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US drought: how it could impact food, water needs around the world

The effects of the widespread US drought could range from higher utility prices and industry costs in the developed world to population displacements and political unrest in less developed regions.

By Staff writer / July 19, 2012

Brothers Rodney and Rich Byars walk through a field of dead and stalled corn in Geff, Ill. More than half of the US is in drought, and the southern part of Illinois has endured extreme heat and very little rain for more than two months.

Robert Ray/AP

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As the historic drought now searing more than 60 percent of the US drags on, the impact could soon be sweeping across the country and beyond.

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After the obvious push on food prices, drought experts say the cascading chain of secondary societal effects will range from higher utility prices and industry costs in the developed world to population displacements and potential political unrest in less developed regions. 

“The US will see food prices go up, possibly we will see some items disappear from grocery shelves,” says Frank Galgano, chair of the Department of Geography and the Environment at Villanova University in Philadelphia, and an expert on environmental change and security.

“You will start to see more foreclosures in the farm belt as farmers and ranchers can’t pay their bills,” he says. “Those guys mortgage themselves to the hilt for their seeds and equipment, and if the crop doesn’t come in they are in trouble.”

That loss in turn undermines the tax base of a community which shrinks its capacity to fund every government function from schools to bridge maintenance.

On a global level, Professor Galgano points out that the US is the breadbasket for the world. The United Nations estimates that global food demand has risen 21 percent over the past decade. In the past month alone, the price of corn has risen 34 percent as a result of the US crop losses.

“We supply food to other parts of the world,” he says, noting that this allows many countries in arid areas such as Africa and the Mideast to use more fresh water for other civic needs. “This includes drinking water, so if food becomes more expensive and shorter in supply, water stress in those areas becomes more aggressive.”

“The governments must take more water for agriculture and less for civic needs. That is the global effect of drought in the US,” he says.

While many are quick to link this current drought system to long-term climate change, scientists at the heart of drought research suggest it is, at minimum, a wake-up call.

“Drought eventually can hit all sectors of the economy,” points out Brian Fuchs of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln

Drought is a part of the planet’s natural history, he says, pointing to tree rings that document devastating droughts in prehistoric times that displaced entire populations. Droughts will always be with us, he notes. 

High-profile events such as the drought now covering more than 1,000 US counties highlight the need for better monitoring, preparedness, and mitigation, says Chad McNutt, of the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) in Boulder, Colo.  

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