Madrid — Drought is one of the 'most destructive' natural disasters in terms of the loss of life, arising from impacts, such as wide-scale crop failure, wildfires and water stress.
In other words, droughts are one of the "most feared natural phenomena in the world;" they devastate farmland, destroy livelihoods and cause untold suffering, as reported by the world's top specialised bodies: the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).
They occur when an area experiences a shortage of water supply due to a lack of rainfall or lack of surface or groundwater. And they can last for weeks, months or years.
Exacerbated by land degradation and climate change, droughts are increasing in frequency and severity, up 29% since 2000, with 55 million people affected every year.
The impacts of climate change are often felt through water - more intense and frequent droughts, more extreme flooding, more erratic seasonal rainfall and accelerated melting of glaciers - with cascading effects on economies, ecosystems and all aspects of our daily lives - Petteri Taalas, WMO Secretary-General
By 2050, droughts may affect an estimated three-quarters of the world's population. This means that agricultural production will have to increase by 60% to meet the global food demand in 2050.
This means that about 71% of the world's irrigated area and 47% of major cities are to experience at least periodic water shortages. If this trend continues, the scarcity and associated water quality problems will lead to competition and conflicts among water users, adds the Convention.
Most of the world already impacted
The alert is loud and strong and it comes from a number of the world's most knowledgeable organisations.
To begin with, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) on 29 November 2022 reported that most of the globe was drier than normal in 2021, with "cascading effects on economies, ecosystems and our daily lives."
Between 2001 and 2018, UN-Water reported that a staggering 74% of all-natural disasters were water-related.
Currently, over 3.6 billion people have inadequate access to water at least one month per year and this is expected to increase to more than five billion by 2050.
Moreover, areas that were unusually dry included South America's Rio de la Plata area, where a persistent drought has affected the region since 2019, according to WMO's The State of Global Water Resources report.
Drying rivers, lakes
In Africa, major rivers such as the Niger, Volta, Nile and Congo had below-average water flow in 2021.
The same trend was observed in rivers in parts of Russia, West Siberia and in Central Asia.
On the other hand, there were above-normal river volumes in some North American basins, the North Amazon and South Africa, as well as in China's Amur river basin, and northern India.
The impacts of climate change are often felt through water - more intense and frequent droughts, more extreme flooding, more erratic seasonal rainfall and accelerated melting of glaciers - with cascading effects on economies, ecosystems and all aspects of our daily lives, said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.
"Changes to Cryosphere water resources affect food security, human health, ecosystem integrity and maintenance, and lead to significant impacts on economic and social development", said WMO, sometimes causing river flooding and flash floods due to glacier lake outbursts.
The cryosphere - namely glaciers, snow cover, ice caps and, where present, permafrost - is the world's biggest natural reservoir of freshwater.
Being water -or rather the lack of it- a major cause-effect of the fast-growing deterioration of natural resources, and the consequent damage to the world's food production, the theme of World Soil Day 2022, marked 5 December, is "Soils: Where food begins."
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO):
- 95% of our food comes from soils.
- 18 naturally occurring chemical elements are essential to plants. Soils supply 15.
- Agricultural production will have to increase by 60% to meet the global food demand in 2050.
- 33% of soils are degraded.
In addition to the life of humans, animals, and plants, one of the sectors that most depend on water-crops is now highly endangered.
Indeed, since the 1950s, reminds the United Nations, innovations like synthetic fertilisers, chemical pesticides and high-yield cereals have helped humanity dramatically increase the amount of food it grows.
"But those inventions would be moot without agriculture's most precious commodity: fresh water. And it, say researchers, is now under threat."
Moreover, pollution, climate change and over-abstraction are beginning to compromise the lakes, rivers, and aquifers that underpin farming globally, reports the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
Salinised and plastified
Such is the case, among many others, of the growing salinisation and 'plastification' of the world's soils.
In fact, currently, it is estimated that there are more than 833 million hectares of salt-affected soils around the globe (8.7% of the planet). This implies the loss of soil's capacity to grow food and also increasing impacts on water and the ability to filter pollution.
Soil salinisation and sodification are major soil degradation processes threatening ecosystems and are recognised as being among the most important problems at a global level for agricultural production, food security and sustainability in arid and semi-arid regions, said the UN on occasion of the 2021 World Soil Day.
Among the major causes that this international body highlights is that in some arid areas, there has been an increase in the amount of wastewater used to grow crops.
"The problem can be exacerbated by flooding, which can inundate sewage systems or stores of fertiliser, polluting both surface water and groundwater." Fertiliser run-off can cause algal blooms in lakes.
Meanwhile, the amount of freshwater per capita has fallen by 20% over the last two decades and nearly 60% of irrigated cropland is water-stressed.
The implications of those shortages are far-reaching: irrigated agriculture contributes 40% of total food produced worldwide.
Soils are highly living organisms
"Did you know that there are more living organisms in a tablespoon of soil than people on Earth?"
Soil is a world made up of organisms, minerals, and organic components that provide food for humans and animals through plant growth, explains this year's World Soils Day.
Agricultural systems lose nutrients with each harvest, and if soils are not managed sustainably, fertility is progressively lost, and soils will produce nutrient-deficient plants.
Soil nutrient loss is a major soil degradation process threatening nutrition. It is recognised as being among the most critical problems at a global level for food security and sustainability all around the globe.
Over the last 70 years, the level of vitamins and nutrients in food has drastically decreased, and it is estimated that 2 billion people worldwide suffer from a lack of micronutrients, known as hidden hunger because it is difficult to detect.
"Soil degradation induces some soils to be nutrient depleted, losing their capacity to support crops, while others have such a high nutrient concentration that represents a toxic environment to plants and animals, pollutes the environment and causes climate change."