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With the global population forecast to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, the question of developing effective means of matching the food supply with demand has been on the agenda prior to the Green Revolution. The inability of conventional agriculture to achieve the necessary 70-100% increase in productivity to feed the world by 2050 is worrisome. Rising to the challenge, scientists and agricultural giants have turned their attention to soil- the most complex ecosystem on earth- and its humble microbes to boost crop yields. 

There are around 50 billion microbes in a spoonful of soil. The soil microbiome, consisting largely of bacteria and fungi, greatly influences plants by forming associations with their roots. The zone of soil which fosters interactions between microorganisms and plant roots is known as  the rhizosphere. Here, symbiotic relationships, crucial to the health of crops, are formed.

In 1888 Martinus Beijerinck isolated a type of symbiotic bacteria called rhizobium, which has been implemented into farming practices to boost crop yields as a natural nitrogen fertiliser ever since. Rhizobium colonises roots of legumes, forming characteristic nodules, and turns nitrogen from the air into a ‘bioavailable’ (easy for plants to absorb) form in the ground – a process known as nitrogen fixation. 

Microbes in the soil help to boost crop yields in a variety of ways. They are critical to nutrient cycling, particularly of phosphate, which is essential to crops and cannot be manufactured. There are bacteria which produce antibiotics that defend plants from harmful bacteria and some directly stimulate growth through phytohormones. Others induce epigenetic changes, meaning that they alter the physiology of a plant to the point of modifying its gene expression, making plants more productive and resilient to changes. 

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Microbes also provide plenty of indirect support. For example, they improve water retention by aggregating into sticky colonies called biofilms, which coat soil particles and trap the moisture within while simultaneously creating a fluffy, optimally-structured soil with tiny air pockets.  

Even more fascinating are fungi, notably a specific type called arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF). AMF permeate the roots and the soil with long finger-like projections called hyphae, which act as extensions of the host’s roots, bringing in nutrients. Additionally, through this network of hyphae, collectively called mycelium, fungi protect crops against pathogens, reduce the impact of pollutants and offer greater resistance to environmental changes such as water stress, soil temperature, pH and more. In productive soil, the mycorrhizal mycelium is very developed and serves as a means of sophisticated communication and signalling between plants, like informing about any deficiencies in an area or sending warning signs of pest attacks. It can even increase plants’ resistance to pests. More than 90% of plants form some connections with AMF.  Inconspicuous AMF, themselves, can grow to enormous lengths. The largest organism on Earth is Armillaria ostoyae, a fungus spread over nearly 2 400 acres across the Malheur National Forest, US. 

As mentioned, such relationships of the rhizosphere are symbiotic, or based on reciprocity, meaning plants serve friendly microbes just as much in return. As Ben Brown, a researcher from Berkeley’s Lab working on the AR1K Smart Farm project, puts it, ‘they do an exceptional job of farming their microbiomes’, referencing how plants exude compounds to kill off harmful bacteria and provide carbohydrates for their allies to feed on. It is not far-fetched to compare the rhizosphere microbiome, in its role and importance, to that of a human gut microbiome. In fact, scientists involved in the project dubbed their microbial mixtures ‘soil probiotic’. 

In the early 1950s, Norman Borlaug created a high-yielding strain of wheat by genetically modifying the plant. This invention spurred experts and farmers to begin the Green Revolution, a large-scale effort to increase food production and prevent devastating famines in the 20th century. The use of new genetically modified (GM) crop varieties, requiring more nutrient and irrigation input, became the catalyst for the worldwide spread of intensive conventional agriculture. This meant extensive use of chemical fertilisers, a significant increase in water demand and the growth of monoculture cultivation. 

In Asia, the Green Revolution increased yields from 310 million in 1970 to 650 million tons by 1995. Despite a 60% growth in population over the same time period, wheat and rice became cheaper, caloric availability per person increased nearly 30%, and only an additional 4% of farmland was used. Because of these remarkable results, the predicted famine was prevented and in 1970, Dr. Borlaug was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. 

The momentary success of the Green Revolution is indisputable, but its legacy experienced today- land degradation, leaching and eutrophication, greenhouse gas emissions, and genetic diversity loss- impugn the idea of agricultural intensification as a viable solution.  

