— The punishing drought that has swept California is now threatening the state’s
drinking water supply.
With no sign of rain, 17 rural communities providing water to 40,000 people are
in danger of running out within 60 to 120 days. State officials said that the
number was likely to rise in the months ahead after the State Water Project, the
main municipal water distribution system, announced on Friday that it did not
have enough water to supplement the dwindling supplies of local agencies that
provide water to an additional 25 million people. It is first time the project
has turned off its spigot in its 54-year history.
State officials said they were moving to put emergency plans in place. In the
worst case, they said drinking water would have to be brought by truck into
parched communities and additional wells would have to be drilled to draw on
groundwater. The deteriorating situation would likely mean imposing mandatory
water conservation measures on homeowners and businesses, who have already been
asked to voluntarily reduce their water use by 20 percent.
“Every day this drought goes on we are going to have to tighten the screws on
what people are doing” said Gov. Jerry Brown, who was governor during the last
major drought here, in 1976-77.
This latest development has underscored the urgency of a drought that has
already produced parched fields, starving livestock, and pockets of smog.
“We are on track for having the worst drought in 500 years,” said B. Lynn
Ingram, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of
Already the drought, technically in its third year, is forcing big shifts in
behavior. Farmers in Nevada said they had given up on even planting, while
ranchers in Northern California and New Mexico said they were being forced to
sell off cattle as fields that should be four feet high with grass are a blanket
of brown and stunted stalks.
Fishing and camping in much of California has been outlawed, to protect
endangered salmon and guard against fires. Many people said they had already
begun to cut back drastically on taking showers, washing their car and watering
Rain and snow showers brought relief in parts of the state at the week’s end —
people emerging from a movie theater in West Hollywood on Thursday evening broke
into applause upon seeing rain splattering on the sidewalk — but they were
nowhere near enough to make up for record-long dry stretches, officials said.
“I have experienced a really long career in this area, and my worry meter has
never been this high,” said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of
California Water Agencies, a statewide coalition. “We are talking historical
drought conditions, no supplies of water in many parts of the state. My
industry’s job is to try to make sure that these kind of things never happen.
And they are happening.”
Officials are girding for the kind of geographical, cultural and economic
battles that have long plagued a part of the country that is defined by a lack
of water: between farmers and environmentalists, urban and rural users, and the
northern and southern regions of this state.
“We do have a politics of finger-pointing and blame whenever there is a
problem,” said Mr. Brown. “And we have a problem, so there is going to be a
tendency to blame people.” President Obama called him last week to check on the
drought situation and express his concern.
Tom Vilsack, secretary of the federal Agriculture Department, said in an
interview that his agency’s ability to help farmers absorb the shock, with
subsidies to buy food for cattle, had been undercut by the long deadlock in
Congress over extending the farm bill, which finally seemed to be resolved last
Mr. Vilsack called the drought in California a “deep concern,” and a warning
sign of trouble ahead for much of the West.
“That’s why it’s important for us to take climate change seriously,” he said.
“If we don’t do the research, if we don’t have the financial assistance, if we
don’t have the conservation resources, there’s very little we can do to help
The crisis is unfolding in ways expected and unexpected. Near Sacramento, the
low level of streams has brought out prospectors, sifting for flecks of gold in
slow-running waters. To the west, the heavy water demand of growers of medical
marijuana — six gallons per plant per day during a 150-day period — is drawing
down streams where salmon and other endangered fish species spawn.
“Every pickup truck has a water tank in the back,” said Scott Bauer, a coho
salmon recovery coordinator with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“There is a potential to lose whole runs of fish.”
Without rain to scrub the air, pollution in the Los Angeles basin, which has
declined over the past decade, has returned to dangerous levels, as evident from
the brown-tinged air. Homeowners have been instructed to stop burning wood in
In the San Joaquin Valley, federal limits for particulate matter were breached
for most of December and January. Schools used flags to signal when children
should play indoors.
“One of the concerns is that as concentrations get higher, it affects not only
the people who are most susceptible, but healthy people as well,” said Karen
Magliano, assistant chief of the air quality planning division of the state’s
Air Resources Board.
The impact has been particularly severe on farmers and ranchers. “I have friends
with the ground torn out, all ready to go,” said Darrell Pursel, who farms just
south of Yerington, Nev. “But what are you going to plant? At this moment, it
looks like we’re not going to have any water. Unless we get a lot of rain, I
know I won’t be planting anything.”
