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Urban drought is increasing worldwide

20 December 2023
When we talk about drought, we often talk about arid landscapes and failed harvests. But drought also causes problems in cities. In a new study, researchers from VU Amsterdam show that almost all cities in the world are already suffering from drought. They also expect that this will increase.

A recent example of urban drought can be found in Cape Town. Between 2015 and 2018, it was so dry in Cape Town that the city was heading towards Day Zero: the day when the highest restrictions on water use would come in and when people would only be allowed to use 25 liters of water per day, to be collected from special collection points. For comparison: in 2021, an average Dutch person used 129 liters per day.

Mapping the problem worldwide
In their study in Environmental Research Communications, Tristian Stolte and his colleagues from the Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM) map the problem. They studied cities around the world on four elements: how much water shortage there will be, how much it will cost to deal with this water shortage, how many people will be affected by the drought, and how vulnerable a city is to problems caused by drought. They used one scenario with strong climate change and one scenario where climate change is limited through mitigation.

Increasing nuisance
The researchers conclude that all but five of the 264 cities studied are already experiencing nuisance due to drought. Depending on the different climate scenarios, the total water shortage will increase by 25 to 66 percent. Moreover, 77 to 88 percent of cities will suffer more from drought in the future. Risk cities are located in the north of India and Pakistan, the east of Brazil and around California. Scientists predict fewer problems in cities in Europe, Japan and the east coast of the United States. Other researchers can use these results to study the salient areas in detail.

Wake-up call
According to Stolte, this is the first time that drought in cities has been examined on this scale. 'This could be a wake-up call for cities. An earlier project showed that drought is not on the agenda for many cities.' According to him, it is important that politicians and policymakers opt for long-term solutions instead of quick short-term gains. He is confident that this is possible. 'Cities are generally well able to tackle climate change, for example in partnerships with other cities.'

Watch a short video about this research on LinkedIn.