Future Hot and Dry Years Worsen Nile Basin Water Scarcity Despite Projected Precipitation Increases

Ethan D. Coffel, Bruce Keith, Corey Lesk, Radley M. Horton, Erica Bower, Jonathan Lee, Justin S. Mankin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Compound extremes—particularly hot and dry years—can reduce crop yields and result in acute water scarcity. These risks are particularly pronounced in the Upper Nile Basin, a chronically water stressed agricultural region that includes western Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Uganda. While the causes of humanitarian crises in the Nile Basin are complex and involve governance, conflict, and climate, we demonstrate that nearly all recent regional crop failures have occurred amid hot and dry conditions and low runoff supplies. Using an observational ensemble, we find that such hot and dry years have been more frequent in recent decades, driven by increasing regional temperatures. This trend is likely to continue despite climate model projections of increasing regional precipitation. By the late 21st century, the frequency of hot and dry years may rise by a factor of 1.5–3, even if warming is limited to 2 °C. Regional water scarcity will continue to be a chronic issue for the Upper Nile from population growth alone, but runoff deficits during future hot and dry years will amplify this effect, leaving an additional 5–15% of the future population facing water scarcity. Climate change, along with the region's complex water politics, dependence on subsistence agriculture, and history of geopolitical instability, places the region at risk of severe food and water shortages as hot and dry years become more frequent. Adaptation and climate-resilient water management policies informed by an understanding of compound extremes will be essential to manage these risks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)967-977
Number of pages11
JournalEarth's Future
Volume7
Issue number8
DOIs
StatePublished - Aug 1 2019
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • Nile Basin
  • climate change
  • compound extremes
  • hot and dry
  • water scarcity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)

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