The University of California Cooperative Extension held a drought survival
session last week in Browns Valley, about 60 miles north of Sacramento, drawing
hundreds of ranchers in person and online. “We have people coming from six or
seven hours away,” said Jeffrey James, who ran the session.
Dan Macon, 46, a rancher in Auburn, Calif., said the situation was “as bad as I
have ever experienced. Most of our range lands are essentially out of feed.”
With each parched sunrise, a sense of alarm is rising amid signs that this is a
drought that comes along only every few centuries. Sacramento had gone 52 days
without water, and Albuquerque had gone 42 days without rain or snow as of
The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, which supplies much of California with water
during the dry season, was at just 12 percent of normal last week, reflecting
the lack of rain or snow in December and January.
“When we don’t have rainfall in our biggest two months, you really are starting
off bad,” said Dar Mims, a meteorologist with the Air Resources Board.
Even as officials move into action, people who have lived through droughts
before — albeit none as severe as this — said they were doing triage in their
gardens (water the oak tree, not the lawn) and taking classic
Jacob Battersby, a producer in Oakland, said he began cutting back even before
the voluntary restrictions were announced.
“My wife and I both enjoy gardening,” he wrote in an email. “ ‘Sorry, plants.
You will be getting none to drink this winter.’ ”
A version of
this article appears in print on February 2, 2014,
on page A1 of
the New York edition with the headline:
The New York Times
By GARY PAUL NABHAN
Ariz. — THIS summer the tiny town of Furnace Creek, Calif., may once again grace
the nation’s front pages. Situated in Death Valley, it last made news in 1913,
when it set the record for the world’s hottest recorded temperature, at 134
degrees. With the heat wave currently blanketing the Western states, and given
that the mercury there has already reached 130 degrees, the news media is awash
in speculation that Furnace Creek could soon break its own mark.
Such speculation, though, misses the real concern posed by the heat wave, which
covers an area larger than New England. The problem isn’t spiking temperatures,
but a new reality in which long stretches of triple-digit days are common —
threatening not only the lives of the millions of people who live there, but
also a cornerstone of the American food supply.
People living outside the region seldom recognize its immense contribution to
American agriculture: roughly 40 percent of the net farm income for the country
normally comes from the 17 Western states; cattle and sheep production make up a
significant part of that, as do salad greens, dry beans, onions, melons, hops,
barley, wheat and citrus fruits. The current heat wave will undeniably diminish
both the quality and quantity of these foods.
The most vulnerable crops are those that were already in flower and fruit when
temperatures surged, from apricots and barley to wheat and zucchini. Idaho
farmers have documented how their potato yields have been knocked back because
their heat-stressed plants are not developing their normal number of tubers.
Across much of the region, temperatures on the surface of food and forage crops
hit 105 degrees, at least 10 degrees higher than the threshold for most
What’s more, when food and forage crops, as well as livestock, have had to
endure temperatures 10 to 20 degrees higher than the long-term averages, they
require far more water than usual. The Western drought, which has persisted for
the last few years, has already diminished both surface water and groundwater
supplies and increased energy costs, because of all the water that has to be
pumped in from elsewhere.
If these costs are passed on to consumers, we can again expect food prices,
especially for beef and lamb, to rise, just as they did in 2012, the hottest
year in American history. So extensive was last year’s drought that more than
1,500 counties — about half of all the counties in the country — were declared
national drought disaster areas, and 90 percent of those were hit by heat waves
The answer so far has been to help affected farmers with payouts from crop
insurance plans. But while we can all sympathize with affected farmers, such
assistance is merely a temporary response to a long-term problem.
Fortunately, there are dozens of time-tested strategies that our best farmers
and ranchers have begun to use. The problem is that several agribusiness
advocacy organizations have done their best to block any federal effort to
promote them, including leaving them out of the current farm bill, or of climate
change legislation at all.
One strategy would be to promote the use of locally produced compost to increase
the moisture-holding capacity of fields, orchards and vineyards. In addition to
locking carbon in the soil, composting buffers crop roots from heat and drought
while increasing forage and food-crop yields. By simply increasing organic
matter in their fields from 1 percent to 5 percent, farmers can increase water
storage in the root zones from 33 pounds per cubic meter to 195 pounds.