One of the problems with chemical fertilisers is that it replaces the soil microbes. When plants are simply given what they need, there is no incentive for them to form or maintain relationships with soil life, and so the network of connections disintegrates. Moreover, the cropping practices alone, for example tillage, impact the rhizosphere interactions. In the absence of microbes, crops rely solely on human imitation of their services, as it is done in industrial farming, which soon ceases to be economically or environmentally viable. Therefore, some of the world’s agricultural giants, like Monsanto and Novozymes, are investing in large-scale analyses of soil samples and testing out different mixtures of microbes to be used as seed coatings or soil amendments. As the aforementioned rhizobium, every microbe in the soil has a specific function. Hence scientists are trying out different combinations of microbes to find the optimum blend. In an interview for the Scientific American, these scientists expressed no intention of using GM organisms, but ones derived straight from soil. As a collective effort, 500 000 plots of US farmland were sown with seeds coated in 2 000 different mixtures of microbes in field trials unprecedented in scope. Increased crop yields were successfully obtained, and the companies predict that 50% of US farmland will be using some form of soil microbial crop aid by 2025. 

Healthy soils support healthy crops and produce high levels of soil organic matter (SOM) which stores carbon. Intensive industrial farming practices strip the land off of this organic matter. The buildup of SOM is very important, particularly at the time of global climate crisis, because it prevents carbon from being released into the atmosphere by keeping it in the soil instead. This and other forms of ‘carbon farming’, a recent article states, should be incentivised to decelerate global warming.

In summary, soil microbes not only boost crop yields but offer more resilience to the impacts of climate change. Hence, in answering the question of the future of posterity, the science points down to the soil with emphasis on ecological intensification. 

A report warns that the atmosphere above the Amazon rainforest has become increasingly dry over the past two decades due to human activities and is at risk of drying out completely. This could increase the rainforest’s demand for water and make it more vulnerable to droughts and fires. 

The study, published in the journal, Science, observed an increasing trend in a measure called Vapour Pressure Deficit (VPD) over tropical South America in dry season months. VPD is a combined function of air temperature and relative humidity and is a critical variable in determining plant photosynthesis. Higher VPD values indicate a decline in atmospheric moisture. This implies that the Amazon is likely to increasingly struggle to sustain its water demands, triggering more widespread and severe droughts. As a result, wildfire risk and tree mortality will increase, causing a significant loss of carbon over the Amazon basin

This has already been seen with previous droughts. After the 2005 megadrought, where more than 70 million hectares of pristine forests in southwestern Amazonia were affected, the most negative annual carbon balance ever was recorded in the region. This decrease can be attributed to extensive and severe damage to the forest canopy that was detectable by satellite. The older, larger, more vulnerable canopy trees were especially susceptible to dieback and tree falls. Even when rainfall levels recovered in the following years, about half of the forest affected by the 2005 megadrought – an area the size of California – did not recover by the time the next major drought began in 2010.

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Furthermore, during the 2015 Amazonia drought, the highest VPD since 1979 was recorded. Similar values that are well beyond the scope of natural variability have been observed across the last decades, insinuating a human influence. The researchers suggest that elevated levels of greenhouse gases account for approximately half of the increase in atmospheric dryness. Other influencing factors are unclear, but burning of rainforest biomass for agriculture that causes widespread land-cover change, is thought to be another predominant cause. Satellite data taken in 2018 revealed that an area of Amazon rainforest roughly the size of a football pitch is now being cleared every single minute. 

Dr Armineh Barkhordarian from the University of California and lead author of the study said, “We observed that in the last two decades, there has been a significant increase in dryness in the atmosphere as well as in the atmospheric demand for water above the rainforest. In comparing this trend to data from models that estimate climate variability over thousands of years, we determined that the change in atmospheric aridity is well beyond what would be expected from natural climate variability.”

Higher VPD levels are concerning as the Amazon rainforest- commonly coined ‘the lungs of the Earth’- is critical in regulating the global climate. The multitude of flora found in tropical forests enable them to extract half of the atmospheric carbon dioxide via photosynthesis – thus helping to reduce levels of this greenhouse gas and help mitigate global warming. 

