(Guest Post) Prolonged Drought is a Public Health Risk

This disconcerting map from a Texas cattle ranch called the Double Helix reveals rainfall from 1950 to 2011. Just so we're clear that this isn't a "typical" drought. (Image copyright David M. Hillis, UT Austin)

If you’re a Weather Channel fan or live here in Central Texas, then you may have noticed that we have had a lot of rain lately. The ground in my backyard is still soft in places, the weeds are vibrant, and the aquifer levels are reportedly up.

Some folks are inclined to think the $7 billion drought is ending and up in Austin the word is that ours has been downgraded from an “extreme drought,” but I’ve lived long enough to know that we can’t ever predict what Mother Nature will do next. Yes, “climate change” is always happening, and I do worry that we humans tend to press the “fast-forward button” on it too much.

Coincidentally, my friend Sarah Lovinger, M.D. (@ClimateMD) is concerned about these sorts of weather issues, climate change, and public health. She offered to do a guest post along those lines, and I said, “Sure.” (Thanks, Sarah.)

Last summer’s record-breaking drought brought economic hardship to many Texas ranchers. But could prolonged drought be hazardous to human health? For researchers concerned about the public health risks of climate change, drought forecasts for this century have serious health implications.

The climate change model predicts that precipitation patterns worldwide will continue to change, with dry areas becoming dryer, and wetter regions of the world experiencing stronger and more intense storms. While Texas may have experienced an historic drought in 2011, this sort of very dry period could become a more common weather phenomenon. Ongoing drought, year after year, could eventually damage our food supply.

Wilson Country cattle rancher Ty Keeling as photographed by Jerry Lara for the San Antonio Express-News.

That’s exactly what is happening in many resource-poor parts of the globe. Many regions of Africa and Asia are already becoming dryer as precipitation patterns shift. Prolonged drought can impair crop growth and reduce fresh water supplies. The combination of prolonged drought leading to dryer, less nutrient-rich crops and diminished water supplies can present insurmountable challenges to farmers in the developing world. Sustenance farmers who generally struggle to feed their families in good times may not survive a prolonged drought.

Drought brought on by climate change has become a major public health issue in the developing world. Poor crop yields due to high heat—extremely hot weather both stunts crop growth and depletes the nutritional value of staple crops—can lead to malnutrition and even starvation. In a prolonged, severe food shortage, children age 5 and under comprise the most vulnerable cohort. Babies and young children receiving inadequate food supplies face an increased risk of malnutrition, leading to an impaired immune system and neurologic damage, and a much higher risk of early death.

Lack of fresh water also puts people at risk. Poor water supplies not only impair crop growth, but also can endanger people in other ways. Consumption of contaminated water can increase, along with deadly diarrheal illnesses contracted from drinking dirty water, and people living in conflict zones may put themselves at risk by venturing far from refugee camps in search of water on a daily basis.

Back at home, life in Texas hardly matches these sorts of doomsday scenarios. Despite the 2011 drought, Texans live in communities with plentiful supplies of food and water. But most climate change scenarios indicate that prolonged, severe drought is likely to become much more frequent—and even the norm—in the next 20 years. The 2011 drought occurred in the context of a very dry decade. Climate models place Texas in a drought belt that seems to be worsening. Water will certainly become scarcer.

While no one is predicted mass food shortages leading to starvation in the Southwest United States, prolonged drought may change the Southwest, and Texas, in particular, in many ways. Agriculture and ranching depend heavily on water, and if water supplies are permanently limited, certain farming and ranching practices will no longer flourish in Texas. Both food supplies and consumption patterns could shift. Officials in February determined that rice growers in parts of Texas will not have adequate water to grow crops this year. According to a recent article in the San Antonio Express-News, “The Lower Colorado River Authority will not provide water to rice farmers in South Texas this year because Lakes Travis and Buchanan are still too low, the first time farmers will be cut off by the LCRA.”

Recent rains may have reduced the rice farmer’s concerns somewhat, but if drought becomes the norm in Texas, stories like this one will become all too common.

Explore More:
• Droughts, Water Woes Expected to Intensify (San Antonio Express-News)

From me, Pamela:

•  Ever heard of the Winter Garden? It’s a part of Texas where a lot of food crops are grown–and relies primarily upon irrigation for water.

• The most thoughtful blog re: environmental subjects in our area is Greg Harman’s Harman on Earth.

• All posts tagged “drought” here at RedWhiteandGrew.com. I especially liked the one with the Don Draper photo.

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4 comments

  1. NIce post, Sarah. It really looks like we’re headed for another dustbowl in the Southwest – yikes!

  2. Climate change affects more than just polar bears. We all need to know about how climate change is affecting human activities and human health.

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