And we have a great source of compostable waste: cities. Since much of the green
waste in this country is now simply generating methane emissions from landfills,
cities should be mandated to transition to green-waste sorting and composting,
which could then be distributed to nearby farms.
Second, we need to reduce the bureaucratic hurdles to using small- and
medium-scale rainwater harvesting and gray water (that is, waste water excluding
toilet water) on private lands, rather than funneling all runoff to huge, costly
and vulnerable reservoirs behind downstream dams. Both urban and rural food
production can be greatly enhanced through proven techniques of harvesting rain
and biologically filtering gray water for irrigation. However, many state and
local laws restrict what farmers can do with such water.
Moreover, the farm bill should include funds from the Strikeforce Initiative of
the Department of Agriculture to help farmers transition to forms of perennial
agriculture — initially focusing on edible tree crops and perennial grass
pastures — rather than providing more subsidies to biofuel production from
annual crops. Perennial crops not only keep 7.5 to 9.4 times more carbon in the
soil than annual crops, but their production also reduces the amount of fossil
fuels needed to till the soil every year.
We also need to address the looming seed crisis. Because of recent episodes of
drought, fire and floods, we are facing the largest shortfall in the
availability of native grass, forage legume, tree and shrub seeds in American
history. Yet current budget-cutting proposals threaten to significantly reduce
the number of federal plant material centers, which promote conservation best
If our rangelands, forests and farms are to recover from the devastating heat,
drought and wildfires of the last three years, they need to be seeded with
appropriate native forage and ground-cover species to heal from the wounds of
climatic catastrophes. To that end, the farm bill should direct more money to
the underfinanced seed collection and distribution programs.
Finally, the National Plant Germplasm System, the Department of Agriculture’s
national reserve of crop seeds, should be charged with evaluating hundreds of
thousands of seed collections for drought and heat tolerance, as well as other
climatic adaptations — and given the financing to do so. Thousands of heirloom
vegetables and heritage grains already in federal and state collections could be
rapidly screened and then used by farmers for a fraction of what it costs a
biotech firm to develop, patent and market a single “climate-friendly” crop.
Investing in climate-change adaptation will be far more cost-effective than
doling out $11.6 billion in crop insurance payments, as the government did last
year, for farmers hit with diminished yields or all-out crop failures.
Unfortunately, some agribusiness organizations fear that if they admit that
accelerating climate change is already affecting farmers, it will shackle them
with more regulations. But those organizations are hardly serving their member
farmers and ranchers if they keep them at risk of further suffering from heat
extremes and extended drought.
And no one can reasonably argue that the current system offers farmers any
long-term protection. Last year some farmers made more from insurance payments
than from selling their products, meaning we are dangerously close to
subsidizing farmers for not adapting to changing climate conditions.
It’s now up to our political and business leaders to get their heads out of the
hot sand and do something tangible to implement climate change policy and
practices before farmers, ranchers and consumers are further affected. Climate
adaptation is the game every food producer and eater must now play. A little
investment coming too late will not help us adapt in time to this new reality.
Nabhan is a research scientist
Southwest Center at the University of Arizona
and the author
of “Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land:
The New York Times
By CHRISTOPHER R. SCHWALM,
CHRISTOPHER A. WILLIAMS
and KEVIN SCHAEFER
measurements, this summer’s drought is one for the record books. But so was last
year’s drought in the South Central states. And it has been only a decade since
an extreme five-year drought hit the American West. Widespread annual droughts,
once a rare calamity, have become more frequent and are set to become the “new
Until recently, many scientists spoke of climate change mainly as a “threat,”
sometime in the future. But it is increasingly clear that we already live in the
era of human-induced climate change, with a growing frequency of weather and
climate extremes like heat waves, droughts, floods and fires.
Future precipitation trends, based on climate model projections for the coming
fifth assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, indicate
that droughts of this length and severity will be commonplace through the end of
the century unless human-induced carbon emissions are significantly reduced.
Indeed, assuming business as usual, each of the next 80 years in the American
West is expected to see less rainfall than the average of the five years of the
drought that hit the region from 2000 to 2004.
