As the World Burns
Georgia's on my mind. Atlanta, Georgia. It's a city in trouble in a state in trouble in a region in trouble. Water trouble. Trouble big enough that the state government's moving fast. Just this week, backed up by a choir singing "Amazing Grace," accompanied by three Protestant ministers, and twenty demonstrators from the Atlanta Freethought Society, Sonny Perdue, Georgia's Baptist governor, led a crowd of hundreds in prayers for rain. "We've come together here," he said, "simply for one reason and one reason only: To very reverently and respectfully pray up a storm." It seems, however, that the Almighty was otherwise occupied and the regional drought continued to threaten Atlanta, a metropolis of 5 million people (and growing fast), with the possibility that it might run out of water in as little as eighty days or as much as a year, if the rains don't come. Here's a little summary of the situation today:
Water rationing has hit the capital. Car washing and lawn watering are prohibited within city limits. Harvests in the region have dropped by 15 to 30 percent. By the end of summer, local reservoirs and dams were holding 5 percent of their capacity.
Oops, that's not Atlanta, or even the Southeastern US. That's Ankara, Turkey, hit by a fierce drought and high temperatures that also have had southern and southwestern Europe in their grip.
Sorry, let's try that again. Imagine this scenario:
Over the last decade, 15 to 20 percent decreases in precipitation have been recorded. These water losses have been accompanied by record temperatures and increasing wildfires in areas where populations have been growing rapidly. A fierce drought has settled in--of the hundred-year variety. Lawns can be watered but just for a few hours a day (and only by bucket); four-minute showers are the max allowed. Car washes are gone, though you can clean absolutely essential car windows and mirrors by hand.
Sound familiar? As it happens, that's not the American Southeast either; that's a description of what's come to be called "The Big Dry"--the unprecedented drought that has swept huge parts of Australia, the worst in at least a century on an already notoriously dry continent, but also part of the world's breadbasket, where crops are now failing regularly and farms closing down.
In fact, on my way along the parched path toward Atlanta, Georgia, I found myself taking any number of drought-stricken detours. There's Moldova. (If you're like me, odds are you don't even know where that small, former Soviet republic falls on a map.) Like much of southern Europe, it experienced baking temperatures this summer, exceptionally low precipitation, sometimes far less than 50 percent of expected rainfall, failing crops and farms, and spreading wildfires. (The same was true, to one degree or another, of Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, and-- with its 100-year record scorching of Biblical proportions-- Greece which lost 10 percent of its forest cover in a month-long fiery apocalypse, leaving "large tracts of countryside...at risk of depopulation.")
Or how about Morocco, across the Mediterranean, which experienced 50 percent less rainfall than normal? Or the Canary Islands, those Spanish vacation spots in the Atlantic Ocean known to millions of visitors for their year-around mild climate which, this summer, morphed into 104-degree days, strong winds, and fierce wildfires. Eighty-six thousand acres were burnt to a crisp, engulfing some of the islands in flames and smoke that drove out thousands of tourists?
Or what about Mexico's Tehuacán Valley, where, thousands of years ago, corn was first domesticated as an agricultural crop. Even today, asking for "un Tehuacán" in a restaurant in Mexico still means getting the best bottled mineral water in the country. Unfortunately, the area hasn't had a good rain since 2003, and the ensuing drought conditions have made subsistence farming next to impossible, sending desperate locals northwards and across the border as illegal immigrants--some into Southern California, itself just swept by monstrous Santa Ana-driven wildfires, fanned by prolonged drought conditions and fed tinder by new communities built deep into the wild lands where the fires gestate. And Tehuacán is but one disaster zone in a growing Mexican catastrophe. As Mike Davis has written, "Abandoned ranchitos and near-ghost towns throughout Coahuila, Chihuahua and Sonora testify to the relentless succession of dry years--beginning in the 1980s but assuming truly catastrophic intensity in the late 1990s--that has pushed hundreds of thousands of poor rural people toward the sweatshops of Ciudad Juarez and the barrios of Los Angeles."
According to the How Dry I Am chart of "livability expert" Bert Sperling, four cities in Southern California, not parched Atlanta, top the national drought ratings: Los Angeles, San Diego, Oxnard, and Riverside. In addition, Pasadena has had the dubious honor, through September, of experiencing its driest year in history.