Droughts can be defined in various ways and the effects may differ from one country to another. GWP intern Lara Vrtovec reflects on this.
We are about to say goodbye to the hottest year on record. According to the WMO, global temperatures in 2016 were higher than the record-breaking temperatures in 2015[i]. But isn’t this déjà vu? Didn’t we already hear this last year? Floods and heatwaves are becoming more frequent. It may be true that the extreme climatological events that occurred this year were to an extent caused by the powerful El Niño; however, the heat will not stop pursuing us just because El Niño is slowly disappearing.
When I was asked how climate change will affect my community, the first thing that popped in my mind, given that I am a citizen of a European country rich in water resources, was not droughts. Of the 21 major droughts that hit Europe from 1950 to 2012, six occurred after 2000[ii]. Are we having a drought crisis in Europe? But wait a minute, our droughts were not as severe as, for example, the drought in the Horn of Africa during 2011- 2012, which affected more than 10 million people[iii]. Nor do our heatwaves reach exasperatingly high levels of temperature (51°C) as in the town of Phalodi, India, in May.
Still, droughts can be defined in various ways and its effects may differ from one country to another. Meteorological droughts relate to a deficiency in precipitation, whereas agricultural droughts arise as a consequence of this deficiency. Hydrological droughts result from long-term soil water deficiencies, and last, but not least, socio-economic droughts can emerge as a result of all the aforementioned drought types. The latter is characterized by water scarcity that leads to a reduction of water security and potential economic losses. The differences between meteorological, agricultural, and hydrological droughts include their duration, where the longest is the hydrological drought and the shortest the meteorological drought.
Droughts affect at least 11 % of Europeans and 17 % of EU territory annually[iv]. With the warming of temperatures over the past century, the prevalence and duration of drought has also increased. It is estimated that droughts cost an average of 6.2 billion €/year in the most recent years, with an exceptional cost of 8.7 billion € in 2003[v]. However, these estimates encompass only direct economic costs, such as the cost of maintaining hydropower plants on low water flows, the cost of maintaining water treatment plants or the cost to compensate for crop losses. Droughts can have social and environmental effects as well (e.g. loss of lives, impacts on ecosystems, prevalence for forest fires, etc.). Some say that droughts are an underlying cause of mass migration to Europe.
This brings us to the question of whether are we putting enough effort in limiting these negative effects. Most of Europe’s drought policy is crisis oriented and consists of post-impact interventions. Nevertheless, the above-mentioned numbers show us that these policies are not enough and often inadequately implemented.
To make sense of this, we should take into consideration Giddens Paradox: not all threats posed by global warming are tangible, immediate, and visible in everyday life. And because of this, no matter how harmful they seem, many will not do anything concrete to prevent them. On the other hand, when these threats become apparent and urgent, it is already too late to reduce their impact. The question is: how long will it take us to resolve this paradox?
Droughts have the potential to turn into disaster. We are not able to prevent them, but reducing the gap between the impact and the ability to prepare, manage, and adapt to such events should be approached with proactive policies. However, before policies can be drafted, relevant data should be collected.
There are many country specific drought monitoring systems intended for the public. On the European scale, there is the EDO- European Drought Observatory. These forecasting models not only require good data, they need proper governmental backup plans and knowledge from the bottom up to fully evaluate how drought impacts will affect local water and food supplies.
The complex interlinkages between meteorology–hydrology–government–people should be established in a proper manner, with the sole purpose of preventing a drought crisis in Europe. National drought action plans and strategies should be implemented, not because it is a request from the EU Water Framework Directive or the Flood Directive, but because it is the state’s interest to guarantee farmers a secure crop or ensure its citizens’ water safety. We should aim to utilize water supply assets effectively by galvanizing governments to adopt national drought management plans and educating society on how to prepare for droughts. Post-impact drought recovery plans should not be our priority – they only maintain the status quo. The GWP CEE Integrated Drought Management Programme offers methods on how to develop national drought policies and strategies and how to tailor them according to a country’s characteristics and needs.
Now, if you are ever asked how climate change will affect your community, maybe droughts will be the first thing to pop into your mind! And think of it as your opportunity to take action.