Between a Rock and a Dry Lake Bed: Developed and developing economies coping with drought

By Karla Zubrycki, Karla Zubrycki on September 2, 2015

Of all the specific challenges we face around the world today, a prevalent natural disaster that is often forgotten in light of floods, cyclones and other more sudden events is one that has been called “a creeping natural hazard”—drought.

In fact, during the 20th century, droughts caused more deaths than any other natural disaster. UN-Water predicts that “by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be under conditions of water stress.” The World Meteorological Organization predicts that by 2025, “the population projected to be living in water-scarce countries will rise to between 1.0 billion and 2.4 billion, representing roughly 13% to 20% of the projected global population.” Many less developed countries, such as ones in Africa and Western Asia are particularly vulnerable to drought, with less adaptive capacity, considerable pressures (e.g. population growth) and often degraded landscapes that further increase vulnerability.  

Current Droughts Underline Need for Planning, Action and Data

Specific examples abound of drought around the world; Colombia, Guatemala, Zimbabwe and North Korea are just some of the developing economies currently experiencing varying ranges of drought. Zimbabwe, for instance, is seeing a 50 per cent drop in its staple corn crops this year, due in part to the impact of sustained drought. 

Countries that have seen great development success, and advanced from being considered “developing economies “ to “newly industrialized” economies in recent years, are also seeing their economic growth affected by drought. South Africa is experiencing its worst drought in two decades, which analysts say has contributed to a weakened GDP in 2015. A multi-year drought in Brazil has also been identified as one of the factors undermining socio-economic well-being in Brazil; southern coastal Brazil is experiencing its worst drought in 80 years. São Paulo’s water supply is running on emergency reserves, not only affecting water for domestic use, but also increasing energy costs for industry; with hydropower affected, more thermal heat is being used, which has increased electricity rates by as much as 30 per cent.

Of all the places experiencing drought, California is perhaps grabbing the most headlines right now. Entering its fourth year of drought, recent months have seen the American state ratchet up restrictions on water use, create new incentives for water conserving practices (e.g. lawn replacement programs) and even try out new technologies such as the dropping of “shade balls” into the Los Angeles reservoir to reduce evaporation. The unprecedented mandatory water restrictions imposed by California Governor Jerry Brown aim to achieve a “statewide 25 per cent reduction in potable urban water usage.” So far, results have been promising; in the most recent update, Californians had surpassed the 25 per cent target and achieved a 31.3 per cent reduction in July.

California’s current situation exemplifies the need for sustainability planning and measurement (e.g. targets, goals and indicators). The history of water management in California is awash with warning signs of potentially unsustainable development. In the early part of the 19th century, the diversion of the Owens River in eastern California to Los Angeles, resulting in conflict between affected farmers and Los Angeles developers – and even inspired the 1974 movie Chinatown, starring Jack Nicholson. The Hetch-Hetchy Aqueduct, which provides San Francisco with water from Yosemite National Park 269 kilometres away, was likewise met with controversy. Constructed in 1934, disputes about the dam continue to this day, with calls for its removal resulting in a failed San Francisco ballot in 2012, asking voters if the city should study the possibility of restoring the Hetch-Hetchy Valley to its natural state. The fact that the Colorado River rarely reaches the ocean is perhaps the starkest example of water overuse in the region (though California is not its only user).

California: a Source for Water Management inspiration

We can, however, take inspiration from what California is doing. California has the institutional, regulatory, financial and technological ability to find at least some ways to address the ongoing drought. While the state’s situation is still urgent, its resilience and ability to adapt are stronger than those of developing economies.

Unfortunately developing economies or even other developed economies face similar water-related challenges but lack the regulatory structures, funding for mitigation measures and access to technologies for water conservation.

That said, California’s approach is not the only way. In her recent blog post, IISD Water Director, Dimple Roy, highlighted how Rajendra Singh, the “Water Man of India,” harnessed a traditional technology known as “johads,” small earthen dams that capture rainwater, to increase water availability for communities and ecosystems in a water-stressed region of rural India. This award-winning example demonstrates that even where developing economies lack the resources of richer ones, we can be hopeful – there are good examples of practical, tailored approaches to address water scarcity that work in various socio-economic contexts.

Karla Zubrycki is a project and communications manager for IISD's Water program.