The window of opportunity to deal with increasing drought and the expansion of drylands is disappearing


Chile, Argentina and the western United States are in the midst of a decade-long mega-drought – the driest conditions these regions have seen in a century. And many parts of western Canada and the United States experience extreme drought — an event that only occurs once every 20 years.

Drought makes agriculture less productive, reduces crop yields and increases heat-related deaths. This adds to conflict and migration as marginalized people are dispossessed of their land. In short, it makes people more vulnerable.

Drought is part of natural climate variability, but it is also one of the many consequences of climate change that are increasing in frequency and intensity. Droughts that used to occur in dry regions once every 10 years are now expected to occur more than four times a decade, if the Earth’s average temperature warms by 4°C.

Unless countries drastically reduce their emissions from burning coal, oil and natural gas, we are bound to exceed the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C. Drylands could expand one quarter and encompass half of the Earth’s land area, including parts of the prairies.

Governments need to recognize that changes are already happening in drylands and that others can no longer be avoided, even with reduced emissions. We need to see better strategies to respond to forest fires, water scarcity and conflict, land degradation and desertification, if we are to reduce the loss of livelihoods and lives due to drought .

Big climate changes are coming

Drylands heat up twice as fast as wetlands. Scientists predict that over the next 50 years, between one billion and three billion people will live in temperatures above the climatic range that has served humanity for more than 6,000 years, or will migrate elsewhere.

Read more: “Too many people, not enough food” is not the cause of hunger and food insecurity

Livelihoods and life will fundamentally change in these areas. Animal husbandry – like livestock production – will no longer be possible as rising temperatures lead to widespread death of animals. And the city’s infrastructure was not built to cope with intense flooding, which is causing damage and increasing in many arid areas.

The dry lake bed of Wickiup Reservoir in Oregon, September 2021.
(AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

Big human changes are also coming

Current climate adaptation efforts to short-term drought and flood events tend to be reactive, incremental and limited. For example, Yorkton, Saskatchewan responded to three consecutive floods by modifying some infrastructure, but lasting social learning was lost over time.

These short-sighted interventions mean that the vulnerable and marginalized suffer the most. Recurrent drought is reducing the availability of drought risk reduction aids such as crop insurance by making insurance premiums more expensive or even inaccessible for many farmers.

Governments need to start implementing policies to reduce future drought impacts and build farmers’ resilience. They can propose solutions to wind erosion and dust management or launch campaigns to reduce water consumption and promote the restoration or reclamation of landscapes. They could adopt landscape heterogeneity strategies – crop varieties and patches of uncultivated land – that allow bees and pollinators to thrive. After wildfires, policies and funding could accelerate restoration by planting trees and vegetation for windbreaks, as well as encouraging farmers to plant drought-tolerant food crops.

Assessing the risk of climatic events such as drought, floods or fires and their impacts before they occur helps to assess the appropriate distribution of public and private responsibilities in the prevention, planning and response to these events when they occur.

Groundwater tipping point

While increasing incremental adaptation is important, significant systemic change or transformational adaptation may be required to address worsening climate risks. These adaptations could include the development and implementation of water storage technologies, changes in grazing and agricultural practices to preserve soils, and behavioral changes to reduce water consumption.

Read more: How Ancient Water Management Techniques Can Help Prairie Farmers Face Drought

There may also be residual risks that adaptation cannot address, as well as maladaptation – actions that unintentionally increase the risk of negative outcomes from climate change. For example, groundwater is a source of irrigation in many parts of the world and its depletion may have passed a critical point where it can no longer be replenished by precipitation.

In areas where water is scarce, farmers may use low quality water resources (called marginal quality waters), such as wastewater or drainage water, which may be high in salts, pathogens and heavy metals, to irrigate their crops. This can cause salt to build up in the soil and can make the land unusable for agriculture, which can then have consequences for food security.

In India, for example, hectares of land are expected to become unusable by 2050, at a cost of $3 billion. Global economic losses from salt-induced land degradation are estimated at $27.3 billion per year. In California, the lack of irrigation water could drive up global food prices.

As governments around the world consider ways to reduce emissions to limit global warming, adaptation and resilience must remain high on their list of priorities. The world is on track to exceed its climate targets, and as the window of opportunity closes, these policies have become increasingly necessary.


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