Drought in the Americas: Equal Insecurity?

The American media publishes dozens of articles everyday on what has been the worst drought in decades for the state of California. Photos of the changing Californian landscape have appeared in nearly every major news source. This media campaign has been so successful that it has inspired the state to reduce its water consumption by 11.5% or 27 billion gallons in the month of August alone. California’s drought stands in sharp contrast to that of Latin America’s, which has received considerably less media coverage and has yet to see much progress. This disparity in media coverage, however, is not indicative of the severity of the Latin American drought, whose security implications are in reality much more extreme than those of California’s.


The droughts in both regions have inspired discussion of their economic implications. For California, the drought will not make a terrible impact on its economy. The agricultural sector has been hit hardest by the drought, yet this represents only 1-2% of the state GDP. Farmers will need to reduce their crop size in the least profitable products, and if conditions worsen, increasingly reduce the cultivation of more profitable crops such as fruits, vegetables and nuts. Ultimately the economic impact of the Californian drought will be felt much more by small farmers than other workers in the economy of the state.

The same optimistic outlook does not apply to Latin America. Farmers across the region have lost their bean and maize crops, rendering their families with little to no income. The outbreak of coffee rust, a virus that plagues coffee plants, has exacerbated this situation, by eliminating any possibility for additional income. This virus has impacted over two million people in Latin America and caused over US$1 billion in economic costs, which could amount to over 500,000 lost jobs. The countries most affected by the drought, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, are already some of the poorest countries in region. The economic impact in Latin America is then much more dramatic and widespread than in California.

The food security implications represent the greatest divide between these two droughts. In Central America, 80-90% of the maize and bean crops failed and have left more than 2.8 million people without food. The government of Guatemala has consequently declared a state of emergency in nearly all of its regions, as 170,000 families are without crops. The issue of food security is so dramatic that India has pledged $200,000 in aid. In the rest of Central America, 120,000 families in Honduras, 100,000 in Nicaragua and 96,000 in El Salvador face food shortages. The United States has donated $10 million to the United Nations World Food Programme to address food security in the region more generally. Nicaragua’s rising food prices present the most extreme case, having quadrupled since this spring. The food shortages and rising food prices will have a profound impact on Latin America, as chronic malnutrition already presents an extreme obstacle for young children.

The state of California faces very different circumstances. Although the state has witnessed significant crop shortages, economists predict that food prices for supermarkets will increase by only 2.5 to 3.5%. Food security in California is thus much more stable than in Latin America, as crops are much more diversified, and farmers have turned to groundwater extraction to compensate for the lack of rain.

The excessive drilling for ground water, however, has put extreme pressure on the water security of California. This issue has escalated, as wealthier farmers have been able to buy drilling permits, inspiring a “race to the bottom” mentality. Such weak groundwater regulation poses a serious risk to future water supplies, as aquifers are unable to recharge quickly enough to match the rate of extraction. The effects of water security in California are disproportionately impacting rural communities. These areas do not have diversified access to water sources like those in metropolitan areas, which has required extreme rationing.

Although groundwater extraction is not as great of a concern in Latin America, water scarcity has instead encouraged mismanagement of reservoirs. The conditions in Brazil are some of the most extreme in South America, as Sao Paolo’s primary reservoir, the Cantareira system, has reached only 3.9% of its capacity. The governor of Sao Paolo recently asked to collect the remaining water in the reserve, despite minimal effort in conservation and water rationing. The conditions in Sao Paolo have similarly prompted officials to divert water from a nearby river system, which also provides for Rio de Janeiro and Mina Gerais. This situation has fostered a competitive environment between these states for gaining water sources.

These economic, food and water security issues represent differing consequences in the short term; however, these droughts will ultimately present equally devastating challenges in the future. Both regions will suffer considerably due to their irresponsible water usage, which is being extracted too quickly to be replaced. In addition, despite scientists’ recent discovery that climate change is not the immediate cause of droughts, its effects will make them much more extreme and frequent.

The droughts in California and Latin America thus both call attention to the need for smarter practices. In California, this change requires effective irrigation. Currently 80% of the state’s water is used for agricultural irrigation, which is oftentimes wasted in conventional techniques. A shift towards climate-smart agricultural practices would reduce dependency on groundwater and minimize vulnerability to crop shortages in the future. Latin America would similarly benefit from introducing these new irrigation techniques, but need further adjustments in their crops as well. Central America’s subsistence agriculture is dominated by maize and bean production, yet these crops require high water inputs. Introducing drought resistance crops would similarly enable higher resiliency in the future. With climate change’s inevitably longer, drier and more frequent droughts, these two regions must make adjustments to their current agricultural practices that have thrown into question their economic, food and water security.

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