27.10.2017 |

Food lost to drought could feed 81 million people, World Bank

Droughts reduce crop yields (Photo: CC0)

Droughts are responsible for the loss of enough food to feed 81 million people every year, or a country the size of Germany, the World Bank said on Tuesday. According to the report “Uncharted Waters: The New Economics of Water Scarcity and Variability”, prolonged periods without rain around the world have shockingly large and often hidden consequences for farms, firms and families. The World Bank describes droughts as “misery in slow motion” which have lasting effects on health and wealth of families, trapping subsequent generations in poverty and malnutrition. The authors write that between 2001 and 2013, enough calories to feed 81 million people every day on 2000 calories were lost to dry shocks each year. Specifically, total losses in areas that experienced droughts amounted to an average annual reduction of 59.2 trillion kilocalories over that time period. Regions that suffered large declines in production because of rainfall shocks include southern Mexico and Central America, northern South America, Western Europe, most of the Sahel and Southern Africa, Indonesia, and southern Australia. “Many of the affected regions overlap with areas that are already facing large food deficits and are classified as fragile,” the report said.

The report shows how rainfall shocks, coupled with water scarcity, affect farms, firms, and families. For families, the legacy of rainfall shocks can ripple through generations, harming not just the women who experienced them, but also their children. It finds that in rural Africa, women born during extreme droughts bear the marks throughout their lives, growing up mentally and physically stunted, undernourished and unwell because of crop losses. Their suffering is often passed on to the next generation, with their children more likely to be stunted and less healthy, perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty. On farms, droughts have a significant impact on crop yields, with even moderate dry shocks reducing productivity. Repeated years of below-average rainfall also forces farmers to expand into nearby forests as they try to recoup productivity losses by increasing the amount of land that they cultivate. Since forests act as a climate stabilizer and help regulate water supplies, deforestation further exacerbates climate change.

For firms, the report calculates the economic costs of droughts as four times greater than that of floods. The World Bank says that a single water outage in an urban firm can reduce its revenue by more than 8%. And if that firm is in the informal sector, as many are in the developing world, sales decline by 35%, ruining livelihoods and stagnating economic growth. “These impacts demonstrate why it is increasingly important that we treat water like the valuable, exhaustible, and degradable resource that it is,” said Guangzhe Chen, Senior Director of the World Bank’s Water Global Practice. “If water is not managed more prudently - from source, to tap, and back to source - the crises observed today will become the catastrophes of tomorrow,” he writes in the foreword to the study. Report author Richard Damania also warns that if the deepening water deficits that climate change will bring are not taken seriously, water scarcity might spread to new regions of the world, potentially exacerbating issues of violence, suffering, and migration.

But the report also offers proposals for how to tackle these challenges. “Avoiding this misery in slow motion will call for fundamental changes to how water is managed”, the authors write. They recommend constructing new water storage and management infrastructure. Irrigation infrastructure has the potential to buffer crops against drought-related losses, and eliminate the need for farmers to expand into forests. But the authors also point out that in arid areas, free irrigation water can induce maladaptation, whereby farmers grow water-intensive crops that increase their vulnerability to drought. Crop productivity could then suffer badly in times of drought as a result of the unmet extraordinary water needs, and impacts are worsened. The report also noted that when flood and droughts turn into economic shocks, safety nets must be put in place to protect the most vulnerable people. In rural areas, this could take the form of crop insurance schemes, while in cities, affordable access to clean water needs to be ensured. (ab)

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