Drought could be one of the most serious consequences of climate change from a human and an economic perspective. On a global scale, droughts will likely lead to losses in revenue from agriculture on the scale of billions of dollars, and worse, force the migration of millions of people in arid regions of the world. Not every country can afford to engineer its way out of drought the way that Southern California has done for the last century.
As we have already seen, drought has plagued civilization for millennia and humans have learned to adapt to areas where water supplies are not plentiful or regular. However, the critical difference today is explosive population growth that is placing much more pressure on water supplies. Combined with projections that parts of the globe will become significantly drier in coming decades, drought will likely be much more of a serious issue in the future than it has in the past.
The following video provides an excellent summary of the global drought problem.
Video: Droughts 101 - National Geographic Society (2:58)
Click here for a transcript of the National Geographic Society video.
It's signs are subtle and slow. The earth dries. Water levels fall. The rains do not come. And the land is gripped by drought. At its most basic, a drought occurs when more water is used than is replenished. It is a balance between supply and demand, with both natural and human factors in play. The weather is constantly in flux. A low pressure system allows moist air to rise, cool, and form rain clouds. A high pressure system traps the air beneath it and banishes the clouds. Droughts form when changing wind patterns cause high pressure systems to last for months, or even years. Aggravating the problem is society's demand for water. Farms are heavily dependent on water to irrigate crops and provide pasture for livestock. Urban areas also place huge demands on available water supplies. If the demand can't be reduced then the drought begins to take its toll. Crops eventually wither and die. Soil erodes away into clouds of dust. Forest fires spread rapidly. The damage to the environment has large-scale consequences for its human population. Short-term droughts cause stress on both the environment and people. Long-term droughts can lead to war, famine, disease, or mass migrations. In the 1930s, a severe drought in the Great Plains caused massive crop failures. In some places, the drought lasted eight years. So much soil blew away, it became known as the Dust Bowl. Over 50 million acres of land were affected, forcing many farmers to abandon their own property. But by historical standards, the Dust Bowl was mild and short-lived. Some droughts have lasted for decades. The famines they create have killed over 40 million people in the 20th century alone. Like other forms of weather, droughts are one of the Earth's natural processes. There is very little we can do to stop them. The best we can do is prepare for when droughts do come, before everything blows away.
Here, we provide two modern-day case studies of the impacts of drought on water supplies in Australia and China and how these countries are responding to them.