Foreword: pandemics and droughts are not so different
2022 proves a challenging year for Disaster Risk Management. Hoping to leave the pandemic behind with its vaccination objectives, the logistical challenges and the exhaustion of the health care sector — not to forget millions of deaths or hurt victims —, spring came after a winter without snow.
With our societal focus on local, short-term, high impact disasters — earthquakes, floods, forest fires or industrial disasters — we face different problems if a disaster stays around for long periods of time, silently and slowly causing severe impacts.
Pandemics, droughts and increased poverty through inflation or war are among these types of long-term disasters. Rescue teams, dogs and trained men and women fighting a fire with the last technical equipment: they all remain unused if this type of disasters strike, of better said, slowly creep in.
Do you remember how the first weeks of the pandemic were memorable, with everyone applauding our doctors and nurses? With time, psychologists had to drop in, statistics on violence at home peaked and we proved to be difficult mammals to keep in a cage, even if we are in fact safe inside our pleasant apartments. Adolescents felt they lost their youth, with their anger leading to illegal parties and to additional work for the already stressed security services.
Droughts lead to a similar behaviour.
Suddenly a commodity generally taken for granted becomes scarce. What was freedom during the pandemic becomes water during a drought. Sharing and thinking about what the community needs suddenly becomes more important than having our car windows clean. We started taking a shower instead of a long relaxing bath and we leave gardens plants to die, prioritising other water uses.
We could say today’s “western” society finds it hard to share limited resources. And that’s exactly why training, alongside repeated explanations about the positive impacts our long-term behaviour, would be of the outmost importance to start growing this sense of collective responsibility and shared impact.
Apart from developing community sense to help solve the problem, droughts can also be beaten upfront: with good planning. Simple things like leakages in water pipes that must be found and repaired, creating conditions for additional reservoirs to appear, planting of drought-resistant trees or measuring the value the natural “capital” provides: it can all be done long before a drought strikes at a citizen-higher level.
Droughts occur every 20 years, at least with the previous climate. This implies that during our professional lifetime, we will experience two droughts. This is not frequent enough for most people to make it a priority to act upon, but climate change certainly requires us to act fast since 1 degree of higher temperature leads to much more than a 1 percent increase in water evaporation.
In fact, evapotranspiration follows an exponential increase above 20 degrees Celsius. With 1-degree climate change, many areas are already entering a different water balance and they would need to be replaced by different vegetation with reduced water consumption habits. We should, therefore, start revising everything: from the trees in our forests to the grains we cultivate or the amount of rainwater we can save in winter to user during summer.
Relevant public services should start to make inventories of the forests containing fire and drought prone tree types. Some local research is needed, but such work should be urgently started so that the shade of today’s trees can support seedling development.
Changing crop types is already happening to ensure the economy will keep running. This means the inventory of groundwater resources is the largest unexplored other opportunity to prepare better for the next drought. Such efforts should be combined with working to improve people’s worldview on the need to contribute to the protection of society as a whole and the natural world we deeply rely on. Moving away from burning something to generating renewable energy and reducing our meat consumption would be important actions to start with, which anyone can start doing already today.
Read the last update of the “Drought in Europe - July 2022” report, an assessment of Europe’s drought situation based on the European Drought Observatory.