The world is facing unprecedented levels of drought.
In the U.S., nearly half the mainland is currently afflicted, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. The situation is especially dire in the Northwest, which is facing some of its driest conditions in over a century following a heat wave that killed hundreds of people.
No continent, except Antarctica, has been spared, according to the SPEI Global Drought Monitor.
In Brazil, the current drought is one of the worst ever recorded. Coffee production is expected to fall 23% this year, and low reservoir levels mean the country can’t fully utilize its hydroelectric plants, driving up electricity bills.
In Madagascar, drought has left hundreds of thousands of people malnourished, pushing the country to the edge of famine.
Drought — low precipitation leading to water shortage — has existed forever. But scientists say that rising global temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns are already leading to more frequent droughts and that the situation is likely to get worse.
In the last two decades alone, the United Nations estimates drought has affected 1.5 billion people and led to economic losses of at least $124 billion.
Water conservation has never been more crucial.
How governments are trying to reduce water use
Across the globe, governments are taking action to curb water use.
Bozeman, Mont., recently restricted lawn watering to two days a week. Mexico is releasing silver iodide into the clouds to stimulate rain. Maui County announced it will fine those who irrigate, water their lawns, wash their vehicles or otherwise use water for “nonessential activities.”
It’s too soon to know if these recent efforts will work.
The current drought has also added a sense of urgency to find longer-term plans to conserve water.
In Arizona, the state department of water resources has long been trying to reduce use of groundwater — which supplies about 39% of the state’s water — so that water returns to the aquifers at the same rate it is withdrawn. That effort is especially important this year, because drought is diminishing the state’s other main water source, the Colorado River.
But where to cut groundwater use has been a source of conflict.
In April, the state proposed rules that would require urban golf courses using groundwater to lower their use by a little over 3% — a “relatively modest reduction” in the words of the department director, Tom Buschatzke.