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.

Robert Ray/AP
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.

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.

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.  

“There is a gap in how states are dealing with water supply issues, and they are all learning in real-time how to deal with them,” he says, pointing to such anecdotes as a Texas town that connected a fire truck pumping machine to a fire hydrant to supply field and drinking water.

The six-year Dust Bowl in the 1930s that hit the corn belt hard led to important changes, says Richard Sutch, emeritus professor of economics at the University of California, Riverside.

“The experience revealed an advantage of the newly-introduced hybrid corn varieties,” he says via e-mail, namely their drought tolerance. “Before this, hybrid corn was not selling well. Afterward adoption rates soared. Today over 95 percent of the corn planted in the US is a hybrid variety.”

But while technology has helped fight food shortages, tripling per acre productivity in just a century, experts warn much more needs to be done to mitigate the impact of drought. The United States needs to come to terms with the changing terrain of water, “and fast,” says Christiana Peppard, assistant professor of theology and science at Fordham University in New York.

Not just because, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton remarked on World Water Day 2012, “water is integral for well-being and can even pose a national security threat,” she notes via email, but because facing drought as "the new normal" means that the nation will have to rethink the way it conducts – and incentivizes – its agriculture.

It's not just the corn crops that might fail this year, she points out. The Ogallala Aquifer, which undergirds much of the corn belt of the United States and extends from Nebraska into Texas, has long been a primary source of water for large-scale agriculture.

“We've fed many, and offloaded many petrochemicals downstream. And where has that water for agriculture come from? It has often come from the Ogallala Aquifer, a source of groundwater that is non-renewable on any humanly meaningful time scale,” she notes.

Perhaps one outcome of this drought will be that we learn that the deep, non-renewable water in aquifers is what is keeping our agricultural fields saturated. But that water will run out.

“It's time to think wisely about where our water comes from, who puts what into it, where it goes, and who is responsible for it,” she says, "Fresh water is the most significant political, economic, and ethical problem that the United States and the world will face in the 21st century.”

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