Rising Drought Risks In The Era Of Climate Crisis

By Juliane Vatter 18 October, 2019

If climate change were a shark, water would be its teeth. Vatter from WWF shares warnings from their latest report

55mn people are affected by drought p.a. & 19% of large cities are facing high/very high drought risks; energy production is particularly vulnerable - 90% of electricity production relies on water
Private co's are not immune to drought - corporate losses driven by water risks now amount to >USD$30bn; businesses need to become water stewards & lead collective actions in river basins
Individuals can also help mitigate drought risks by demanding transparency from co's: ask whether they know their products' water risks; ask whether measures are being taken to reduce them
Juliane Vatter
Author: Juliane Vatter
As Water Stewardship Officer, Juliane supports the freshwater work of the WWF German office in Berlin and is responsible for the water management systems of companies within the agricultural sector. She monitors and evaluates water risk analyses of products and supply chains. Juliane holds a MA in International Development and a MSc in Social Ecology from the University of Vienna.
Read more from Juliane Vatter →

To those of us who live in developed regions, droughts & water scarcity seems to be a far-fetched problem to be concerned about. Not anymore – in the new report Drought Risk – The Global Thirst for Water in the Era of Climate Crisis, Juliane Vatter from WWF Germany details how droughts, exacerbated by climate change, has already and will continue to impact all areas of our daily lives – including water supply, agriculture, infrastructure, energy supply, the local economy, and the natural environment.   

To better understand how we can cope with the imminent crisis, we caught up with Juliane to learn more about her findings and suggestions.   


CWR: Congratulations on the publication of your latest report “Drought Risk – The Global Thirst for Water in the Era of Climate Crisis”. Could you kick us off by telling us why you chose to focus on drought?

Juliane Vatter (JV): Droughts are among the most devastating natural disasters on earth with far-reaching consequences for humans and nature. Each year droughts affect approximately 55 million people worldwide and with them their local water supply systems, their agricultural production, infrastructure, energy supply, the local economy and the natural environment. Droughts can directly lead to water scarcity, crop losses, local food shortages, and forest fires, or indirectly, to migration, unemployment and social unrest.

Each year droughts affect 55 mn people worldwide

The direct and indirect impacts of drought permeate all areas of our daily lives. And the fact that we are not sufficiently prepared to handle these challenges, as the world’s population continues to rise, is evident not only by the current disasters in Cape Town and Chennai – the drought year of 2018 shows that we in Germany are also clearly feeling the effects of global warming and are suffering from the consequences.

CWR: According to the report, 19% of large cities are already facing a high/very high risk of drought – clearly this will have impacts on sectors. Could you elaborate more on which sectors are most exposed and how?

JV: The sector most affected by droughts and water scarcity is agriculture. More than 80% of the damage and losses caused by droughts are incurred by this sector. That is not such a surprise, because water is at the heart of food production and agricultural practices are therefore highly dependent on weather conditions.

The sector most affected by droughts & water scarcity is agriculture…

…22% of global wheat production comes from areas with a high to very high drought risk

This can lead to crop failures, loss of livestock or rising commodity prices. Important staple foods such as wheat, corn and rice, which are very thirsty crops, are exposed to high drought risk worldwide. For example, 22% of global wheat production or around 123.7 million metric tons comes from areas with a high to very high drought risk. This is a problem, as the pressure on freshwater resources continues to increase due to the growing global demand for food.

But also, our energy production is highly threatened. Around 90% of the world’s electricity production is heavily dependent on water. For example, water is needed to generate energy:

  • in the raw materials industry for the production of fuels such as coal, uranium, oil and gas;
  • to farm energy crops such as com and sugar cane, and
  • to cool power plants and transport fuels via waterways.

Almost 1/2 of the world’s thermal power is produced in areas with a high risk of drought

43% of the total freshwater abstraction in Europe is used solely for cooling such thermal power plants. Already today, almost half of the world’s thermal power – mainly from coal, natural gas and nuclear power – is produced in areas with a high risk of drought. If coal-fired power plants will continue to be built, the water required by the energy sector in countries of the Global South would rise by 350% in Asia by 2050, 360% Latin America and 500% in Africa. In a world that relies heavily on water-dependent forms of energy generation, more frequent and more intensive phases of extreme droughts lead to acute failure potential!