In addition, the Amazon basin plays an important role by regulating rainfall in the region. It cycles water between the forest and the atmosphere via rainfall and transpiration of leaves, leading to a freshwater ocean in South America – the rivers and groundwater – that maintains rainfall in the southern agricultural regions of the continent. However, the Amazon rainforest is extremely vulnerable to increases in atmospheric drying and warming, as they are thought to produce up to 80% of their own rainfall. A decrease in atmospheric moisture, combined with an increase in global temperatures, decreases the ability of the Amazon to regulate its rainfall, thus increasing the vulnerability of major Brazilian cities to water shortages

Will the Amazon rainforest survive?

The dire potential situation has highlighted the need for a greater focus on halting deforestation in the Amazon basin, in conjunction with decreasing emissions of greenhouse gases. Both will help decrease VPD and hence reduce the potential risk of droughts and the associated threat of wildfires and tree mortality. It has never been more critical to address this drying out issue because if the Amazon forest is lost, the crucial ecosystem services it provides will also be lost.

Featured image by: Anna & Michal

A megadrought is an extreme and prolonged drought that lasts for 20 years or longer. Human activities, such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation, trap more energy from the sun in the atmosphere and are playing a critical role in exacerbating the drought, consequently drying the Southwest areas of the US.

What causes a megadrought?

Radiative forcing is one of the causes of a megadrought, which occurs when the Earth’s atmosphere captures more energy from the sun. The more energy retained in the atmosphere, the higher the rate of water evaporation. 

Physical Risk

Droughts are one of the most expensive natural disasters, and it is estimated that the average annual loss in the US in 2018 was between USD$10 billion and $14 billion. There are few studies that have estimated the monetary losses to the agricultural sector caused by drought. Among these studies, one suggested that the megadrought in the US from 1988 to 1989 had caused the loss of crops worth $15 billion. Analysts at the University of California evaluated the economic impact of the California drought on the US’s agricultural sector from 2014 to 2016 (the most recent megadrought). They disclosed significant losses in crops, dairy products and livestock, as well as additional groundwater pumping costs, with a combined loss of approximately $3.85 billion. At the same time, some researchers have disclosed that the reduction in crop yields has led to higher crop prices to try and offset the loss from this drought on agricultural revenue.

Efforts to Mitigate Physical Risk

International Water Management Institute (IWMI)’s efforts to support nations and regions preparing for climate shocks (such as a megadrought) involve enhancing farmers’ resilience. In recent years, the Institute developed an index-based flood insurance (IBFI) product to compensate farmers whose crops have been ruined as a result of floods.

The technology uses satellite data and modelling tools to estimate when the depth and duration of flooding exceeds predefined limits, triggering automatic payouts. Between 2017 and 2019, the IBFI scheme supported insurance payouts in India ($22 000) and Bangladesh ($31 500) to 1 306 out of 2 300 eligible farming households, increasing their resilience to floods and minimising their vulnerability to natural hazards.  A new trial seeks to build on the success of IBFI by bundling SMS-based weather information, advice on crop and water management methods, and fertilisers together with the insurance product. The trial covered 1 000 households, of which 450 benefited from an insurance payout of $12 500 each.

How Unilever is Mitigating its Water Risks 

Unilever is one of the largest fast-moving consumer brand companies in the world with over 400 different brands in almost 200 countries. Unilever is currently focused on creating ‘sustainable products’ for their consumers, and their vision is ‘to make sustainable living commonplace’. They created the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan to realise this vision. Unilever identified key issues and topics on a materiality matrix, and prioritised them based on current stakeholder importance and short-term business impact.

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megadrought
Unilever’s materiality matrix, ranking their priorities based on current stakeholder importance and short-term business impact (Source: Unilever Materiality Matrix 2019/2020.

Unilever set three general goals: Improving health and well-being for more than 1 billion, Reducing environmental impact by half and enhancing livelihoods for millions. To improve its water usage, Unilever has pledged to halve the water associated with the consumer use of its products by 2020 and maintain the water abstraction levels for production at or below 2008 levels by 2020. In 2019, they exceeded their second goal, where the water abstraction levels are 47% lower compared to 2008. However, they failed to meet the first goal to halve consumer water consumption- water consumption is actually 1% greater in 2019 than in 2010.                       

