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Experts warn of dangerous factor that could cause food shortages across the world: 'The straw that breaks the camel's back'

Droughts have a significant impact on agricultural productivity, endangering our food supply.

Droughts have a significant impact on agricultural productivity, endangering our food supply.

Photo Credit: iStock

Nearly a quarter of people worldwide lived under drought conditions in the past two years, according to a new report summarized by The New York Times.

What happened?

The International Drought Resilience Alliance and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification released the Global Drought Snapshot 2023, which showed that 1.84 billion people across the globe lived under drought in 2022 and 2023. Most of these people were located in low- and middle-income countries.

Some of the abnormally dry, hot conditions experienced in the past few years were intensified by the burning of planet-warming energy sources like natural gas and coal, The New York Times reports. Last year's arrival of El Niño, a natural weather phenomenon associated with warmer temperatures in parts of the Pacific Ocean, likely also played a role.

Why is drought concerning?

Droughts have a significant impact on agricultural productivity, endangering our food supply. According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, El Niño combined with climate change is likely to result in drier- and hotter-than-normal conditions in Southern Africa, Central America, and northern South America into the early months of 2024, which is likely to affect food security in those regions. 

Meanwhile, above-normal precipitation in the Horn of Africa and Central Asia in late 2023 and early 2024 could have a similar effect.

Downturns in agricultural productivity due to droughts can also affect human migration patterns. For instance, one study found that unusually dry years were associated with 70.7% more emigration from Central America to the United States. This drought-induced migration pattern can be found in other regions of the world, with case studies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Of course, drought also impacts the availability of drinking water. Last year, residents of an island of about 310,000 people off the east coast of Africa faced a water crisis. One woman told CNN that she had little or no running water in her home for four months.

Drought also affects ecosystems. In Brazil, the Amazon rainforest faced a record-breaking drought in 2023. A healthy forest efficiently stores carbon, but drought kills those carbon-storing trees and helps to fuel wildfires, which could pose an even greater threat, according to Philip Fearnside, a biologist at the Institute for Amazonian Research in Manaus, Brazil.

"If that goes into [the] atmosphere as greenhouse gases, that can be the straw that breaks the camel's back for the global climate," Fearnside told The New York Times. "Not just the Amazon."

What's being done about drought?

While we can't prevent droughts, per se, we can do our best to try to curb the warming of our planet that is driving many megadroughts. One way you can help is to vote for pro-climate candidates.

Meanwhile, some are finding new ways to adapt. For instance, Spain experienced a crippling drought between October 2022 and May 2023. Southern Spain was hit particularly hard and hopes to restore an irrigation system built more than 1,000 years ago to replenish its aquifers — this will supply much-needed water for crops.

California is also looking to its irrigation canals. Project Nexus aims to cover about 8,500 feet of canals near Sacramento with solar panels. The panels will reportedly help combat drought by reducing water evaporation and producing renewable energy.

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