That extreme drought (which we have analyzed in a new study in the journal
Nature-Geoscience) had profound consequences for carbon sequestration,
agricultural productivity and water resources: plants, for example, took in only
half the carbon dioxide they do normally, thanks to a drought-induced drop in
In the drought’s worst year, Western crop yields were down by 13 percent, with
many local cases of complete crop failure. Major river basins showed 5 percent
to 50 percent reductions in flow. These reductions persisted up to three years
after the drought ended, because the lakes and reservoirs that feed them needed
several years of average rainfall to return to predrought levels.
In terms of severity and geographic extent, the 2000-4 drought in the West
exceeded such legendary events as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. While that drought
saw intervening years of normal rainfall, the years of the turn-of-the-century
drought were consecutive. More seriously still, long-term climate records from
tree-ring chronologies show that this drought was the most severe event of its
kind in the western United States in the past 800 years. Though there have been
many extreme droughts over the last 1,200 years, only three other events have
been of similar magnitude, all during periods of “megadroughts.”
Most frightening is that this extreme event could become the new normal: climate
models point to a warmer planet, largely because of greenhouse gas emissions.
Planetary warming, in turn, is expected to create drier conditions across
western North America, because of the way global-wind and atmospheric-pressure
patterns shift in response.
Indeed, scientists see signs of the relationship between warming and drought in
western North America by analyzing trends over the last 100 years; evidence
suggests that the more frequent drought and low precipitation events observed
for the West during the 20th century are associated with increasing temperatures
across the Northern Hemisphere.
These climate-model projections suggest that what we consider today to be an
episode of severe drought might even be classified as a period of abnormal
wetness by the end of the century and that a coming megadrought — a prolonged,
multidecade period of significantly below-average precipitation — is possible
and likely in the American West.
The current drought plaguing the country is worryingly consistent with these
expectations. Although we do not attribute any single event to global warming,
the severity of both the turn-of-the-century drought and the current one is
consistent with simulations accounting for warming from increased greenhouse
gases. The Northern Hemisphere has just recorded its 327th consecutive month in
which the temperature exceeded the 20th-century average. This year had the
fourth-warmest winter on record, with record-shattering high temperatures in
March. And 2012 has already seen huge wildfires in Colorado and other Western
states. More than 3,200 heat records were broken in June alone.
And yet that may be only the beginning, a fact that should force us to confront
the likelihood of new and painful challenges. A megadrought would present a
major risk to water resources in the American West, which are distributed
through a complex series of local, state and regional water-sharing agreements
and laws. Virtually every drop of water flowing in the American West is legally
claimed, sometimes by several users, and the demand is expected to increase as
the population grows.
Many Western cities will have to fundamentally change how they acquire and use
water. The sort of temporary emergency steps that we grudgingly adopt during
periods of low rainfall — fewer showers, lawn-watering bans — will become
permanent. Some regions will become impossible to farm because of lack of
irrigation water. Thermoelectric energy production will compete for limited
There is still time to prevent the worst; the risk of a multidecade megadrought
in the American West can be reduced if we reduce fossil-fuel emissions. But
there can be little doubt that what was once thought to be a future threat is
suddenly, catastrophically upon us.
is a research assistant professor of earth sciences
is an assistant professor of geography at Clark University.
The New York Times
By MANNY FERNANDEZ
— When the people who run this small town in Central Texas put up hand-painted
signs reading “No watering” in bold red letters, they really mean it.
Hundreds of lawns are dying in the 100-degree heat here, turning straw-colored
and crunchy. The drought that has gripped much of Texas has forced Llano to
adopt some of the toughest mandatory water restrictions in the state. Residents
are prohibited from watering their lawns except for once a week early in the
morning and late at night. The filling of swimming pools, the washing of cars
parked outside homes, the use of automatic or detachable sprinklers — all have
been banned since June, by order of the City Council.
Government has always had a hard time telling Texans how to live. But the ban on
most types of outdoor watering has been embraced by people in Llano, where a
kind of World War II-era rationing spirit has become a way of life.
This has been the season of extremes in Texas — too much fire and too little
water. As towns and cities throughout the state have been coping with the
extreme drought, dozens of wildfires that erupted over the Labor Day weekend
continued to burn on Tuesday, destroying hundreds of homes and forcing thousands
of people to evacuate.
To ease the drought-related strain on Llano’s water system, Bryan Miiller, the
owner of a meat-processing company, cut back his production schedule to four
days a week from five, reducing the water he uses to clean the equipment and
work areas, though he was not required to do so under the restrictions.