Unilever’s manufacturing department does an exemplary job of meeting these goals. However, their products department greatly lags behind to meet these goals. Even though the manufacturing department does not pledge to halve manufacturing emissions, water consumption or waste, it does so for all three areas. The explicit goals for the products department to halve product emissions, water consumption and waste are more difficult to achieve. However, the product department fails to even maintain the level of emissions and water impact at 2010 levels. Unilever needs to address these product department weaknesses to better align with their vision to make sustainable living commonplace.

What Governments Are Doing to Mitigate Water Risk

In 2017, the US government developed a Global Water Strategy to aid the global water crisis. The strategy contains four main strategic objectives revolving around conserving and providing clean water sources to countries with high water risk.

The first objective is to promote sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation services, and to adopt key hygiene behaviours. The US aims to increase the amount of sources for safe drinking water and sanitation, while decreasing the mortality rate related to unsafe drinking water and unhygienic living standards.

The second objective is to encourage the sound management and protection of freshwater resources. This strategy primarily addresses physical water risk, in particular, flooding and groundwater deficiency. The US aims to support access to water supplies and protect ecosystems that provide these water supplies. It also focuses on improving preparedness for water-related disasters such as floods and megadroughts. 

The third objective is to reduce conflict by promoting cooperation on shared waters. This strategy aims to resolve the issues of river basins and aquifers shared between multiple countries without formal agreements. This is done by increasing mediation activities between such countries through the creation of  designated institutions to address these issues.

The last objective is to strengthen water sector governance, financing and institutions. This is done by improving upon environmental policies, building partnerships with other international organisations to support the development of water resources and increasing the amount of private and public resources mitigating water issues.

The US government has set various approaches to fulfil these four strategies. Most notably, it plans to use its scientific and technical expertise to assist countries that require the most assistance for countering water risk. It also plans to mediate with governments and organisations to better understand the needs of the community while raising funds necessary for  supporting the development of water and sanitation infrastructures. 

The strategy lists 13 ‘High Priority Countries’ that have high levels of water risk and assistance needs. Such countries include Afghanistan, Haiti, Indonesia and Uganda. The US will focus their attention on these countries, and have deliberated country-specific plans to better help these countries.

However, there are potential difficulties and risks that should be addressed. This is especially apparent for the third objective, where the US aims to reduce conflict by promoting cooperation on shared waters. It is extremely difficult for countries to agree and share water resources, especially in high-risk countries. Even if the US government is able to bring the conflicting parties together to discuss, it is unlikely that a formal consensus can be made immediately. In fact, greater conflict may arise when the two parties discuss formal conditions for cooperation. 

Drought and Climate Change

China suffers from both too much as well as too little water due to climate change. Southern parts of China and coastal cities are often flooded from typhoons, storm surges or river/pluvial floods while certain areas experience extreme drought; for example, the middle and the lower reaches of the Yangtze River is characterised by alternating periods of drought followed by floods.

Over-extraction of groundwater and falling water tables are significant problems in China- there is an average annual groundwater depletion rate of more than 10 billion cubic metres and water resource usage is set to peak in 2030 when the population also peaks. Groundwater extraction can lead to land subsidence- 60 000 sq kms of the ground surface in the country has sunk, with more than 50 cities suffering from severe land subsidence. Further, Asia’s ten largest rivers, including the Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong and Ganges, are fed by seasonal melting, which is being affected by the climate crisis.

Existing drought models are very simplistic and therefore lead to wrong predictions. Moreover, rainfall data is not collected in most regions in Asia. It is therefore very difficult to make any drought analysis on a meaningful grid case. Intensel Limited, an Asia startup focusing on physical climate risk assessment and predictions, models drought using a combination of several factors including snowmelt and other climate variables. In addition, Intensel’s dynamic climate models and AI technology is able to generate missing historical data, for example, granular rainfall data. Organisations such as these are vital, as the climate crisis is making these predictions even more difficult with changing trends, increasing variation of weather. 

This post was written in collaboration with Entela Benz, Adjunct Associate Professor at HKUST and CEO of Intensel.

Zimbabwe, once considered the ‘breadbasket’ of Africa, is facing man-made starvation as more than 60% of its population is now considered ‘food insecure’. UN official, Hilal Elver, has warned that factors such as poverty, agricultural mismanagement and corruption will  make this crisis worse.  

