Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Dry patches: the world's drought epidemic

  • Written by  Marco Magrini
  • Published in Climate
While plenty of the world saw flooding in 2017, equally plenty of places experienced extreme drought While plenty of the world saw flooding in 2017, equally plenty of places experienced extreme drought Piyaset
29 Nov
Water, water may be everywhere, but as Marco Magrini discovers, it’s not stopping vast swathes of the planet suffering from ever-increasing drought conditions

As 2017 is coming to an end, you may be tempted to call it Year of the Hurricanes. However, a slower and more silent phenomenon could be better awarded with such a title. On the other side of the deluge coin, there is drought.

After a three-year-long dry spell, flames devoured more than a million acres in California, while some of Europe’s most parched spots, particularly in Portugal, were reduced to ash. Seventeen African countries, from Angola to Tanzania, from Sudan to Malawi, have endured the second consecutive year of drought. Israel is in its fourth, and the arid conditions are crippling its high-tech agriculture.

Repeated droughts are destroying enough farm produce to feed 81 million people, said the World Bank in a recent report, aptly named Uncharted Waters. ‘The 21st century is witnessing the collision of two powerful trends – rising human populations coupled with a changing climate,’ the financial institution argues. It’s no small matter, as the collision could be brutal.

Slightly more than 70 per cent of our planet is covered with water. Yet, 97 per cent of it is salted. Most of the meagre three per cent of freshwater is locked in glaciers. The remaining slice (0.5 per cent) is mostly composed by underground aquifers (equivalent to four trillion Olympic-sized swimming pools), followed by rainfall (47 billion pools), lakes (36 billion), man-made reservoirs (two billion) and rivers (848 million pools). In other words, on a planet awash with water, the water at mankind’s disposal is just a tiny fraction of the total. Meanwhile, mankind has grown to pass the 7.5 billion population mark.

Rain scarcity, the World Bank estimates, is four times more costly than floods. Not to mention its long-term consequences, like cropland expansion into forested areas. Climate change may accelerate this pattern, ‘leading to a harmful cycle where rainfall shocks induce deforestation, thereby increasing carbon dioxide emissions, and, in turn, further exacerbating rainfall extremes.’

Those extremes – downpours and droughts – were predicted by climatologists decades ago. The prediction includes an escalation in weather pattern disruptions, well similar to the ones we have witnessed in 2017. ‘How much worse can it get?’ is the question.

This was published in the December 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe to Geographical!

Adventure Canada


Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester




Travel the Unknown


Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    Mexico City: boom town
    Twenty years ago, Mexico City was considered the ultimate urban disaster. But, recent political and economic reforms have transformed it into a hub of...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...


NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...


NGOs shine a light on the underreporting of wildlife crime…


Pioneering laser photography is being used by scientists on the…


Annual competition looks to celebrate island life in all its…


Increasing interest in offshore aquaculture is dividing environmentalists


Well-meaning promises don’t always have positive outcomes. Marco Magrini finds…


The RSPB introduces a new hotline for reporting the unlawful…


With the death earlier this week of the world’s last…


The essence of street photography is its raw, unfiltered, unstaged…


For Marco Magrini, a tax on fossil fuels would be…


Half of animal species in world’s most biodiverse areas could…


Four-year project to reestablish safe breeding grounds for seabirds on…


First global atlas of soil bacteria reveals a small minority…


Scientists discover how shrubs are dominating the Arctic tundra


War and conservation have a complicated relationship, with two studies…


Why is Europe so cold right now? Marco Magrini suggests…


Threatened Californian owls are suffering from digesting rat poison administered…


With the majority of the ocean still remaining undiscovered, a…


Belize bans offshore oil extraction to protect the second longest…


With their horns still much-prized by poachers, will the revered…


Narwhals show a complex response to interaction with humans and…