The world must act to ensure drought doesn’t become the next pandemic

    13 Jul 2021

    “There is an urgent need for research into the climatic mechanisms that influence the coming and going of droughts,” Yossi Mekelberg, professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House, states. Let’s get aquinted with his thoughts about drought menace written for Arab News.

    It might have been for the shock value or because it is an accurate reflection of reality, but a recent UN report equates the risk of droughts to that posed by the coronavirus disease, not only in terms of their dire consequences but also their rapid spread in different parts of the world.

    South Korean author Kim Bo-Young once declared that she is “always worried because whenever a drought struck, an accursed storm of blood always followed.” This is what the authors of the UN report are pointing at, not out of despair but to raise awareness and in a call for governments and the international community as a whole to take immediate and decisive steps to minimize the consequences of droughts.

    There are inescapable similarities between the devastating consequences of both pandemics and droughts. Each poses deadly hazards to health, economies, and sociopolitical stability, and both hit the most vulnerable in society hardest.

    Drought is defined as “a period of abnormally dry weather sufficiently prolonged for the lack of water to cause a serious hydrologic imbalance in the affected area.” Droughts manifest themselves in different ways and, as a result, have different effects on both humans and nature. In some cases, it is a matter of insufficient moisture in the soil to meet the needs of certain crops; in others, surface and groundwater are below normal, or a shortage of water begins to affect people to such an extent that it threatens well-being and even lives, forcing them to leave their homes.

    The magnitude of the suffering resulting from drought should not be underestimated. In the last two decades alone, about 1.5 billion people have been badly affected by this phenomenon, resulting in food insecurity, displacement, and land devastation, with economic costs estimated at $124 billion. One of the most crucial observations of the UN report is that governments react in full capacity only when droughts are extremely severe, but either don’t prepare for them in advance or do very little when they are no longer evident, even though they are becoming increasingly frequent. This indicates, just as with pandemics or even wars and other armed conflicts, that governments are reactive and fail to strategize, so are instead forced to resort to crisis management.

    However, as the UN secretary-general’s special representative for disaster risk reduction, Mami Mizutori, remarked: “Drought is on the verge of becoming the next pandemic, and there is no vaccine to cure it. Most of the world will be living with water stress in the next few years.” Moreover, despite the pain and the damage that droughts cause — affecting many millions of people and many sectors of the economy and society, such as agricultural production, access to water, energy production, waterborne transportation, tourism, health, and biodiversity, and leading to food insecurity, poverty and ever-increasing inequalities — very few countries have a strategy for building the necessary resilience in the face of droughts, and international cooperation on this issue is poor.

    Increasing global temperatures and extreme and unpredictable rainfall patterns are leading to increases in the frequency, severity, and duration of droughts in many regions, but to combat the situation a coordinated approach is vital. As with many other human crises, their centers are in the less-developed countries that don’t possess the adequate resources to cope with them, while those less-affected countries that do possess the resources are not prioritizing assistance for the less fortunate.

    The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is no stranger to environmental concerns, including water scarcity, particularly for millions who either lack or have very limited access to sanitary water. Some suffer from a lack of water combined with unsatisfactory water management. For instance, the need for water resources and suitable land for growing crops and producing food is badly and sometimes irreversibly damaged by desertification, a phenomenon that impacts countries such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Jordan.

    Since agriculture is a major source of food production in the MENA region, for export as well as domestic consumption, it amounts to 85 percent of regional water consumption, and droughts are becoming more common through the overuse of irrigation, which also results in alterations to the regional landscape. Ironically, by exporting their agricultural products to regions such as Europe and North America, MENA countries are doing what amounts to exporting water to water-rich countries.

    If the world is serious about the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, reducing the risk and impact of droughts is crucial for ensuring poverty reduction, zero hunger, public health and well-being, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, and sustainable cities and communities. Hence, in light of their life-wrecking unpredictability and the many variables that combine to produce droughts, it is imperative to assess communities’ vulnerabilities and build their resilience accordingly to mitigate their destructive impact.

    The UN report concedes that not “a single integrated solution to this complex and wide-reaching feature of the natural system has been found.” However, this is not an excuse to relinquish responsibility for the overall management of access to water, especially in areas inclined to experience droughts, and is no excuse for taking a reactive approach. On the contrary, there is an urgent need for investment in more research that will lead to enhanced knowledge of the climatic mechanisms that influence the coming and going of droughts.

    Building resilience and working with communities at risk of extreme water shortages is one side of the equation, but there is also a need to invest in, for instance, water desalination, which is becoming increasingly affordable and energy efficient. Earth has plenty of water – 70% of its surface is covered with it – but only 2% to 3% is freshwater and even less is suitable for drinking, so desalination provides an important source of potable water. Additionally, methods of rainwater and water-from-air harvesting, drip irrigation or water recycling could ease the impact of droughts. Needless to say, such measures cannot reduce the urgent need to tackle climate change and rising temperatures as a global mission to prevent all kinds of catastrophes, as well as reducing the impact of droughts.

    There is no vaccine or magic formula that will eradicate droughts. However, through a holistic, national and global approach, the misery they cause can be considerably reduced. This is of vital importance for humanitarian reasons as much as for social and political stability.

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