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Lake MeadAcross the globe, drought is strangling rivers, elevating energy costs and forcing populations into extreme circumstances. 

In the United States…

California is locked inside the third year of an historic drought projected to cost the state $2.2 billion by year’s end. With over 80 percent of California experiencing “extreme drought” conditions, the State Water Resources Control Board is considering issuing mandatory water restrictions to residents.

The implications of protracted drought go deeper than thirst or restrictions on when residents can wash their cars. There are also serious economic impacts that are already being felt. California produces almost half of all U.S.-grown fruits, vegetables and nuts and those crops are dependent on supplies of water farmers are now being forced to pump out of the ground. Surface waters have run dry, and so 62 percent more groundwater has been pumped than the yearly average. It has not stopped 410,000 acres of California’s central valley from going fallow due to excessively dry conditions.

Water is also a main source of power in the west. Pacific Gas & Electric owns over 100 reservoirs that feed into 68 hydroelectric stations. Of these, reservoirs in the southern Sierra Nevadas are at half their capacity. What mountain snow packs remain after 30 months of drought are not enough to generate power, which means that power companies must use alternative power sources like natural gas.

“If there’s less hydro, the power has to come from somewhere,” says Victor Niemeyer of the Electric Power Research Institute. “You have to burn more gas, and that costs more money, all things considered.”

After seeing its greenhouse emissions decline steadily after 2007, California’s emissions are back on the rise. The state is now paying higher energy costs for dirtier energy. Farmers are also adding to the overall emissions by using diesel generators to pump more groundwater to irrigate their crops.

And California is not the only western state to feel these effects. Lake Mead, which was created by the Hoover Dam in 1938, is now at the lowest ebb in its history. The waters have slid 130 feet from their peak in year 2000, and the Bureau of Reclamation is predicting a shortage in 2017. Over 40 million people (or 13 percent of the U.S. population) depend on Lake Mead for their water and power.

In India…

A country renowned for its torrential monsoons is experiencing drought in its northern region. The situation has become so dire that armed bandits have descended on the city of Lucknow threatening to kill hundreds of villagers if their demand is not met.

Their demand? Thirty-five buckets of water a day.

Villagers are complying with this “water tax,” though the area has been drought-stricken since 2007.

“Water itself is very scarce in this region,” says Suresh Kumar Singh, an officer in Banda, a city on the southern border of central Uttar Pradesh. “Villagers can hardly meet their demand.” In a normal year, the villages in the area would experience about 52 days of rain. In recent years, that number has been cut in half.

Uttar Pradesh state is known as “bandit country” in India, though Singh mentions that the “bandits” are usually after water, food or shelter.

In China…

China is experiencing a drought of its own making, and gradually dividing its own country in the process.

Containing about 20 percent of the world’s population, China has access to only 7 percent of its fresh water, the majority of which is located in the southern half of the country and much of which has been rendered undrinkable due to pollution.

China’s seemingly exponential growth has transformed it into the second largest economy in the world (also its preeminent polluter), but this growth often outstrips the government’s ability to manage its infrastructure. As Sulmaan Khan writes, the “process of development in western China has mostly been ground-up – cities have mushroomed out of nowhere, almost entirely unnoticed by the central government.”

In recent years, drought has struck where urban development has been most extreme. In the northeast, construction projects are destroying the wetlands that feed the region’s groundwater. On the Tibetan plateau, a government initiative to poison a small burrowing mammal has had unforeseen impacts on the water supply. The pika were believed to destroy the grasslands they burrowed under, but the animal was in fact opening up waterways that allowed rainwater to percolate into the soil and prevent erosion. Now that the pika is gone, so is the water.

Through grassland degradation, pollution and destruction of headwaters, China has steadily lost its ability to adequately hydrate its population. The plan is now to divert the more plentiful waters of the south into the north, but this is a limited solution that only serves to increase tensions between the two halves of the country.

Sulmaan Khan writes, “Already, in southern places like Chongqing and Yunnan, one hears a growing complaint: Why should we southerners go thirsty so that the northerners can grow rich? As southern crops fail and people there feel the burden of water shortages, such complaints will only increase.”

If pollution and development continue unchecked, it is not difficult to imagine southern Chinese demanding their own 35 buckets of water.

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  1. […] California’s central valley, where surface water have run dry. Farmers are pumping an estimated 62 percent more groundwater to irrigate their crops than in average years, but 410,000 acres have already been […]

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