Lessons From a Drought

As the UK swelters, what can we learn from the rest of the world?

By Justin Quirk
Published 27 Jul 2018, 13:55 BST
Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats comprise some 46 square miles of hard, white crust west of Great ...
Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats comprise some 46 square miles of hard, white crust west of Great Salt Lake. The flats and the lake are remnants of Pleistocene-epoch Lake Bonneville.
Photograph by Carolyn Drake

This summer has seen the UK having to cope with hotter-than-usual temperatures and, in large parts of the country, unbroken periods without rain. With the ruins of ancient buildings being revealed in dried-up reservoirs, waterways turning green with duckweed, farmers struggling to feed livestock and moorland wildfires breaking out, what can the country learn from the rest of the world about what’s happening, and how to cope with it?

In March 2018, National Geographic reported from Cape Town where a drought of three years has led to the introduction of severe water rationing. Residents had been limited to a 50 litres per day (in the UK the average is about 150 litres per day.) The report also looked at Brazil where in 2015 water supplies were turned off for 12 hours a day, and Spain where, in 2008, tankers of freshwater had to be imported from France.

For a longer-term perspective, our reporters also looked at the role that drought may have played in the collapse of a number of civilisations on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean 3,200 years ago. Wars, pestilence, and sudden natural disasters have all been postulated as possible causes, but now, thanks to sophisticated pollen-sampling techniques and advances in radiocarbon dating, researchers believe they know the primary culprit: Drought, or rather a succession of severe droughts over a 150-year period from 1250 BCE to about 1100 BCE.

The scientists noticed a sharp decline around 1250 BCE in the traditional flora of the Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age and an increase in the types of plants usually found in semi-arid desert regions. There was also a big drop in the number of olive trees, an indication that horticulture was on the wane. All are signs, say the researchers, that the region was in the grip of regular and sustained droughts.

Finally, for National Geographic’s editors’ choices of the best drought-related images worldwide, click here.



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