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The remains of cattle killed by drought litter the parched earth in Admitullu Jiddo Kombolcha, Ethiopia on September 18, 2009. (Photo: Zeresenay Berhane Mehar/Oxfam International/flickr/(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

UN Report Warns Earth at 'Crossroads' in Battle Against Global Drought Crisis

The publication warns that without urgent action, an estimated 700 million people will be at risk of displacement by the end of the decade, while drought could affect over three-quarters of the world's population by 2050.

Brett Wilkins

As United Nations and other experts gather in Côte d'Ivoire's largest city for a major conference on fighting desertification, an agency of the world body published a new report warning that humanity is "at a crossroads" in drought management, and that mitigation must proceed "urgently, using every tool we can" if the planet is to avert catastrophic consequences.

"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."

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) report—entitled Drought in Numbers, 2022—was released to mark Drought Day at UNCCD's 15th Conference of Parties (COP15), which began on Monday and will run through May 20, in Abidjan.

"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," UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw said in a statement.

"We are at a crossroads," he warned. "We need to steer toward the solutions rather than continuing with destructive actions, believing that marginal change can heal systemic failure."

The publication—which calls on world leaders to fully commit to drought preparedness and resiliency—reveals:

  • Since 2000, the frequency and duration of droughts have risen by 29%;
  • From 1970 to 2019, weather, climate, and water hazards accounted for 50% of disasters and 45% of disaster-related deaths, mostly in developing countries;
  • Droughts represent 15% of natural disasters but claimed the highest number of lives—approximately 650,000—during that same period;
  • From 1998 to 2017, droughts caused global economic losses of around $124 billion; and
  • In 2022, more than 2.3 billion people face water stress, while 160 million children are exposed to severe and prolonged droughts.

According to the report, unless urgent action is taken, an estimated 700 million people will be at risk of being displaced by drought by the end of the decade. By 2040, an estimated one in four children will live in areas with extreme water shortages, while droughts may affect over three-quarters of the world's population by 2050.

"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," said Thiaw. "We must build and rebuild our landscapes better, mimicking nature wherever possible and creating functional ecological systems."

"We all must live up to our responsibility to ensure the health of present and future generations, wholeheartedly and without delay," Thiaw added.

The new report follows an April UNCCD publication, Global Land Outlook 2, which details how humans have altered 70% of the Earth's lands from their natural state and degraded as much as 40% of the planet's non-ice land.

"The human-environment relationship must drastically change," that report states, "to avoid catastrophic tipping points whereby the human power of exploitation is overwhelmed by the power of nature."

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