One of my colleagues shared this article from Truthout with me because the title was about how Alaska has no sea ice within 150 miles of its coastline for the first time in recorded history of Alaskan sea ice. That’s another checkpoint in the decline of summer sea ice, for sure, but the article included many signs of global warming changing our climate and impacting animals and people. One of the litany of climate woes they cite was a drought in Zimbabwe. In July this year, the Zimbabwean government declared an emergency because taps were running dry in the capital of Harare and water levels were so low that hydroelectric power ceased, causing widespread blackouts.
The city of Harare reported producing 450 million liters of water per day for 4.5 million people — so 100 liters per day per person on average. (The above article, though, cites cynical estimates that the real number is 1/4 of that.) To put this in perspective, Americans average over 300 liters of water per day. In 2018, Cape Town, South Africa barely avoided “Day Zero” during their own drought. “Day Zero” was the day that municipal taps would be turned off and residents would receive a ration of 25 liters or water per day. They prevented that level by millions reducing use to about 50 liters per day for a prolonged period. Cape Town sounds worse, then, even without reaching Day Zero.
Two interesting ripples in this story, though:
First, the socioeconomic and political situation in Zimbabwe is less stable than in South Africa. Long-time despotic leader Robert Mugabe died on September 6, 2019. News outlets in the USA as diverse as Fox News and Vox have maligned him as a brutal dictator who oppressed his country and brought economic ruin. Before his death, reports of protests in the streets by those opposed to the regime (an especially the economic turmoil) trickled through Western media outlets (examples at the Guardian and NPR). This turmoil clearly goes beyond one drought, and the acuteness with which the drought is impacting Zimbabweans may have more to do with social vulnerability than physical hazard.
Second, is this really about climate change? Every news outlet I’ve read seems to have no problem attributing the drought to climate change despite providing no evidence that this drought is unprecedented or part of a larger pattern. There is evidence that droughts have become more common in parts of the world, such as the Mediterranean (see this NY Times article), but not everywhere. The answer for Southern Africa is: maybe. According to a study in the journal Natural Hazards, droughts in Southern Africa became more severe over the the course of the 20th century, in part because of long term global warming. However, using a combination of evidence from observational studies, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) did not find significant increases in the annual maximum in the number of consecutive dry days in Southern Africa.