Burning Earth

by Bill McKibben

California Drought Dries Up Bay Area Reservoirs

At Burning Man in the desert, where the proprietor of this blog, and Grover Norquist, and a lot of other people are gathered this week, they had a rare heavy rainfall, which “intensified the misery of people waiting in the will call lines” at the box office. That A similar soaking in the Mojave Desert meant that the area of California under severe drought conditions fell last week from 97.5 to 95.4%, but the effect of the ongoing record aridity keeps magnifying. On the grossest scale, the region has now lost 63 trillion gallons of groundwater, which weighs about 240 billion tons, which has caused the state’s mountains to grow half an inch taller.

But the drought in California is probably not the worst such crisis underway on the planet at the moment, in part because California is rich. In Central America last week Guatemala became the latest country to declare a state of emergency, as the worst drought in decades wreaks havoc with bean and corn crops. According to the AP:

In Guatemala, about 170,000 families lost almost all of their crops, while in El Salvador crops have completely been lost in two-thirds of the country.

In Nicaragua, where the drought has killed more than 2,500 cattle and left 600,000 people in a state of malnutrition, the government is asking international food agencies to help it feed 100,000 families in parched areas.

Gang violence is doubtless sending Central American children north to the border. Doubtless the drought is playing its part too. Drought, being slow-moving and undramatic, tends not to catch our imaginations like flood or storm. But it may be one of the most insidious results of a changing climate. Research has shown drought on the increase as temperatures rise, and a study this spring made it clear that the world was in for more and more drought–none of that should come as a surprise, given the basic physics. But researchers have also found, over and over, that drought helps breed conflict, in places from Sudan to Syria. Given the increasing centrality of the Syrian conflict, it’s worth taking a moment to remember that, as Brad Plumer points out in this Washington Post interview with regional expert Francesco Femia, during the period from 2006-2011 up to 60% of the nation experienced one of the worst droughts in history. Femia:

This drought — combined with the mismanagement of natural resources by [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, who subsidized water-intensive crops like wheat and cotton farming and promoted bad irrigation techniques — led to significant devastation. According to updated numbers, the drought displaced 1.5 million people within Syria.

We found it very interesting that right up to the day before the revolt began in Daraa, many international security analysts were essentially predicting that Syria was immune to the Arab Spring. They concluded it was generally a stable country. What they had missed was that a massive internal migration was happening, mainly on the periphery, from farmers and herders who had lost their livelihoods completely.

So if you want to know why some U.S. military officials call climate change the biggest threat to national security, this is one of the reasons. As Admiral Samuel Locklear, head of US Pacific forces, put it last year:

“We have interjected into our multilateral dialogue – even with China and India – the imperative to kind of get military capabilities aligned [for] when the effects of climate change start to impact these massive populations,” he said. “If it goes bad, you could have hundreds of thousands or millions of people displaced and then security will start to crumble pretty quickly.’’

(Photo: A car sits in dried and cracked earth of what was the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir on January 28, 2014 in San Jose, California. By Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)