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Drought: More than 2.3 billion people are facing water stress as experts warn of more day-zero scenarios

An Indian farmer looks towards the sky, while standing amidst his drought-stricken crop near Patiala in the northern state of Punjab July 17, 2002. A delay in the arrival of India\'s monsoon in some parts of the country has raised fears of drought in some areas, which analysts say could stifle recovery. REUTERS/Dipak Kumar

An Indian farmer looks towards the sky, while standing amidst his drought-stricken crop near Patiala in the northern state of Punjab July 17, 2002. A delay in the arrival of India\'s monsoon in some parts of the country has raised fears of drought in some areas, which analysts say could stifle recovery. REUTERS/Dipak Kumar

Published May 14, 2022

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Johannesburg - Day-zero scenarios, where cities and towns countdown to when they run out of water, are going to increase as droughts both locally and globally will become more frequent.

This is all according to a new report from the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) which says that humans are at a “crossroads” where they need to introduce measures that will mitigate the effects of future droughts.

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“The facts and figures of this publication all point in the same direction: an upward trajectory in the duration of droughts and the severity of impacts, not only affecting human societies but also the ecological systems upon which the survival of all life depends, including that of our own species,” said Ibrahim Thiaw, executive secretary of the UNCCD, in a statement.

The report titled Drought In Numbers, 2022, was released on Wednesday to mark Drought Day at UNCCD’s 15th Conference of Parties in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.

The report makes for concerning reading. Over the last two decades the number and duration of droughts has risen 29%.

And while droughts represent 15% of all natural disasters they have taken the largest human toll between 1970 and 2019, killing approximately 650 000 people.

This year it is estimated that more than 2.3 billion people are facing water stress.

And South Africa is a country in the eye of this storm, where droughts are commonplace, because of lower than average global rainfall.

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“Increased climate variability, especially since the 1990s, has been observed and it is predicted that droughts will become more frequent across South Africa especially in the western, southern, central and northern areas,” explained associate professor Anja du Plessis of the Department of Geography at Unisa.

“Droughts are also predicted to be more prolonged and have a greater intensity and more significant effects on the environment and the population itself.”

Du Plessis wasn’t an author of the report.

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While climate change has been blamed for recent extreme weather events, Du Plessis added that to be sure would require long term study.

“It is difficult to give a definite answer as you need to study climate over five or six decades to determine definite trends with great certainty,” she said.

The report calls on countries across the globe to look for solutions.

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“One of the best, most comprehensive solutions is land restoration, which addresses many of the underlying factors of degraded water cycles and the loss of soil fertility. We must build and rebuild our landscapes better, mimicking nature wherever possible and creating functional ecological systems,” said Thiaw.

Other ways of fighting the effects of droughts include the development and implementation of integrated drought action plans and setting up effective weather early warning systems.

If South Africa is to become more drought proof, it has to face up to other challenges, according to du Plessis.

“The continued widespread water degradation of the country's already stressed water resources, such as the major sewage pollution problem across the country, together with continued high non-revenue water losses, non-functioning municipalities and lack of skills, misappropriation of funds as well as the surging unreliability of our water and sanitation service delivery, all contribute to forming a water crisis which we may face in the very near future if we do not make the necessary changes and improvements.”

But there have been some successes, which the report highlights. One of these is an initiative that South Africa is involved in. This is the Information Technology and Indigenous Knowledge with Intelligence, a drought early warning system. The system integrates indigenous knowledge and weather forecasting to help small scale farmers. The idea is that it provides them with information so they can make decisions on when and what crops to plant.

So far trials of the forecast models in South Africa, Mozambique and Kenya have provided an accuracy of between 70-98% for lead times of up to four years.

Another initiative led by the African Union has seen 4 million hectares of degraded land rehabilitated in an effort to reduce desertification and drought.

But the fight for water security will take more than just governments and scientists.

“South Africans need to become more mindful or aware of their personal water use and try to do their part in conserving water. We all need to become water stewards, calling for proper action from the government to address current water challenges such as the ongoing sewage pollution, high water losses caused by dilapidated water infrastructure, and unreliable or totally absent water and sanitation services across the country,” said du Plessis.

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