Climate change-linked droughts have increased dramatically since 2000, report finds

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Thanks in part to climate change, the number and frequency of droughts impacting the planet has increased by 29% over the past 22 years, according to a United Nations report released Wednesday. As a result, roughly one third of the Earth’s population, 2.3 billion people, now face the risk of water scarcity.

“The facts and figures of this publication all point in the same direction: an upward trajectory in the duration of droughts and the severity of impacts, not only affecting human societies but also the ecological systems upon which the survival of all life depends, including that of our own species,” Ibrahim Thiaw, executive secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), said in a statement.

Droughts like the one gripping the American southwest, where water restrictions have been put in place in states like California and Arizona and reservoir levels continue to fall heading into the dry summer months, are being felt across the globe. A severe drought in the Horn of Africa has but the lives of millions of people in Somalia at risk. The combination of drought and an intense heat dome that has lingered over parts of Pakistan and India is threatening the current wheat harvest and putting millions more lives in danger. Thanks to a series of drought years, Australia’s agriculture industry saw economic declines of 18% between 2002 and 2010, the U.N. report said.

DOLLOW, JUBALAND, SOMALIA - 2022/04/14: The carcass of goats lies in the sand on the outskirts of Dollow, Somalia. People from across Gedo in Somalia have been displaced due to drought conditions and forced to come to Dollow, in the southwest, to search for aid. Somalia has suffered three failed rainy seasons in a row, making this the worst drought in decades, and 6 million people are in crisis levels of food insecurity. The problems are being compounded by the rising costs of food prices because of the Ukraine war. Hence, hundreds of thousands of livestock have died from hunger and thirst. (Photo by Sally Hayden/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The carcass of goats lies in the sand on the outskirts of Dollow, Somalia. People from across Gedo in Somalia have been displaced due to drought conditions and forced to come to Dollow, in the southwest, to search for aid. (Photo by Sally Hayden/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

France has seen a 25% drop in rainfall since the start of April, accompanied by a rise in normal temperatures not usually experience until summer, France24 reported, negatively impacting crops like corn, sunflowers and beets.

“So very quickly we ended up in a critical situation – before summer has even started,” hydrologist Emma Haziza told France24.

Numerous studies have established the link between rising global temperatures and drought. Hotter temperatures speed up evaporation, reducing the amount of available surface water, drying out crops and other plants. The hotter it gets, the quicker that reaction plays out, raising the risks of wildfires that can feed off of dried-out vegetation.

“We are at a crossroads,” Thiaw said in a statement. “We need to steer toward the solutions rather than continuing with destructive actions, believing that marginal change can heal systemic failure.”

The UNCCD report offers a grim warning about what humanity will face if it does not work to try to prevent the further degradation of soil caused by climate change.

By the year 2030, the report states, “an estimated 700 million people will be at risk of being displaced by drought.” By 2040, roughly one in four children are expected to live in places that will experience “extreme water shortages,” and by 2050, the prevalence of droughts will mean that between 4.8 and 5.7 billion people “will live in areas that are water-scarce for at least one month each year.”

LAKE MEAD NATIONAL RECREATION AREA, NEVADA - MAY 10: A person walks near a faltering boat launch ramp which is set to be relocated due to lowering water levels on drought-stricken Lake Mead on May 10, 2022 in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reported that Lake Mead, North America's largest artificial reservoir, has dropped to about 1,052 feet above sea level, the lowest it's been since being filled in 1937 after the construction of the Hoover Dam. Two sets of human remains have been discovered recently as the lake continues to recede. The declining water levels are a result of a climate change-fueled megadrought coupled with increased water demands in the Southwestern United States. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

A person walks near a faltering boat launch ramp on drought-stricken Lake Mead on May 10, 2022 in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Key to avoiding this fate, climate scientists say, is transitioning the world from fossil fuel sources of energy to renewables. There has been some encouraging news on that front. In April, for instance, the United States generated 20% of the country’s electricity from wind and solar sources, a record high amount.

Yet the efforts at transitioning to renewables come at a time when global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. Without dramatically reducing those, scientists warn, there is little hope of keeping temperatures from rising more than 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Beyond that threshold evaporation rates would also rise dramatically, raising the odds of more crippling droughts.

A report released Tuesday by the Met Office, the meteorological service of the United Kingdom, put the odds that mankind can the sweeping changes needed to keep average global temperatures from surpassing the 1.5° Celsius marker in the next 5 years at 50-50.

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