Drought + food = instability?

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Drought + food = instability?
Photo of a sign that reads, “Pardon The Appearance of Our Lawns
A lawn in front of a California state agency building has been left to dry due to drought-induced water restrictions in Sacramento, 2014.

The California drought is cinching down: On April 1, Governor Brown announced the first mandatory restrictions on water usage in the history of the Golden State.

A winter with disastrously little snowfall after four years of drought forced the Governor's hand. The 25 percent cut-backs on residential usage come on top of long-term clampdowns on water for farming, which absorbs 80 percent of the state's supply.

In the midst of a drought that's being called the worst in a generation, California is speeding up a $1-billion package of water-infrastructure improvements.

And that got us to thinking. California grows, with help from a vast system of irrigation, the majority of many fruits and vegetables eaten in the United States. Drought has already cut production, and more is likely to come.

In 2013, the International Disaster Database reported that, drought killed more than 11 million people and affected more than 2 billion between 1900 and 20111.

However, as we'll see, drought seldom acts alone: Foolish or cruel government policies, and many other factors, can multiply the death toll. Let's look at some examples.

2012 chart shows California producing 99% of certain fruits in U.S., with many others produced in Calif as well
Severe droughts are affecting much of California, and parts of Nevada and Texas. ROLLOVER GRAPH to see 100-year history of drought in California. Positive values of the Palmer Drought Severity Index represent wetter-than-average conditions. A value between -2 and -3 indicates moderate drought, -3 to -4 is severe drought, and -4 or below indicates extreme drought.
Credit #1: U.S. Drought Monitor, credit #2: NOAA

Syria's suffering: Drought and civil war

As the Syrian civil war continues to chew up lives and spit out refugees, we hear evidence linking the uprising against the Assad Regime that started during the 2011 "Arab Spring" to the 2007 - 2010 drought -- and to global warming.

Those conclusions emerge from a new study2 by Colin Kelley of the University of California at Santa Barbara. "We found a very clear signal of climate change over the Eastern Mediterranean and the Fertile Crescent," Kelley told us.

Winter brings rain in Syria's Mediterranean climate, but the winter of 2008-09 was the driest in the last 100 years, damaging the domestic wheat crop. From climate models and weather data, Kelley and his colleagues concluded that climate change had doubled or tripled the odds of the severe drought.

Crop failures caused by three parched years in a row forced about 1.5 million farmers into the cities, joining almost as many refugees from the Iraq war. Between 2002 and 2010, Kelley says, Syria's urban population rose by 50 percent. "The government did little to ease the suffering of the displaced population," which became instrumental in the opposition to dictator President Bashar Assad.

Despite its semi-arid climate, Syria has enough rain to support substantial agriculture, albeit limited to the North and near the Mediterranean coast. But drought wreaked havoc on croplands with tight water resources between 2007 and 2010. Roll over to see Syrian rebels mounting a tank after nationwide protests against President Bashar al-Assad erupted into civil war in 2011. Drought-related crop failure and urban migration added stress to overcrowded cities, precipitating the continuing Syrian Uprising.

Droughts have forced past migrations, but population made a difference this time, Kelley says. "In a lot of this region, the population 40 or 50 years ago was a small fraction of what it is today, and that made a stronger demand for water."

Kelley concedes that we can't be sure climate change, acting through drought, caused the Syrian uprising. "It's impossible to know what would have happened in the absence of severe drought and without this huge influx of agricultural refugees. You could make the argument that it would have happened anyway. Syria was the last of the Arab spring revolts, and it already had overcrowding. We make the case that the drought pushed them over the threshold of resilience."

Egypt's agony

Egypt, another Middle-Eastern state trapped between vast deserts, also faced drought-related difficulty during the Arab Spring of 2011. In that year, growing conditions in China, Ukraine, Russia, Canada and Australia contributed to a wheat shortage, and the price doubled.

