Where Did All The Water Go?

If you live in a developed country, you have the luxury of turning on a faucet and witnessing a gush of drinkable chemically treated water emerge. Anytime there is a drought in an area, such as in my home state of California, the government usually handles it by rapidly importing or sourcing water from various sources, with little to no disruption to our everyday lives. However, those living in developing nations do not share the same experience. Climate change, which is disproportionately accelerated by economically developed countries, causes crippling and lingering effects on their less developed counterparts. Increased droughts are one of the costliest negative consequences of climate change, and prolonged droughts can be catastrophic to the economic and social welfare of a developing nation. While droughts cause significant environmental, economic, and social consequences around the world, it’s evident that developing countries are disproportionately impacted by the effects. In a country such as Kenya, the consequences can be dire and include famine as well as serious harm to ecosystems and economic disaster. Without access to the basic resources that are taken for granted in developed countries, recovery can be a long and painful process.

When Will The Crops Return?

Developing countries often derive a significant amount of their GDP and economies from their agricultural output, which can be significantly impacted by drought. During the 20th century, 23 million hectares of rice-producing land across Asia experienced frequent yield loss due to droughts, crippling the local and national economies of some nations (1). Since the turn of the century, over 11 million people have died and over 2 billion were negatively affected by droughts across the globe (2). African countries are particularly vulnerable to droughts, with a single drought lasting from 1968 to 1988 having pushed 150 million to the brink of starvation in the Sahel region (1). Perhaps the worst effect of droughts, particularly in an African nation, is the national unrest they cause, magnifying the negative economic effects.

Why is this Happening?

You might have seen it on the news, but if not, Kenya is going through one of the worst droughts in its history, with the country’s north experiencing less than 30% of its normal annual rainfall, a trend that has occurred for the past three rainy seasons (3).  Over 2.1 million Kenyans are now at risk of starvation, necessitating massive food aid in a country that hasn’t seen any significant conflict in six decades. The Kenyan government has also allocated funds for drought relief, but it is not necessarily reaching its intended recipients. The regularity and severity of droughts have been accelerating in recent years due to increasing temperatures caused by climate change. For example, in the moderately drought-prone region of southwest North America, the period between 2000 and 2018 was the driest it has been since the 16th century, with over thirty different climate models pointing to anthropogenic trends accounting for ~46% of the so-called megadrought. (4). For rich nations such as the US, the effects of climate change and drought are far less severe. By comparison, the consequences of the two-year drought in Kenya have far exceeded the impacts of the US’s drought which has persisted for the last 18 years.

What Can We Do?

Though climate change presents a serious, but hopefully somewhat manageable challenge in the century to come, there are very simple things that can be done to mitigate the social and economic effects of droughts on the developing world. Sending supplies of clean water after a drought is an important but very temporary solution to a much larger problem. Preventative aid in the form of water conservation infrastructure and education can be very effective. Rainwater harvesting and recycling is one of the most successful and scalable solutions to help agricultural businesses and farmers cheaply store clean water and survive a drought, especially as global groundwater levels continue to decline year by year. There are already NGOs focused on providing water harvesting and storage infrastructure to benefit developing countries, such as Evenproducts, however more funding is needed to make them widely available. Considering that the global annual cost of droughts was estimated to be approximately $80 billion, accounting for one-fifth of the damage caused by natural disasters (5), a relatively modest investment in water harvesting and storage infrastructure would save lives and money.

Furthermore, if this investment is supplemented with education and incentives geared towards encouraging farmers to apply watershed and soil management techniques, then we would be making a giant leap towards solving the drought problem.

For the layperson in a developed country, it might be wise to realize that one day you may attempt to turn on a water faucet but see nothing come out. Water is a shared resource and though droughts may disproportionately affect developing nations now, the problem may grow to burden the entire globe in equal and devastating ways. By taking simple steps toward enacting preventative solutions to managing our water and mitigating the significant consequences of droughts, we are saving ourselves from a future without water security.


References

  1. Miyan, M.A. (2015). Droughts in Asian Least Developed Countries: Vulnerability and sustainability. Weather and Climate Extremes, 7, pp.8–23.
  2. Ngcamu, B.S. and Chari, F. (2020). Drought Influences on Food Insecurity in Africa: A Systematic Literature Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(16), p.5897.
  3. ‌ Pietromarchi, V. (n.d.). “We will all die”: In Kenya, prolonged drought takes heavy toll. [online] www.aljazeera.com. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/11/17/we-will-all-die-in-kenya-prolonged-drought-takes-heavy-toll.
  4. Williams, A.P., Cook, E.R., Smerdon, J.E., Cook, B.I., Abatzoglou, J.T., Bolles, K., Baek, S.H., Badger, A.M. and Livneh, B. (2020). Large contribution from anthropogenic warming to an emerging North American megadrought. Science, 368(6488), pp.314–318.
  5. Gerber, N. and Mirzabaev, A. (n.d.). Integrated Drought Management Programme Working Paper No. 1 Benefits of action and costs of inaction: Drought mitigation and preparedness -a literature review. [online] Available at: https://library.wmo.int/doc_num.php?explnum_id=3401.

Hadi Hussaini, CFA (MBA 2023) has four years of experience in asset management working at The TCW Group and Morgan Stanley. He is now a PR & Communications officer of the London Business School Student Administration and an intern at the Wheeler Institute focused on content generation to drive workforce inclusivity and sustainable development in the Middle East and Africa. 

The Wheeler Institute is seeking to understand, illuminate and offer solutions to the challenges faced by the developing world, with an aim to identify the role of business in addressing these challenges and a focus on the implications and actions for those in developing countries. In support of our students, we approach this blog section as a reflective platform and a space where individuals can generate debate as long term agents of positive change.


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