In Zimbabwe, there are 5.5 million people facing food insecurity in rural areas due to irregular weather patterns that have impacted harvests and 2.2 million people in urban areas due to lack of access to basic public services, including healthcare and safe drinking water. The impacts of this man-made starvation in Zimbabwe have affected the population unequally, with children and women shouldering the brunt of the burden; children are suffering from severe malnutrition, affecting the child mortality rate, which in  2018, was at 46.2 deaths per 1 000 live births. There has also been an increase in the number of women being forced into early marriage and sex work

How does war cause hunger?

While famines may entail starvation, starvation can occur without famines due to extreme levels of poverty. They can take place even when the local and overall food supplies are competent. Most hunger crises and famines have been man-made and have happened due to civil disturbance, inequitable social systems, food speculation (betting on food prices), and more. Therefore, it is important to focus on and understand the many human factors  that contribute to starvation in populations.

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According to the World Bank, Zimbabwe is facing a disastrous economic crisis. Part of it can be attributed to a severe drought and cyclone in 2019 that disrupted agricultural production. Inflation levels reached 230% in July 2019, with food prices rising 319%. The country’s GDP contracted 7.5% in 2019. Extreme poverty, defined as living on less than 1.90 USD a day, spiked in 2019, rising from 29% to 34% in 2018 due to a sharp rise in prices of food and other necessary commodities. Poverty in Zimbabwe is a result of a shrinking economy and hyperinflation. Declining GDP dampens economic activity and increases job losses and inflation levels, decreasing the value of money and eroding real disposable income. Therefore, poverty, food prices and starvation are intimately linked. Hunger is often referred to as the most severe indication of poverty and millions of people suffer from it and malnourishment because they simply cannot afford food.

The Finance and Economic Minister of Zimbabwe, Mthuli Ncube, has promised a meal subsidy of 180 million Zimbabwean dollars- roughly USD$500 000- a month in an effort to keep the price of maize meal low and stable to ensure its accessibility to the public. Furthermore, their social protection program is to be extended to include more basic necessities to soften the blow of the hyperinflated prices being charged by businesses. 

While this is a respectable effort in trying to combat this crisis, its effects may be diminished due to the reintroduction of the Zimbabwean dollar into the economy; in 2009, the country abandoned its local currency after hyperinflation made it essentially worthless. It was replaced by multiple currencies to conduct daily transactions, the most popular ones being the US Dollar and the South African Rand. This decision has further contributed to soaring inflation. Economists have accused the government of not holding enough foreign currency reserves and have advocated going back to the US Dollar to manage the high prices. Official foreign currency reserves are held to support a range of goals. These include limiting shocks by maintaining foreign currency liquidity during a time of crises, such as emergencies and natural disasters, when borrowing may be disrupted, and demonstrating a backing of their domestic currency with foreign assets. The president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has rebuked the criticism, banning the use of foreign currency in the country. Mnangagwa has justified his decision, saying that “Zimbabwe has gone back to normalcy, and the normalcy is a country having its own currency.” 

The country has received £49 million of UK aid to fund a new humanitarian and resilience program which is to last until September 2022. This is to help malnourished children and families have access to food and water during this food crisis. During the year of 2019/20, Zimbabwe has received a total of £113.5 million from the UK aid support. 

As recommended by the UN official, the government needs to put in more work towards immediate reforms in its agricultural and food systems. The country needs to reduce its dependence on imported food, a dependence that has increased due to droughts, resulting in the Zimbabwean dollar losing 61% of its value since its reintroduction into the economy, and it’s predicted to weaken further. Furthermore, while Ncube has promised a subsidy to help provide maize meal, the government also needs to support alternative forms of wheat to ensure the population can have a more balanced diet. Lastly, they recommend working towards creating conditions necessary to promote self-sufficiency and preparedness to combat possible future climate shocks that may hit the country. 

Unfortunately, Zimbabwe risks walking towards a full-blown man-made starvation in the future. According to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) scale, 25% of its rural population was estimated to be in a Crisis or Emergency (Phase 3 and 4) in mid 2019. This number has  increased to 45% in the early 2020, with 34% of the population in phase 3 and 11% in phase 4. Without following the recommendations and taking necessary steps to combat this crisis, focusing especially on child nutrition, Zimbabwe will face widespread scarcity of food and enter Phase 5, which is Famine. 