Restaurants are serving water only if a patron requests it, and a few residents
and businesses, including local car washes, have gone through the trouble and
expense of trucking in water from outside the city or from private wells. Terry
Mikulenka, manager of the city-owned 18-hole golf course, has been spraying
treated sewer water on the greens. One couple has been irrigating their backyard
trees and shrubs with the run-off from their washing machine and the water they
use to wash their dishes and take a shower, a conservation technique numerous
other residents are doing as well.
“I think all of us are making sacrifices,” said the city manager, Finley
deGraffenried. “People are changing their ways, changing their habits.”
In many ways, the drought that has devastated Texas has been measured on an epic
scale. It is the worst one-year drought in recorded state history, costing
Texas’ farmers and ranchers an estimated $5.2 billion. But the drought has also
had a smaller, more intimate effect on how many Texans live and work. In
Houston, the biggest city, the mayor recently ordered residents to limit the
watering of their lawns to twice a week. The seaside city of Galveston banned
all outdoor watering for five days in August but then eased the rules to allow
In Llano, a town of 3,100 about a 90-minute drive northwest of Austin in the
Hill Country, the river from which the town gets 100 percent of its water supply
has been running at critically low levels. One recent afternoon, the Llano River
was flowing at 2.3 to 3.4 cubic feet per second, down from 123 cubic feet per
second, the median level for that date.
Amid so many yellow lawns, the handful of green lawns are a source of curiosity
and suspicion, and property owners have had to post handmade signs explaining,
in effect, why their grass is green. Some of the signs read “Well water,”
meaning the water keeping them alive comes not from the river but from private
wells, which are not subject to the restrictions. One resident with a sense of
humor posted his own sign on his dying yard. It read, “Rain water.”
The yard outside the First Presbyterian Church has withered, as has the one
around Laird’s Bar-B-Q. But the grass has been green at the State Farm Insurance
office. The agent, Jeffrey Hopf, has had customers tell him that just because he
used to be the mayor does not mean he can violate the water rules. Mr. Hopf has
a simple explanation: His landscaper added a turf dye similar to the one used on
professional football fields to turn his yellowed lawn green.
That landscaper, Flay Deats, used to mow five or six yards a day, but now does
only about three a week, and he estimated that the drought has cost him at least
$30,000 in lost business.
Residents and officials have concocted their own drought algorithms to decide
what they want to save and what they will let die. During their once-a-week
watering time, most people do not bother with the lawn but focus on saving the
trees. The golf course, which spent roughly $3,000 obtaining a state permit
allowing it to supplement the river water it uses with 3,500 gallons a day of
treated sewer water, has kept the main greens healthy but has given up on the
driving range and other areas, creating a polka-dot effect of yellow and green.
The school district has let the baseball and softball fields go since those
sports are in the off-season, but has spent roughly $15,000 to keep the football
fields alive with well water as that season gets under way.
“I was talking to somebody the other day, and it’s almost like paradise lost,”
said Dennis R. Hill, the schools superintendent. “Llano County is one of the
most beautiful places anywhere, when it rains. We have wildflowers and fields of
bluebonnets. But drive through the country and look at the pastures. There’s no
grass. You keep thinking, ‘Well, surely it will rain, surely it will rain.’ And
it doesn’t rain.”
The town’s sacrifices are having an impact. Water use has dropped considerably —
in mid-May the city was pumping 1.2 million to 1.4 million gallons a day from
the river, but one day in late August that rate was down to 497,000 gallons. One
reason for the drop has been the restrictions and the threat of a fine of up to
$500, but another has been the older longtime residents, many of whom vividly
recall the extended drought of the 1950s. At one point in 1956, the river
literally went dry — there was zero flow for a total of 88 days, town officials
said — and Llano had to haul in water by train.
“A drought is an unusual animal,” Mayor Mike Reagor said. “You can’t run from a
drought. You have to survive it. We’re a tough people. We’ll survive this,
hopefully better than they did in 1956.”
The situation is not as dire as it was more than 50 years ago, though the dead
landscaping, extreme heat and lack of rain — from January through July, 8.15
inches of rain fell on Llano, according to the National Weather Service — have
taken a psychic toll.
