UN warns drought could be ‘next pandemic’

Water scarcity and drought are set to do damage on a large scale to rival the COVID-19 pandemic with risks rising rapidly as global temperatures rise, according to the United Nations.

Drought is on the cusp of becoming the next pandemic and there is no vaccine to treat it, Mami Mizutori, the UN Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, said in an online news conference ahead of the report’s release.

Drought has already caused economic losses of at least $124 billion and affected more than 1.5 billion people between 1998 and 2017, according to a United Nations report published Thursday.

But even those numbers, the statement said, are likely «below the overall estimate.»

The UN report said global warming has now exacerbated droughts in southern Europe and West Africa with «some confidence». Mizutori said the death toll is set to «grow exponentially» unless the world takes action.

About 130 countries could face a higher risk of drought this century under the high emissions scenario cited by the United Nations

She added that another 23 countries will face water shortages due to population growth, with 38 countries affected by both.

Mizutori said droughts — like the virus — tend to last a long time, have a wide geographical reach and cause extensive damage.

«It can indirectly affect countries that are not already suffering from drought through food insecurity and higher food prices,» Mizutori said.

The United Nations expects more frequent and severe droughts in most of Africa, Central and South America, Central Asia, southern Australia, southern Europe, Mexico and the United States.

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Ibrahim Thiaw, executive secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that soil degradation, caused in part by land mismanagement, has brought the world close to a «point of no return.»

The United Nations has not looked at the impact desertification could have on internal migration within continents, but Thiaw said it is no longer out of the question, even in Europe.

«It is certainly a phenomenon that occurs in other parts of the world and may occur in Europe,» he said.

More than 40% of EU agricultural imports could become «highly vulnerable» to drought by mid-century due to climate change, according to a separate study https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021- 23584-0 published in Nature Communications this week.

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