Featured image: Ulrika

A study shows that within 50 years, a billion people will either be displaced or forced to live in insufferable heat for every 1°C rise in global temperature, illustrating that the human cost of the climate crisis will be far worse than previously believed. 

The paper, which examines how the climate crisis will affect human habitats, warns that under worst-case scenarios of increasing emissions, areas where a third of the global population currently live will be as hot as the hottest parts of the Sahara desert within 50 years.

Even in the most optimistic outlook, a rise in global temperature will cause 1.2 billion people to fall outside the comfortable ‘climate niche’ where humans have lived for at least 6 000 years.

Tim Lenton, one of the researchers in the study, says, “The numbers are flabbergasting. I literally did a double take when I first saw them. I’ve previously studied climate tipping points, which are usually considered apocalyptic. But this hit home harder. This puts the threat in very human terms.”

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The majority of humans have always lived in regions where the average annual temperatures are around 6°C to 28°C, ideal for human health and food production. However, this range is shifting and shrinking as a result of anthropogenic climate change, which is dropping more and more people into what the paper describes as ‘near unliveable’ extremes.

The researchers say that they are shocked at how sensitive humanity is, because we are concentrated on land- which is warming faster than the oceans- and because most future population growth will be in already hot regions of Asia and Africa. Because of these demographic factors, the average human will experience a temperature increase of 7.5°C when global temperatures reach 3°C warming.

At this temperature, about a third of the world’s population would live in average temperatures of 29°C, conditions that are rare outside of the most scorched part of the Sahara, but with global heating of 3°C, this is expected to be the norm for 1.2 billion people in India, 485 million people in Nigeria and more than 100 million in each of Pakistan, Indonesia and Sudan. This would create hundreds of millions more climate refugees and pose challenges to food production systems. In fact, David Wallas- Wells, the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming,” says that even at 2.5°C warming, the world would enter a global food deficit- needing more calories than the planet can produce, mostly thanks to drought.

Professor Marten Scheffer, one of the lead authors of the study, says, ““We did not expect humans to be so sensitive. We think of ourselves as very adaptable because we use clothes, heating and air conditioning. But, in fact, the vast majority of people live- and have always lived- inside a climate niche that is now moving as never before. There will be more change in the next 50 years than in the past 6 000 years.”

The authors hope that their findings spur policymakers to accelerate emission cuts and work together to cope with migration.

In late 2018, the UN World Meteorological Organization warned that global temperatures are on course for a 3-5°C rise this century, far overshooting the Paris Agreement target of limiting this increase to 2°C or less by 2100.

According to estimates from over 70 peer-reviewed studies, Carbon Brief paints a grim picture of the world under 2°C, 3°C and 4°C temperature rise this century:

At two degrees, the melting of ice sheets will pass a tipping point of collapse, triggering flooding in dozens of the world’s major cities and resulting in a global sea-level rise of 56cm. It is estimated that that global GDP will be cut by 13%. 400 million more people will suffer from water scarcity and heat waves in the northern latitudes will kill thousands each summer; this will be worse along the equator. In India, there would be 32 times as many extreme heat waves, each lasting five times as long and exposing 93 times more people. This is our best-case scenario.

At three degrees, southern Europe will be in permanent drought. The average drought in Central America would last 19 months, in the Caribbean, 21 and in northern Africa, 60 months- five years. Those areas burned annually by wildfires would double in the Mediterranean and sextuple in the US. Cities from Miami Beach to Jakarta will be submerged by sea-level rise and damages from river flooding will grow 30-fold in Bangladesh, 20-fold in India and up to 60-fold in the UK. This level of warming is better than we’d do if all of the nations of the world honoured their Paris commitments- which only a handful are.

At four degrees, there would be eight million cases of dengue fever each year in Latin America alone. Global grain yields would fall by as much as 50%, producing annual or close-to-annual food crises. The global economy would fall more than 30% than without climate change, and we would see at least half again as much conflict and warfare as we do today.