CWR: Germany & Europe are used as case studies in the report. What were the key findings there? Are there any lessons to be learnt for Asia? 

JV: Although Europe has a long history of drought, the frequency and intensity of droughts in this century are unprecedented. Especially Southern Europe has to face longer and more frequent droughts, compounded by continuous global warming. Areas that are already suffering from water shortages, are likely to suffer even more in the future. Southern Spain, the border region between Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria, but also southern Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan are considered particularly vulnerable.

Extreme weather events will not remain isolated case but more & more probable as the earth heats up

Extreme weather events will not remain isolated cases. Rather, they become more and more probable as the earth heats up. Here in Germany, too, we will have to expect more frequent, if not regular, droughts in the future. Above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation characterised the drought year 2018 and had serious consequences. Lower harvests, field fires, limited feed supplies – farmers in particular were affected by the continuing drought in Germany. The after-effects of last year’s drought are still clearly noticeable in 2019. This year’s grain harvest has grown under difficult vegetation conditions, as the extreme drought of summer 2018 continued until sowing last autumn.

EU Water Framework Directive could serve as blue print for other countries

The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD), agreed by EU governments in 2000, is a holistic piece of legislation that aims to achieve good status of Europe’s freshwater bodies by 2027 at the latest – from our rivers, streams and lakes, to wetlands, transitional and coastal waters. Despite the need of Member States to seriously ramp up their efforts to reach the WFD’s goals, this framework could serve as blue print for other countries.

CWR: The report suggested that companies & the financial sector should play a bigger role in countering drought risks. Do you mind sharing with us more on this front and how the private sector could benefit from participating in such actions?

JV: Climate change manifests itself in water. As such, water is not simply an issue of risk. Indeed, understanding water represents one of the largest opportunities for businesses and investors.

CDP have reported corporate losses driven by water risks that now amount to >USD30bn

Over the past decade, water-related risks have consistently emerged near the top of the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report. With 70-80%, the private sector is the largest user of water. CDP have reported growing corporate losses driven by water risks year-over-year that now amount to over USD30bn.

Freshwater is at the heart of economic supply chains and therefore at the heart of economic value creation. In order to ensure their future viability, companies must deal with water in a sustainable manner. For the private sector, water is both a risk and an opportunity. Without it, businesses will fail. Water flows from corporate headquarters, through manufacturing facilities and complex supply chains, to the fields were raw materials are grown.

Businesses need to become water stewards—to go beyond water efficiency practices & lead collective action in river basins

In order to champion innovative solutions to freshwater challenges, businesses, every level of government, and local communities must collaborate to ensure water is responsibly governed and shared. Businesses need to become water stewards—to go beyond water efficiency practices and lead collective action in river basins around the world.

CWR: How about individuals? What can they do to make a difference as well?

JV: For individuals it is nearly impossible to change anything in regards of the occurrence of drought. People need to adapt and become resilient towards any kind of climate change related extreme weather events. In Germany, Central and Northern Europe, despite local droughts, there is still comparatively sufficient water available and these water resources are comparatively well regulated, for example by the EU Water Framework Directive.

A seasonal diet can also reduce the CO2 footprint of food production

However, we need to be aware of our water footprint and use our most precious resource sustainable. When buying food, be sure to give preference to regional and seasonal products. In this way you reduce the water risks associated with production and support our farmers. Seasonal foods are often fresher and require shorter transport distances if they are also produced regionally. A seasonal diet can also reduce the CO2 footprint of food production, e.g. when greenhouses do not need to be heated or cooled.

Think about your meat consumption. Meat and animal products have a very high ecological footprint compared to a vegetable diet. In particular, the cultivation of plants for animal feed is important. The fewer animal products land on the dining table, the lower the water and CO2 footprint.

