100-Year Drought Strikes Argentina

By David L. Brown

The world is facing a famine crisis and few if any news reports acknowledge the looming threat. Now we learn that Argentina, which has been one of the world’s few remaining food exporters, is stricken with a drought some reckon is the worst in a century. Here is an excerpt from a news story today on the IPS news service web site (read it all here.)

BUENOS AIRES, Jan 21 (IPS) – Severe drought, which is many parts of Argentina is considered the worst in 100 years, has hit the country’s most agriculturally productive region and is expected to cause a sharp decline in grain and meat output.

Rural associations estimate that grain production will drop 39 percent and that 1.5 million head of livestock will be lost, while meat and dairy productivity levels among the surviving animals will be poor.

Drought assistance measures adopted by the government of Cristina Fernández include deliveries of livestock fodder, but farmers say the aid is insufficient given the magnitude of the disaster and are now directing their demands towards provincial governments.

The drought extends from the southern province of Río Negro through the central provinces of La Pampa and Córdoba and east and north to the provinces of Buenos Aires, Entre Ríos, Santa Fe, Corrientes, Chaco, Formosa and Santiago del Estero. It has especially hit the entire 600,000 square kilometre pampas grasslands region, considered one of the most fertile areas in the world.

Chaco Governor Jorge Capitanich predicted that in his province, agricultural output will be half of what it was last year. The area planted in wheat and sunflowers is smaller this year, and yields are down due to the lack of rainfall, he said.

And among corn producers in Entre Ríos, losses are estimated at over 80 percent.

Ironically, last year when world food prices soared due to rising demand the Argentinian government placed new taxes on agricultural exports. The argument was that farmers should share their “windfall” with the government. The Economist called the move “economic madness” and “crazy ideas.” It resulted in protests by farmers, who blocked roads to prevent movement of farm produce to local markets.

Now there may be little if any left to export, and perhaps even a shortfall in domestic supply. How fast the mighty tend to fall.
According to climate change models we can expect growing heat and drought in the middle latitudes which include the hearts of the African and South American continents.

A study reported in a recent issue of Science magazine (subscription required) projects that in many parts of the world average summer temperatures will be above the most severe on record to-date.

Here is an illustration from the Science paper that shows the likelihood of extreme temperatures in future growing seasons. The top map shows the results for the middle of the 21st Century and the bottom map shows projections for the final decades of the century. The colors show the percent likelihood that average temperatures will be warmer than the highest on record.

It is interesting that by the period 2080-2100 the 90 to 100 percent likelihood of extreme heat events becoming “normal” will have spread to a majority of the lower latitudes and that the 50+ percent colors (red, orange, yellow) cover virtually the entire land mass of the Earth.

The benchmarks used by the researchers were extreme heat wave events such as the one that struck Europe a few years ago. As you may recall more than 50,000 people died from the heat and agricultural production was cut by nearly a third. France was particularly hard hit. According to these projections, comparable extreme benchmarks will be routinely exceeded in the areas indicated.

This study focused on heat, but higher heat places a water stress on growing plants, dries out the soil and evaporates surface water. Heat and drought are partners in creating the potential for famine. Some call for the creation of new varieties of farm crops that can thrive under heat and drought stress. It seems doubtful that such plans could succeed, since heat literally shrivels and burns plant leaves while denying them the water they need to grow. Mother Nature has not produced plants capable of thriving under desert conditions—and let’s face it, that’s what we’re really talking about because sustained heat and drought lead to desertification—so what are the chances that humankind can do it? Genetic engineering holds much promise, but there are limits to what it can do.

So the present drought in Argentina may be only a hint of things to come. Stay tuned.

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