Mr. Hill, the schools superintendent, drove around town the other day with a
horse trailer — he was in the process of selling Peppy, one of his two horses,
because the drought has made hay so scarce. Sue Houston and John Wedekind, the
couple who recycle their dishwater, stare at the dying camellia shrub by the
front door and hold back tears — Ms. Houston’s mother planted it in the late
Mr. Hopf, the insurance agent, took a trip this summer to Wisconsin to see an
air show with his wife. It rained on them three times. Mr. Hopf walked outside
and let the rain soak him. “I just said, ‘I want to see what it’s like. It’s
been so long.’ ”
The New York Times
By JENNIFER STEINHAUER
— Its reservoir levels receding and its grounds parched, California has fallen
officially into drought, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Wednesday, warning that
the state might be forced to ration water to cities and regions if conservation
efforts did not improve.
The drought declaration — the first for the state since 1991 — includes orders
to transfer water from less dry areas to those that are dangerously dry. Mr.
Schwarzenegger also said he would ask the federal government for aid to farmers
and press water districts, cities and local water agencies to accelerate
conservation. Drought conditions have hampered farming, increased water rates
throughout California and created potentially dangerous conditions in areas
prone to wildfires.
The declaration comes after the driest California spring in 88 years, with
runoff in river basins that feed most reservoirs at 41 percent of average
levels. It stops short of a water emergency, which would probably include
Efforts to capture water have also been hampered by evaporation of some mountain
snowpacks that provide water, an effect, state officials say, of global climate
A survey this year found that the state’s snowpack water content was 67 percent
of average, and the Colorado River Basin, from which California draws some
water, is coming off a record eight-year drought, contributing to the drop in
The drought declaration, made when reservoir levels are far higher than they
were when Gov. Pete Wilson issued a similar statement in 1991 — is as much a
political statement as a practical one. Mr. Schwarzenegger is pressing the
Legislature to approve an $11.9 billion water bond as part of the state budget
to pay for water storage and to fix the state’s aging water delivery systems.
The governor, a Republican, has said that addressing California’s seemingly
omnipresent water shortage is one of his most urgent priorities, but his ideas
have not passed muster with the Legislature in the past.
“This drought is an urgent reminder of the immediate need to upgrade
California’s water infrastructure,” Mr. Schwarzenegger said Wednesday in a
prepared statement. “There is no more time to waste because nothing is more
vital to protect our economy, our environment and our quality of life.”
A bill to require Californians to cut water use 20 percent recently passed the
Assembly. The bill, which requires Senate approval, puts most of the onus on
residents, and little on the agriculture industry, underscoring tension over
conservation between city dwellers and farmers, who consume most of the state’s
Across the state, many districts and municipalities are instituting or
considering recycling, rationing and higher fees for excessive use. For
instance, Los Angeles officials recently announced their intentions to begin
using heavily cleansed sewage to increase drinking water supplies.
The East Bay Municipal Utility District and the Long Beach Water Department,
serving districts at opposite ends of the state, have made water rationing
“Some cities and regions are rationing, some are doing nothing and a group of
people are in the middle,” the director of California’s Department of Water
Resources, Lester A. Snow, said in a telephone interview. “The governor thought
it was important to step out in front and get ahead of this. It is in part to
avoid an emergency.”
In a telephone interview later, Mr. Schwarzenegger said, “Water is like our
gold, and we have to treat it like that.”
One third of the planet
will be desert by the
say climate experts
in the most dire warning yet
of the effects of
Published: 04 October 2006
By Michael McCarthy,
Drought threatening the lives of millions will
spread across half the land surface of the Earth in the coming century because
of global warming, according to new predictions from Britain's leading climate
Extreme drought, in which agriculture is in effect impossible, will affect about
a third of the planet, according to the study from the Met Office's Hadley
Centre for Climate Prediction and Research.
It is one of the most dire forecasts so far of the potential effects of rising
temperatures around the world - yet it may be an underestimation, the scientists
involved said yesterday.
The findings, released at the Climate Clinic at the Conservative Party
conference in Bournemouth, drew astonished and dismayed reactions from aid
agencies and development specialists, who fear that the poor of developing
countries will be worst hit.
"This is genuinely terrifying," said Andrew Pendleton of Christian Aid. "It is a
death sentence for many millions of people. It will mean migration off the land
at levels we have not seen before, and at levels poor countries cannot cope
One of Britain's leading experts on the effects of climate change on the
developing countries, Andrew Simms from the New Economics Foundation, said:
"There's almost no aspect of life in the developing countries that these
predictions don't undermine - the ability to grow food, the ability to have a
safe sanitation system, the availability of water. For hundreds of millions of
people for whom getting through the day is already a struggle, this is going to
push them over the precipice."