Avoid food waste. With every food thrown away, we also throw the corresponding amount of water needed for production into the bin. Buy carefully and only as much as you need or can store well. Donate or give away any food that is left over and still fresh. Try to use everyday products for as long as possible. Can they be repaired or recycled? With every garment or electrical item that we throw away, tons of virtual water end up in the garbage.

Ask co’s whether measures are being taken to reduce water risks in their value & supply chains in a targeted manner

Demand transparency and responsible action from companies. Ask companies where their products come from and whether they know the related water risks. Ask whether measures are being taken to reduce water risks in their value and supply chains in a targeted manner. Speak to politicians. Ask the federal government and parliament – for example through your member of parliament – to protect water as a resource. Sign petitions to this effect and support organizations that are committed to water.

CWR: Looking forward, are you optimistic that stakeholders can come together to mitigate rising risks from droughts?

JV: I am positive that we can turn the tight. However, in view of the rapidly progressing global warming and the associated extreme weather events, we need to urgently implement wide-ranging and mutually complementary measures at all levels! This can only succeed if we act in a socially, ecologically and economically meaningful way – and as an expanding world population commit ourselves to sustainable water use.

“If climate change were a shark, water would be its teeth”

The international community must increase its climate contributions in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. IF CLIMATE CHANGE WERE A SHARK, WATER WOULD BE ITS TEETH. Therefore, water needs to become a priority focus issue for climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies

Further Reading

  • “Basin Winner”: A Sustainable Education Board Game – Managing rivers and balancing trade-offs can be difficult but ‘Basin Winner’ makes it a lot more fun. The game’s co-developer Zhiqiang Chen from Greencity shares more on pilots and next steps
  • Blue Peace Index 2019 – Water is a geopolitical risk. What is the real state of transboundary river cooperation? What are the best practices? Economist Intelligence Unit’s Matus Samel & Beth Warne introduce the Blue Peace Index (BPI) which explores these issues in 5 basins across 24 countries
  • Stormwater Recovery For A Healthy Sydney – Every drop counts. Star Water’s tech to clean and reuse stormwater keeps Sydney healthy plus saves water costs. Find out how from their CEO Christopher Rochfort in three case studies
  • Building Flood Resilience For Hong Kong – HK is the rainiest city in the Pacific Rim and with the threat of climate change, it’s heading for a wetter future. The Drainage Services Department’s senior engineer Patrick Chan shares the city’s strategies to improve flood resilience
  • Rising Drought Risks In The Era Of Climate Crisis – With agriculture and power most at risk from drought, what should businesses do? Can individuals push them to action? We sat down with Juliane Vatter from WWF as she expands from their latest report
  • 3 Takeaways From The Fortune Global Sustainability Forum – Green is growing up with innovations for food, renewables, plastics and more on show but as China Water Risk’s Woody Chan reviews in his takeaways, there are still gaps to be filled before “business unusual” really comes to life
  • Droughts: Misery In Slow Motion – Floods and storm surges are sensational disasters but the World Bank’s new report shows droughts can actually be more impactful. We sat down with their Richard Damania to find out more
  • Upgraded Water Risk Filter: From Assessment To Response – WWF’s Water Risk Filter has been upgraded, from expanded data sets & climate change projections to new response & valuation sections. Their Ariane Laporte-Bisquit highlights everything new
  • Have Investors Incorporated Climate Risks Into Portfolios? – Hear from WWF HK’s Jean-Marc Champagne & Sam Hilton on their new report that introduces climate change & financial risks to institutional investors, focusing APAC & the energy sector
  • Thirsty And Underwater: Rising Risks In Greater Bay Area – How will water & climate risks, including rising sea levels & droughts, threaten the already water-stressed Greater Bay Area (GBA)? CWR’s Tan & Mirando explain in their latest CLSA report and highlight companies’ failure in climate risk disclosures
  • Cape Town’s ‘Day Zero’: Where Are We Now? – Daily & agriculture water use restrictions and the return of rain have bought time but is Cape Town really past ‘Day Zero’? Ahmed Khan from the Department of Environmental Affairs shares his views & lessons learnt