The lessons of history, the deductions of science, and the knowledge base of the world’s farmers will be essential to cope with how climate change will worsen natural dry-wet cycles which have long posed a challenge to stable human societies, writes Vikram M. Mehta, executive director of the Center for Research on the Changing Earth System, in a post for the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).
What history tells us, Mehta states, is that the persistence of these cycles—especially when they stall at the dry end in deep and prolonged drought—“has consequences for water and food securities. This, in turn, can trigger insecurity that can evolve into full-blown armed conflicts at national and even international levels.”
Pointing to the ongoing trauma of Syria’s civil war, now generally understood to have been catalyzed by prolonged drought, Mehta flags a series of key questions about dry-wet cycles, warning that “everything we know about these cycles tells us to expect that they will worsen in this century due to climate change.” [A climate-conflict nexus in drought-stricken West Africa has also recently been confirmed—Ed.]
“We also know that each of the dry and the wet phases of the cycles are consequential,” he writes, “and that our shortsightedness during the wet phase worsens the impacts of the dry phase.”
But “the damage from these cycles is not fated,” Mehta adds, and “the heavy losses families, communities, and countries may experience can be minimized by taking some essential actions.”
Drawing on lessons he learned 12 years ago as a member of a research team determining how natural dry-wet cycles affect agricultural production in the Missouri River Basin, Mehta urges scientists to “develop models and methodologies which simulate and predict the impacts the dry-wet cycles have on the land, water cycle, river flows (hydrology), crop yields, and food production,” and their resulting impacts on socio-economic and political conditions.
After that, “each country should have in place a system to assess the information needs of farmers, water managers, government officials, and other related stakeholders.” Such information, says Mehta, “is needed to design and develop decision support systems to guide each of these actors in managing the land.”
And finally, because farmers will incur risk in “switching to new and better farming methods or options” in the face of prolonged and recurrent drought, “they need financial safety nets to avoid jeopardizing their livelihoods.”
Above all, “the importance of tapping into human factors when managing drought cannot be overstated.” Especially deserving of attention and respect, he declares, is that “farmers have an intuitiveness about dry-wet cycles and their impacts that comes from their own and their ancestors’ experiences.”
Dry-wet cycles “are a reality of our past, present, and future,” Mehta concludes. “And the past shows that the impacts of future cycles could have global political and social consequences if we delay action.”