World’s water shortages up almost a third in 20 years

From 1970 to 2019, droughts made up 15pc of natural disasters but took the biggest toll, killing about 650,000 people. Photo: John Locher/AP

Caroline O’Doherty

The number and length of extreme water shortages worldwide have risen by almost a third in just 20 years, a new drought study has shown.

It says more than 2.3 billion people are facing water stress this year, and in just eight years’ time an estimated 700 million people will be at risk of having to leave their home regions to find water.

By 2050, droughts may affect more than three-quarters of the world’s population, and up to 5.7 billion people will live in areas severely affected for at least one month each year.

The impacts are already worldwide, with 12 million hectares of land lost to drought and desertification each year.

The warnings come in a “Drought by Numbers” report from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

UNCCD executive secretary Ibrahim Thiaw said: “The facts and figures 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.”

The report says that since 2000, the number and duration of droughts has risen by 29pc, with 1.4 billion people affected by extreme water shortage in that time.

From 1970 to 2019, droughts made up 15pc of natural disasters but took the biggest toll, killing about 650,000 people.

This year alone, 160 million children are exposed to severe and prolonged drought.

The report is published as representatives of many of the 196 countries who signed up to the convention meet in Ivory Coast in western Africa in a call to arms to tackle current drought crises and avert growing threats.

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

Mr Thiaw called for a complete change in the international response to the problem, from reactive and crisis-based to proactive and risk-based.

He said land restoration would be key, and that would require a dramatic reduction in meat consumption and a major shift toward plant-based diets.

As the 10-day gathering takes place, millions of people are displaced and facing famine in Somalia and Kenya after four seasons of little or no rain.

African countries have suffered the most frequent droughts, but the report shows worldwide impacts, and warns of worse to come.

In Europe, 45 major drought events were recorded over the past century, affecting millions of people.

Annual losses from disruption to agriculture and other sectors in the EU currently cost around €9bn and are on course to escalate.

“Today, an annual average of 15pc of the land area and 17pc of the population within the European Union is affected by drought,” the reports says.

The effect on ecosystems is severe. In the summer drought of 2003, photo- synthesis in European plants plummeted by 30pc.

As a result of the “millennium drought” in Australia from 2002 to 2010, agricultural production fell by 18pc.

The meeting hopes to agree better responses to drought, including more advanced early warning and finance to help countries worst affected guard against the threat.