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US drought: how it could impact food, water needs around the world

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“The governments must take more water for agriculture and less for civic needs. That is the global effect of drought in the US,” he says.

While many are quick to link this current drought system to long-term climate change, scientists at the heart of drought research suggest it is, at minimum, a wake-up call.

“Drought eventually can hit all sectors of the economy,” points out Brian Fuchs of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln

Drought is a part of the planet’s natural history, he says, pointing to tree rings that document devastating droughts in prehistoric times that displaced entire populations. Droughts will always be with us, he notes. 

High-profile events such as the drought now covering more than 1,000 US counties highlight the need for better monitoring, preparedness, and mitigation, says Chad McNutt, of the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) in Boulder, Colo.  

“There is a gap in how states are dealing with water supply issues, and they are all learning in real-time how to deal with them,” he says, pointing to such anecdotes as a Texas town that connected a fire truck pumping machine to a fire hydrant to supply field and drinking water.

The six-year Dust Bowl in the 1930s that hit the corn belt hard led to important changes, says Richard Sutch, emeritus professor of economics at the University of California, Riverside.

“The experience revealed an advantage of the newly-introduced hybrid corn varieties,” he says via e-mail, namely their drought tolerance. “Before this, hybrid corn was not selling well. Afterward adoption rates soared. Today over 95 percent of the corn planted in the US is a hybrid variety.”

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