Egypt was then ruled by the aging autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Densely populated, corrupt and poor, it was the world's largest importer of wheat and did not have wheat or cash reserves to deal with the price spike. The rising price of bread fed popular discontent, leading to Mubarak's overthrow and the election of a Muslim Brotherhood government under President Mohammed Morsi. (Morsi was ousted in July, 2013 by the military junta that now rules Egypt. In April, 2015 he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for directing the arrest and torture of prisoners.)

Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat, so declines in wheat exports from countries like China and Russia have devastating downstream effects on Egypt’s bread markets. Rollover to see an Egyptian man wielding a pita bread during a Cairo protest against cheap wages and dear bread.
Credit: (1)Khan El-Khalili market, Cairo, by Héctor de Pereda, (2) Hossam el-Hamalawy

Troy Sternberg of Oxford University, who has studied3 Egypt during this period, does not argue that drought alone caused the Egyptian edition of Arab Spring. "We think of drought and climate change as threat multipliers. They are not usually the main cause of famine, but they show the fragility of the system. You push it somewhere, and it can break down, and it usually starts with poor government policy."

Corruption is always a factor in Egypt, Sternberg adds. "Mubarak's friends and relatives, the army, would profit from wheat imports, and money left country when the protests happened."

Before the drought, Egypt, prodded by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, had converted some portion of its limited supply of farmland to higher value export crops like mangoes and flower, Sternberg says. "When you give up self sufficiency, you better have a plan B, and Mubarak had no plan B."

China: Lessons from a history of drought

Artistic propaganda poster depicting Chinese workers from different occupations
"Brave the wind and the waves, everything has remarkable abilities, 1958 [translation]" 1958 - 1961: The Communist Party of China launched a campaign to transform the agrarian nation into a socialist industrial powerhouse. Propaganda artwork like this poster painted the Great Leap Forward as a vibrant, cooperative ride (note the rocket-rider in the sky?) to enter the modern era, but in reality, many millions died of famine.

Things were quite different in China, by far the world's biggest wheat producer, in the same period. China's government bolstered the food supply by expanding irrigation, trucking in water, buying large amounts of wheat on the global market, and even tolerating dissent. "China used its own versions of Twitter and Facebook as political-pressure release valves," says Sternberg.

Events within the memory of China's leaders had shown the danger of drought and famine. Between 1950 and 1990, natural disasters caused an 11.6 percent reduction in China's crops, with about 86 percent of the falloff was due to droughts and floods4.

The shortage peaked during the "Great Chinese Famine" (1959 to 1961), which showed how government policies turned a rainfall shortage into a catastrophe. In 1958, under the reign of the Communist leader Mao Zedong, the government initiated the "Great Leap Forward," which centered on a compulsory movement "back to the countryside" by city people who were supposed to establish collective farms and joyfully feed the people.

map of the Ming Dynasty with location on world map and surrounding modern-day country borders, along with Great Wall of China during Ming Dynasty years

To squeeze more food from the farms, the government set unrealistic goals and goaded hungry, resentful farmers. "The line was that 'There was a surplus, why doesn’t your area have enough food? It's obviously your fault,'" Sternberg says. With production over-estimated, peasants were required to ship more grain than they could afford.

Estimates of the Great Chinese Famine's death toll range from 15 million to 45 million. "It shows the power of a government, if it gets the policy totally wrong," Sternberg adds.

China: Collapse of the Ming Dynasty

China had plenty of earlier experience with the skein of connections between drought to famine. To tease apart the interplay of weather with famine, "political corruption, fiscal deterioration, food crises, popular unrests, border crises and wars," Chinese scientists5 examined detailed records on climate and history from the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644), and saw a big role for drought and cold weather in a long decline that started in the mid-1500s and culminated in a successful peasant revolt.

