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While wildfires, severe storms and floods cause short-term impacts that often grab the world’s attention, a drought that stretches over seasons or even years can be easier to overlook. Yet a new UN report shows droughts are just as deadly, and perhaps even more so, for their ability to stay under the radar. 

“Droughts operate in silence, often going unnoticed and failing to provoke an immediate public and political response. This silent devastation perpetuates a cycle of neglect, leaving affected populations to bear the burden in isolation,” writes Ibrahim Thiaw, executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, in the foreword to the agency’s Global Drought Snapshot released Friday.

The snapshot comes out as countries assemble to discuss climate change at the COP28 summit in Dubai. It aggregates harrowing statistics: Some 1.84 billion people around the world are currently drought stricken, according to UN data. The drought experienced by Europe in 2022 was its most severe in 500 years. And regional drought is expected to worsen through the 21st century, even if emissions are cut. 

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The facts highlight the growing need to cultivate a more drought-resilient world with measures such as sustainable land management, more efficient water supply systems and improved disaster insurance and preparation. 

Addressing the problem is “going to require multiple scales of action, from international cooperation to more site-specific place-based action. We have to strive to be proactive, not reactive, in order to reduce our risk,” said Abby Frazier, a climatologist at Clark University who studies drought. 

In addition to increasing human suffering through famine and forced migration, the economic impacts of drought are extensive. Last year, bodies of water from China’s Yangtze River to California’s Central Valley Basin ran dangerously low, threatening water supplies and transportation. The declining levels of the Mississippi River caused a backup of about 2,000 barges, leading to an estimated loss of $20 billion due to supply chain disruptions.

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Agriculture has arguably experienced the most severe cascading effects from drought. Grazing land in South Africa has declined by 33%, while Argentina’s soybean production this year is expected to drop 44%, the lowest harvest in over 30 years.

Drought impacts are often cyclical, burying already vulnerable communities in more food and water insecurity. Some 85% of people affected live in low- or middle-income countries. Women and children carry the greatest burdens from natural disasters, the report notes. Over the past 50 years, Africa has sustained $70 billion in drought-related economic losses.

At COP28, rich countries are under pressure to step in with more climate aid for developing nations. On Thursday, nations including the United Arab Emirates, Germany and Japan contributed at least $260 million to a fund that will help vulnerable countries deal with the effects of extreme weather. 

“Funding and climate finance needs a lot of good attention. Many countries know what to do, but what they need is the support,” said Daniel Tsegai, program officer at the UNCCD and one of the lead authors of the report.

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