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Global drought crisis: UN warns of unprecedented emergency

The United Nations (UN) has released a critical report which signals an “unprecedented emergency on a planetary scale” due to human-induced droughts

The Global Drought Snapshot, launched at COP28 climate talks in the UAE, is a comprehensive analysis of recent drought data over the past two years, emphasizing the escalating crisis of drought worldwide.

The analysis was led by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), established at the 1992 Earth Summit, along with the UNFCCC and UN CBD.

Silent devastation 

“Unlike other disasters that attract media attention, droughts happen silently, often going unnoticed and failing to provoke an immediate public and political response,” said UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw.

“This silent devastation perpetuates a cycle of neglect, leaving affected populations to bear the burden in isolation.” 

In China, 15–20 percent of the population faces more frequent moderate-to-severe droughts, with drought intensity expected to increase by 80 percent by 2100.

The Horn of Africa has 23 million people severely food insecure, attributed to drought.

The United States experienced severe drought across five percent of its contiguous states in May 2023. The La Plata basin in Brazil–Argentina faced its worst drought in 78 years in 2022, impacting global crop markets.

Europe was hit by its worst drought in 500 years in 2022, affecting an area almost four times the average since 2000.

Agriculture and forests

The report also touches on the severe impact of drought on agriculture and forests, including 70 percent damage to cereal crops in the Mediterranean from 2016–2018.

Consecutive rainfall season failures in the Horn of Africa caused the region’s worst drought in 40 years (with Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia particularly hard hit), contributing to reduced agricultural productivity, food insecurity and high food prices.

There have also been significant losses in grazing land and an expected increase in forest losses in various regions.

Water conditions

California’s Central Valley is facing accelerated groundwater decline and water-quality degradation.

The Rhine and Yangtze rivers experienced drastic reductions in water levels, impacting shipping and affecting millions. 

In southern China, five million people have been affected by record-low water levels in the Yangtze River due to drought and prolonged heat.

On the Mississippi River, a backlog of barges in late 2022 due to low water levels caused $20 billion in supply chain disruptions and other economic damage.  

Social dimensions 

The social dimensions are equally concerning, with 85 percent of people affected by droughts living in low- or middle-income countries.

Furthermore, the likelihood of being killed by floods, droughts and storms is 15 times greater in the highly vulnerable regions. 

Call to action

The Global Drought Snapshot concludes with a call to action, urging for binding global agreements and proactive measures to mitigate drought impacts. 

The report emphasizes the need for nature-based solutions to offset CO2 emissions and agricultural practices that adopt water-efficient technologies.

The experts also stress the importance of respecting the planet’s boundaries and ensuring the sustainability of natural hydrological cycles.

Wake-up call 

“The Global Drought Snapshot report speaks volumes about the urgency of this crisis and building global resilience to it,” said Thiaw.

“With the frequency and severity of drought events increasing, as reservoir levels dwindle and crop yields decline, as we continue to lose biological diversity and famines spread, transformational change is needed.” 

“We hope this publication serves as a wake-up call.”

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