While great strides have been made in terms of the plummeting costs of renewable energy and the increasing global divestment from coal, carbon emissions are still growing. It is important to decrease emissions to level and then bend the curve.

One way of doing this is through a carbon tax. However, a tax needs to be far higher than any of those currently in use or being considered; The IPCC has proposed raising the cost of a tonne of carbon possibly as high as US$5 000 by 2030; they suggest this may have to increase by US$27 000 by 2100. Today, the average price of carbon across 42 major economies is US$8 per tonne.

These numbers would shock even those most optimistic; if estimates are correct, then by the end of the century, a rise in global temperature will displace up to 5 billion people, nearly two-thirds of the current global population.

Featured image by: Oxfam East Africa

With many rivers dwindling and the groundwater in India nearly exhausted, an acute water scarcity crisis is underway in the world’s second-most populous nation.

Causes of Water Scarcity in India

Taps have run dry in India as millions of people brace themselves for the dreaded blend of extreme heat and water shortages during the summer. A combination of climate change, inefficient water use, and inadequate infrastructure has thrown India into a full-blown water scarcity crisis, forcing the government to create a brand new ministry–‘Jal Shakti Ministry’–to tackle the issue.

Water Scarcity in India: Statistics

This year, more than 330 million people are affected due to water scarcity as half of the nation’s land area grapples with drought-like conditions. 12% of the population, majority of them living in metropolitan cities like Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, and Hyderabad, are already facing the ‘Day Zero’ scenario, wherein most of their water supplies came to a complete halt. As many as 21 major cities including the national capital–New Delhi–is poised to run out of groundwater next year, according to a report by government-run think tank NITI Aayog. 

By definition, India now is a water-stressed country, where annual per capita water availability is below 1500 cubic metres. Half a century ago, it was 5200 cubic metres.

An assessment by the government indicates that the nation is gradually inching towards a calamity with the annual per capita availability likely to drop below 1000 cubic metres.

Climate change has pushed India’s climate towards extremes disrupting the quantity and frequency of rainfall. The country witnessed below average monsoon for the last two consecutive years. The North-East monsoon which provides 10-20% of India’s rainfall was deficient by 44% in 2018 as per data from the India Meteorological Department (IMD). This compounded the rainfall deficit in the South-West monsoon that provides 80% of the country’s rainfall, which fell short by 10% last year. Lower rainfall has reduced water levels in reservoirs across the country. During the first half of this year, 91 major reservoirs recorded 32% drop in their water capacity.      

Chennai, a coastal city of 10 million, had 55% less rainfall this year. The city went without rain for 200 days with its four water reservoirs turning into puddles of cracked mud causing the worst water scarcity crisis in 70 years.

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Puzhal reservoir in Chennai, India, has been reduced to a dry lake bed in just one year.

Unusual temperatures caused by climate change have made rainfall erratic with significant changes in monsoon patterns making droughts and floods more common in many parts of India. In 2015, a massive flood, spurred by unusually massive rainfall, devastated Chennai killing more than 500 people and leaving the city ravaged. Last year, flash floods in the states of Kerala and Karnataka caused distress while cyclones wreaked havoc in Tamil Nadu and Odisha.

India is rated ‘high risk’ in the Climate Change Vulnerability Index with major Indian cities are projected to experience a higher number of consecutive drought days with less rainfall in the near future. Changes in temperature, precipitation, and humidity will significantly impact the quality and quantity of water across the country, where water resources are also under unprecedented pressure from population growth, rapid urbanisation, and inefficient water use.

The water scarcity crisis is not unique to India. Globally, over 880 million people–about one in every nine people in the world–do not have access to clean water within 6 km of their homes. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) predicts that approximately one-third of the world population will face chronic water crisis by 2025.

Freshwater constitutes only 2.5% of the total water on our planet and much of it is trapped in icecaps and glaciers, making it inaccessible for us. In reality, a meagre 0.007% of the planet’s total water is available to feed its 7.7 billion people.

India Water Crisis: Solutions

To avoid the impending water crisis, India and other vulnerable countries need effective climate change adaptation strategies that reflect the importance of water management in reducing vulnerability and building climate resilience. It is also necessary to bring in technology to help harness water more efficiently and build long-term water conservation plans.

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