business where its baseline yearling assets according to the UN are damaged in excess of 41%. Any global corporation with public investors by now would be in the hands of the receiver with such damage and loss of profit and no prospect of recovery. Earth is not only borrowed from the historians of tomorrow the business and indeed the home unless a master plan is in place the receiver “Nature” will apply reparation as she has done so before many times, preceding MAN! Clearly for any observer, reader, Nature is already showing the role of receiver!
So pre Paris send out an audit/ receivers report and show that by 2020 reparation back to sustainability and by forward selling UNFCCC low cost offsets the income covers all reparation and the annual yield from Kyoto offsets will aid poverty illiteracy where “developing Nations will purchase “commodities” from developed world Nations (bottom up recovery as any receiver would expect)
Without prejudice
Robert Vincin

For years and decades economy development has been seen as the "Santo Grial" goal of any country, mainly non developed ones. Nobody was aware of the impact on the environment of agriculture, mining and other related activities. Nobody said that in their own development Developed countries had already wasted the world to an extent that no more development is now possible, available or affordable. And now, what?. Also that the present sustainability is being endured by those who live in poverty is something that Nobody has the courage to say.

If one were to add an overlay of armed conflicts to your drought maps, would that be considered a coincidence or a cause & effect relationship?

We've known since 1972, when Limits To Growth was first published, that if we failed to solve the pollution problem "overshoot and collapse" would happen. We've failed to do that, haven't we. Meadows, et al, did not include the other consequences of dislocation, environmental immigrants, intolerance of "the other" and desperate conflicts. The insurance industrial complex and the military complexes have, but the political complexes have not, at least not in a peaceful way.

Is it even possible that an effective response to this existential threat exists now?

Led by and paid for by ...?

One unmentioned factor in the drought problems world wide is 'Ocean Pollution'. This added to the enormous reduction of wet-lands is reducing and will increasingly reduce evaporation worldwide.
If it doesn't go up, it can't come down.
Reduced evaporation = reduced precipitation.
We either stop polluting the oceans with oil and plastic, and clean them up, or welcome to planet Dune !

Wonderful article which helped me very much with my research paper. This article is brimming with factual information.

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