The findings represent the first time that the threat of increased drought from
climate change has been quantified with a supercomputer climate model such as
the one operated by the Hadley Centre.
Their impact is likely to even greater because the findings may be an
underestimate. The study did not include potential effects on drought from
global-warming-induced changes to the Earth's carbon cycle.
In one unpublished Met Office study, when the carbon cycle effects are included,
future drought is even worse.
The results are regarded as most valid at the global level, but the clear
implication is that the parts of the world already stricken by drought, such as
Africa, will be the places where the projected increase will have the most
The study, by Eleanor Burke and two Hadley Centre colleagues, models how a
measure of drought known as the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) is likely
to increase globally during the coming century with predicted changes in
rainfall and heat around the world because of climate change. It shows the PDSI
figure for moderate drought, currently at 25 per cent of the Earth's surface,
rising to 50 per cent by 2100, the figure for severe drought, currently at about
8 per cent, rising to 40 cent, and the figure for extreme drought, currently 3
per cent, rising to 30 per cent.
Senior Met Office scientists are sensitive about the study, funded by the
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, stressing it contains
uncertainties: there is only one climate model involved, one future scenario for
emissions of greenhouse gases (a moderate-to-high one) and one drought index.
Nevertheless, the result is "significant", according to Vicky Pope, the head of
the Hadley Centre's climate programme. Further work would now be taking place to
try to assess the potential risk of different levels of drought in different
places, she said.
The full study - Modelling the Recent Evolution of Global Drought and
Projections for the 21st Century with the Hadley Centre Climate Model - will be
published later this month in The Journal of Hydrometeorology .
It will be widely publicised by the British Government at the negotiations in
Nairobi in November on a successor to the Kyoto climate treaty. But a preview of
it was given by Dr Burke in a presentation to the Climate Clinic, which was
formed by environmental groups, with The Independent as media partner, to press
politicians for tougher action on climate change. The Climate Clinic has been in
operation at all the party conferences.
While the study will be seen as a cause for great concern, it is the figure for
the increase in extreme drought that some observers find most frightening.
"We're talking about 30 per cent of the world's land surface becoming
essentially uninhabitable in terms of agricultural production in the space of a
few decades," Mark Lynas, the author of High Tide, the first major account of
the visible effects of global warming around the world, said. "These are parts
of the world where hundreds of millions of people will no longer be able to feed
Mr Pendleton said: "This means you're talking about any form of development
going straight out of the window. The vast majority of poor people in the
developing world are small-scale farmers who... rely on rain."
A glimpse of what lies ahead
The sun beats down across northern Kenya's Rift Valley, turning brown what was
once green. Farmers and nomadic herders are waiting with bated breath for the
arrival of the "short" rains - a few weeks of intense rainfall that will ensure
their crops grow and their cattle can eat.
The short rains are due in the next month. Last year they never came; large
swaths of the Horn of Africa stayed brown. From Ethiopia and Eritrea, through
Somalia and down into Tanzania, 11 million people were at risk of hunger.
This devastating image of a drought-ravaged region offers a glimpse of what lies
ahead for large parts of the planet as global warming takes hold.
In Kenya, the animals died first. The nomadic herders' one source of sustenance
and income - their cattle - perished with nothing to eat and nothing to drink.
Bleached skeletons of cows and goats littered the barren landscape.
The number of food emergencies in Africa each year has almost tripled since the
1980s. Across sub-Saharan Africa, one in three people is under-nourished. Poor
governance has played a part.
Pastoralist communities suffer most, rather than farmers and urban dwellers.
Nomadic herders will walk for weeks to find a water hole or riverbed. As
resources dwindle, fighting between tribes over scarce resources becomes common.
One of the most critical issues is under-investment in pastoralist areas. Here,
roads are rare, schools and hospitals almost non-existent.
Nomadic herders in Turkana, northern Kenya, who saw their cattle die last year,
are making adjustments to their way of life. When charities offerednew cattle,
they said no. Instead, they asked for donkeys and camels - animals more likely
to survive hard times.
Pastoralists have little other than their animals to rely on. But projects which
provide them with money to buy food elsewhere have proved effective, in the
short term at least.