Rain increased in some places, and desalination plants work in others. While some regions of the world began to recover from persistent drought this year, there also were more droughts and higher temperatures. In June, precipitation fell along the Mediterranean coasts and in the Americas and East Asia, but regions of Eurasia, Africa, and the Americas were still searching for solutions to drought amid record-breaking heat. 

Much of the world’s agricultural land suffered, particularly in regions of the Americas, Africa, and Asia, southwest and eastern regions of Europe, and in eastern Australia. Food insecurity came along with the drought to regions in Central America, South America, Africa, and Southwest Asia. Wildfires are big news again in 2023, and regions of southern France have restricted water as 10% of Europe faces drought. Flamingos that usually fledge in Spain’s Fuente de Piedra wetlands moved to other nesting grounds because the wetlands have run dry.

Drought in the United States

Meanwhile, in Arizona, an exceptional monsoon season has brought welcome relief after the driest April and May in history. But while reservoir levels are up, the long-term outlook is not so promising. For years, the American Southwest has been slowly descending into what is informally called a megadrought. Some researchers have proposed the alternate term aridification, because “drought” suggests normal conditions might return in the foreseeable future. 

Aridification is, in fact, expected to continue. On the positive side, aridification stops short of desertification, when fertile land becomes desert. 

Atmospheric rivers topped up California’s depleted reservoirs, but rain did not make it as far as Central Texas. By September, 15 Central Texas counties had entered the United States Drought Monitor’s most severe level of drought: exceptional.

Horn of Africa 

The crisis in the Horn of Africa has left tens of millions without water in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia, killing crops, livestock, and people after five rainy seasons in a row failed to appear. The region is experiencing the worst drought in 40 years, and an analysis has shown that the crisis was made  100 times more likely by climate change.

The Horn is a cautionary tale about the widespread violence, displacement, thirst, and starvation that can occur in the absence of a response to climate change. A bitter truth is that Africa contributes only 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the nations that emit the most did too little, too late, to save the subsistence farmers of the Horn. International response has also been hindered by disruptions caused by the invasion of Ukraine.

Responses to Exceptional Drought

In Europe, Spain has a long history of desalination. This year, the nation devoted €600 million to help desalination go solar. The new plants will support urban water reuse, reduce costs for farms, and lighten the burden on the aquifers upon which the Doñana National Park depends. One plant will be powered by photovoltaic cells floating in reservoirs.

Long a leader in water efficiency, Israel uses desalination to provide 75% of the nation’s water and reuses a staggering 90% of its treated wastewater for agriculture. Now it has begun to supply parched Jordan, the West Bank, and Gaza. Jordan will exchange power from a solar farm for Israeli water as part of the deal, and the tiny state of Bahrain will benefit from Israeli desalination technology. Israel has committed to building two large desalination plants, adding to the roster of five supplying the region’s growing population.

Arizona Still Limiting Construction

The states of the Colorado River Compact have done a great deal to increase water efficiency, but the rapid growth of Phoenix and its surrounding communities is outstripping water supplies. In response, Arizona is making the hard choice to limit new growth unless enough water can be secured to meet demand.

In Los Angeles, the largest water project since the Aqueduct is underway. Operation Next is a water supply program with the goal of recycling 100% of Los Angeles’ treated wastewater by 2035, thereby reducing water importation by 50% and sourcing 70% of the city’s water locally.

Drawing on Drought Facts

There are a couple of takeaways about drought from 2023. Water reuse can help supply what precipitation doesn’t. Being unprepared could mean catastrophe like the Horn of Africa is experiencing. And international cooperation and large-scale investment to prepare for water risk can foster stability, growth, and hope.