As Australia suffers through its worst drought on record, large parts of the rest of the world seem to be frying along with us — so is the big dry another product of global warming?

According to Time Magazine, a 2005 study by the National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) showed that the “percentage of Earth’s surface suffering drought has more than doubled since the 1970s.” Some 30% of the Earth’s surface experienced drought in 2002, compared with 10 to 15% in the early 1970s.

Meanwhile, in Britain, new predictions from the country’s leading climate scientists warn that “drought threatening the lives of millions will spread across half the land surface of the Earth in the coming century because of global warming,” according to The Independent. Extreme drought, in which “agriculture is in effect impossible, will affect about a third of the planet,” according to the study from the Met Office’s Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research. 

Crikey has put together a working list of droughts around the world, and it adds up to a lot of thirsty countries:

CHINA: Areas of western China are “enduring their worst drought in 50 years, with at least 14 million people suffering from a shortage of drinking water,” reports Asia Pacific News. “Thousands of people are being admitted to hospitals daily due to heatstroke as temperatures regularly exceed 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit), while large tracts of farmland have been devastated.” And China Daily reports that “crops are dying and fish farms drying up, while grid overloads last year forced factories to tap power only overnight, and led the government to ask restaurants and hotels to limit use of electric lights.”

US: According to Time, “people, animals and plants living in dry, mountainous regions like the western US make it through summer thanks to snowpack that collects on peaks all winter and slowly melts off in warm months. Lately the early arrival of spring and the unusually blistering summers have caused the snowpack to melt too early, so that by the time it’s needed, it’s largely gone. Climatologist Philip Mote of the University of Washington has compared decades of snowpack levels in Washington, Oregon and California and found that they are a fraction of what they were in the 1940s, and some snowpacks have vanished entirely.”

AFGHANISTAN: Millions of Afghans are facing hunger due to harvest failure caused by too little rains last winter and spring, according to Alertnet. The country was still recovering from the devastating drought of 1998-2003 and the impact of war and conflict, but it is now facing yet another drought. Most rain-fed crops (estimated to constitute 85% of the cultivated land) have failed. 2.5 million people are at risk mainly in the north, west and central regions of Afghanistan. 

AFRICA: Africa’s two highest mountains — Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya — will lose their ice cover within 25 to 50 years if deforestation and industrial pollution are not stopped, reports The Seattle Times. Kilimanjaro has already lost 82% of its ice cover over 80 years. Mount Kenya, one of the few places near the equator with permanent glaciers, has lost 92% over the past 100 years. And the World Rivers Review reports that “Africa already has extreme variability of rainfall, and an uneven distribution of water resources. Climate change is expected to increase this variability….Most rural Africans are directly dependent on surface water – rivers, wetlands, springs and lakes – for their water supply. Experts predict that much of the continent is likely to get drier, and that surface water sources will be dramatically affected.”

EUROPE: Last year, Spain and Portugal suffered one of the worse droughts on record, with far-reaching economic consequences — from the closure of swimming pools to the loss of crops and livestock, reports the BBC.

UK: According to the BBC, Britain is currently experiencing its worst drought for almost 100 years. The South East “has less water per person than the desert states of Syria and Sudan, while the rest of the country has less than the whole of Europe, apart from Belgium and Cyprus.”

INDIA: According to the India Meteorological Department, over 40% of meteorological districts had received deficient or scanty rain at the end of the 2006 monsoon season. And this is driving India to deplete its groundwater supplies at an alarming rate, reports the New York Times. Indians are “tapping their groundwater faster than nature can replenish it.” If groundwater can be seen as a kind of “savings account” of water for drought years, then India is “rapidly exhausting its reserve.”

For an at-a-glance look at drought around the world, the UCL Department of Space and Climate physics has put together a drought monitor here.

Peter Fray

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