Composite graph of climate variability and socioeconomic/political evolution of the Ming Dynasty between the period of 1500 and 1650 AD when drought became important to the production of rice and drove up prices which led to political instability and a peasant revolt that precipitated the decline of the dynasty.
These researchers concluded that severe drought, frost and flood caused crop failures that shut down 2.9 million hectares of farms feeding garrisons defending against Mongol enemies north of the Great Wall. Finances deteriorated as the military absorbed 76 percent of the budget from 1570 to 1589. Between 1627 and 1643, the most severe drought since 500 AD helped trigger a peasant uprising that brought down the dynasty in 1644.
Credit: whyfiles.org, Adapted from Zheng et al. 20146

As the climate changes…

The past is ominous enough. What about the future? There are signs that climate change will damage food production by raising temperatures, spreading diseases and pests, and changing rainfall. Insufficient rain causes drought, but heavy rainstorms that seem to be accompanying climate change can cause runoff and erosion without effectively recharging groundwater.

The great American Dust Bowl

 1930s photo of a roadstop in Texas with a group of overall-clad farmers gathered out front
Droughts are no stranger to the American West, and the king of them all, in recorded history, is called the Dust Bowl. The droughts came in three bursts. In 1934, 1936 and 1939 - 40, rainfall plummeted, and high temperatures and strong winds whipped across the Great Plains. Years of heedless farming had left topsoil vulnerable to erosion, and the high winds blew dried soil into billowing dust storms. Crops in the Great Plains were decimated, compounding the Great Depression for many families. With nothing left, countless farmers left the Dust Bowl states in search of better climate and fortune. As depicted in The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck), a great many went to California.

Evidence linking climate change to drought and reduced plant productivity comes from a recent study7 of 2000-2009, the hottest decade on record. The study looked at net primary production, or NPP, which measures the conversion of the carbon in carbon dioxide into sugar through photosynthesis -- the first step of practically every food chain. Satellite measurements of leaf area and photosynthesis showed a 1 percent NPP loss in the decade, caused largely by these droughts:

2000: North America and China

2002: North America and Australia

2003: Europe

2005: Amazonia, Africa and Australia

2007-2009: large parts of Australia

In Syria, hot weather dried the soil, and groundwater was overtapped for farms. "In the past, they used groundwater as a buffer against dry years, but because of the population increase and the drying trend, they were pulling even more water out of the ground," Kelley says. California and the Southwest "are in a very similar situation. Groundwater has been running out, and there is less precipitation."

Nobody is anticipating a revolution in California, but the state's incessant growth (the population is now 39 million), may have to slow. Already, some crops are being moved to wetter areas, cities are learning to recycle wastewater and desalinate seawater, and residents are urged to replace thirsty grass with desert plants.

"The whole Middle East is the biggest food importer in the world," says Sternberg, and now that food is increasingly a global commodity, the long-distance effects of drought become even more grave. "If I were Saudi, I would worry about the California drought. If a production area for an important cereal has a 'climate event,' it’s as important as if it happened in your own state."

It's all a part of globalization, Sternberg says. "We talk about the movement of money, people, products across the globe, so it should not be a surprise that this can take place with climate and other drivers. Once you have interlocking networks, this is going to happen."

– David J. Tenenbaum

8 9 10 11

Kevin Barrett, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer


  1. World drought frequency, duration, and severity for 1951–2010, Jonathan Spinoni et al, Int. J. Climatol. 34: 2792–2804 (2014)
  2. Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought, Colin P. Kelley et al, PNAS | March 17, 2015.
  3. Chinese drought, bread and the Arab Spring, Troy Sternberg, Applied Geography 34 (2012) 519e524.
  4. How climate change impacted the collapse of the Ming dynasty, Jingyun Zheng et al, Climatic Change (2014) 127:169–182
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  7. Drought-Induced Reduction in Global Terrestrial Net Primary Production from 2000 Through 2009, Maosheng Zhao et al, Science, 20 August 2010.
  8. California Drought Means Higher US Food Prices On Almonds, Avocados and More.
  9. How much water is needed to make your food?
  10. The California Drought: How to Adapt.
  11. Turning Ethiopia's desert green.