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Extreme fluctuations between drought and flooding are devastating communities at greatest risk of climate change impacts, new research reveals

14 November 2023

Satellite image of Mbale region in Uganda during the flood of 2022.
Satellite image of Mbale region in Uganda during the flood of 2022. Credit: WaterAid/Planet.

A 'whiplash' of extreme climate pressures has had a devastating effect on communities around the world since the turn of the century, new research has found.

The team, led by researchers at Cardiff University and the University of Bristol and commissioned by WaterAid, examined the frequency and magnitude of flooding and drought hazards over the last 41 years in Pakistan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Mozambique, adding Italy for a European comparison to show the impacts of climate change do not discriminate by region.

Their findings, which combine satellite imagery with climate data, reveal a 'climate hazard flip' - with areas that used to experience frequent droughts now more prone to flooding, while other regions historically vulnerable to flooding now enduring more droughts.

These communities are often ill-equipped to deal with such extremes in weather which can wipe out crops and livelihoods, damage often-fragile water supply infrastructure, disrupt water supply services, and expose people to disease and death.

Professor Michael Singer of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Cardiff University and co-lead researcher on the project also warns that these climatic phenomena are not just confined to the countries studied.

He said: "Most dramatically, we found that many locations are undergoing major shifts in the prevailing climate. Specifically, many of our study sites have experienced a hazard flip from being drought-prone to flood-prone or vice versa.

"Although the scope of this study was limited to a handful of countries and specific locations within them, we believe the hazard flip and, more generally, changes to flood and drought hazard frequency and magnitude are something most places on the planet will have to address."

Professor Michael Singer Professor
Deputy Director of the Water Research Institute

From flood protection to drought resistance measures – adaptation solutions exist, but the team claims not enough is being done to prepare for the future.

They say scaling up and optimising water-related investments in low and middle-income countries will not only save lives, it will boost economic prosperity – with analysis suggesting it can deliver at least $500 billion a year in economic value.

Co-lead researcher Professor Katerina Michaelides, Professor of Dryland Hydrology at the University of Bristol Cabot Institute for the Environment, added: "We have come to understand that climate change will not lead to a monolithic change to climatic hazards, despite globally increasing temperatures. Instead, the hazard profile for any region is likely to change in unpredictable ways.

"These factors must be considered to support climate adaptation for the lives and livelihoods of humans across the globe."

In Uganda, the data shows that Mbale, an Eastern region in the shadow of Mount Elgon, is showing a significant tendency towards much wetter conditions, as demonstrated by unprecedented flooding over the last three years.

For retired primary school teacher, Okecho Opondo, 70, the change in weather patterns is causing huge problems.

Retired primary school teacher, Okecho Opondo, 70, stands beside a huge gully caused by water run-off, which destroys everything in its way during heavy rainy seasons.
"To cope with climate change, we need to work towards climate resilient farming practices so that we can grow enough food for our families," says retired primary school teacher, Okecho Opondo, 70. Credit: WaterAid/James Kiyimba

"We are in total confusion. The months that used to be rainy are now dry. When the rains come, they can be short yet heavy, leading to floods," he said.

"On other occasions the rainy periods are too long, leading to destruction of infrastructure and crop failure. And then the dry periods can be very long, further leading to crop failure and hunger."

Two measures the local community have tried to mitigate the climate uncertainty are to plant hedges around their crops to help prevent soil erosion and to move latrines well away from potential flood zones. One person spoke of planting bamboo forests on the slopes of nearby Mount Elgon to try to prevent landslides.

Tim Wainwright, WaterAid’s Chief Executive, said: "The climate crisis is a water crisis and, as our research today shows, our climate has become increasingly unpredictable with devastating consequences.

"From drought-stricken farmlands to flood-ravaged settlements, communities in Pakistan, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Ethiopia are all experiencing alarming climate whiplash effects; Uganda is experiencing ever more catastrophic flooding and Mozambique a chaotic mix of both extremes.

"While we will all pay a price for global water stress, it’s those living on the frontline of the climate crisis who are paying for it now - their lives hanging in the balance."

With COP28 set to take place in Dubai in the next 2 weeks, WaterAid is calling on world leaders to prioritise clean water, decent sanitation and good hygiene as a key component to climate adaptation programmes.

They say investment in water security for low- and middle-income countries must also be rapidly scaled up.

Mr Wainwright added: "COP28 is only two weeks away and it cannot be another summit where the climate adaptation can is kicked down the road. Our leaders must recognise the urgency and prioritise investment into robust and resilient water systems now."

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