India is in the grip of a drought that in some parts of the country has been going on for five consecutive years. Scientists attribute the successively weaker monsoons to the El Niño effect, a warming of temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of South America, that skews wind and pressure systems around the world.
With the El Niño finally on the wane since January, researchers now suggest that it will be followed by a La Nina phenomenon, characterised instead by cooling Pacific temperatures and for India, more rain.
But the weather formation's impact has not been limited just to the Indian monsoon. It is also among the reasons that every month since May 2015 has broken temperature record highs and why severe floods and droughts have been recorded around the world.
Acute water distress of any kind triggers migrations. The longer the drought, as the example of Syria shows, the worse the exodus and resulting violence. As this daily drought risk map by El Dorado Weather shows, pretty much every single continent apart from the poles has regions facing crippling droughts.
On Wednesday, Kenya announced that it would shut down refugee camps in Dadaab, near its Somalia border. A severe drought in Somalia has left close to one million people, or nearly one in 12 people, struggling to meet their food needs, according to a United Nations reports. Tens of thousands have fled the country to the Dadaab camps.
Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zimbabwe in southern Africa are so near the brink that they have declared national drought disasters. Ethiopia, further north and the worst affected in terms of food, also happens to be in the middle of deep political turmoil. More than 36 million people are threatened by hunger across that part of the continent.
Namibia, on Africa’s south western coast has also been suffering from a huge rainfall deficit. On Thursday, Coca Cola announced that it would stop all canned drink production in the country. Instead, to meet Namibia’s demand, it will import these from neighbouring South Africa. Many parts of South Africa have not had rain for three consecutive years.
The heat waves that swept across India in March and April also affected South East Asia. Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, which all recorded temperatures up to 44.6 degrees centigrade. All countries have suffered agricultural losses, citizens are struggling to find water, and wild animals are dying of dehydration.
The situation there is so bad that China released water from one of six dams on the upper Mekong river in April. These dams are thought to have caused a water shortage in the downstream region in the first place. China itself has not been immune to droughts, with at least 110 cities reportedly facing severe water shortages.
The worst recorded drought in Australia’s living memory finally broke after rain in January eased water stress in parts of Queensland. In May, rain finally brought relief to the country's northern region.
Researchers, however are concerned that Australia has underestimated just how bad its weather extremes can get. A recent study of an ice core in New South Wales has revealed that in the last millennium, the region had droughts lasting up to 12 years and periods of wet weather for 10. The longest drought recorded by humans in Australia was only eight years, during World War II, and the rest of the century too had seen milder extremes than there had been in the long term.
Scientists found similar results by examining tree ring data in British Columbia in Canada as well. They found 16 droughts worse than the standards scientists use today to declare droughts in Canada. While current standards are based on around 50 years of meteorological information, the tree ring study went back 350 years.
A massive forest fire that caused more than 80,000 residents of Fort McMurray to flee their homes early in May is still raging in Alberta, Canada. The cause of the fire was unusually dry and warm conditions triggered by the El Niño. Temperatures were almost 100% above normal. In 2015, Canada got only 65% of its long-term average rainfall. Contrast that with India’s southwest monsoon, which ended in October at 86% of the long-term average.
The worst drought in the history of California in the United States has only just about broken its grip, with snow finally falling in its Sierra Nevada mountains. State administration, however, has no plans of easing water restrictions and instead made some of its emergency water cuts permanent in an announcement on May 9.
A two-year drought in south east Brazil just ended after heavy rain in January finally replenished reservoirs there. The drought, which was Brazil’s worst in 80 years, led to severe water shortages in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, two of the largest cities of the southern hemisphere.
Like India, large parts of Venezuela have been drought-hit for three consecutive years. As it happens, Venezuela is also one of the worst affected by the Zika virus in its surroundings, as an article in The Atlantic points out. How does the virus spread? Through mosquitoes that breed in stored water – being used to slake thirst.
In January, Venezuelan water minister Ernesto Paiva announced an “extraordinary plan” to tackle the water shortage. These "extraordinary" measures include rationing water, preventing pipeline leaks and ending illegal water use. There is no indication of how well they have worked.
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