Whether you live in those parts of the US that are currently experiencing the worst drought in decades or not, the drought will most certainly affect you. Corn and soybeans, the commodity crops hardest hit by the drought are used in a huge number of foods and products, and their rising prices will have a ripple effect on the global economy and your budget.
Why has the recent drought got farmers so worried? More than 75% of the nation’s corn crop has been impacted by the drought, and 85% depend on rain for irrigation. As the Midwest suffers under extreme temperatures and lack of rain, plants are producing stunted crops or nothing at all.
The U.S. News and World Report points to three items in particular that will become more expensive in the coming year because of this summer’s drought: food (especially meat and dairy); gas (as ethanol from corn makes up an increasingly larger portion of fuel); and electricity (traditional power plants need a lot of water to run, competing with agriculture for scare water supplies). The economic impact could be as high as $50 billion.
Droughts may not be as visibly destructive as hurricanes or floods, but they are no less devastating a natural disaster. Without water, we can’t feed ourselves or keep our (conventional) power supply humming. And droughts can turn the land into a tinderbox ripe for wildfires like the Waldo Canyon fire Colorado saw earlier this summer, the worst in the state’s history.
Reporting from Florida, Earth Island Journal describes the effect that long-term drought has had on a local ecosystem:
The summers have been dry for years. And quiet. No chorus of frogs. No dragonflies. No mosquitoes. No rain. Mowers have been silent. The grass brittle and brown. Leaves crunched underfoot as I walked along our creek near Gainesville, FL. No water—only a bed of sand gleaming under the scorching sun.
University of Texas Professor Michael E. Webber talks about the effect that droughts have had on our power grid for the New York Times:
During the 2008 drought in the Southeast, power plants were within days or weeks of shutting down because of limited water supplies. In Texas today, some cities are forbidding the use of municipal water for hydraulic fracturing… And in the Midwest, power plants are competing for water that farmers want for their devastated corn crops.
If droughts were still as rare as they’ve been in the past, such problems might be weathered, but scientists predict that serious droughts like this summer’s will happen more frequently and with more intensity on a warming planet. And NRDC reports that most states aren’t prepared for this reality.
In many ways, the drought has sent us a message about the vulnerabilities of our food system and infrastructure. Who knew that it required so much water to turn on a lightbulb or eat a hamburger? The rising prices of those activities reveals the normally invisible service that plentiful water provides to our economy and well being -- as well as the importance of protecting water from both overuse and mismanagement.
Sustainable changes in the electricity and agriculture sectors are needed to cope with droughts of the future – supporting renewable energy and eating lower on the food chain limits both greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and water usage. You can also make a difference by using our green tips to conserve water at home.
The Science Behind the U.S. Drought, World Resources Institute*
Where’s the Water?, American Forests*
What Climate Change Looks Like, Drought Version, Sierra Club*
Electricity Generation "Burning" Rivers of Drought-Scorched Southeast, Scientific American