The Stream, January 17, 2024: Nearly Quarter of Humanity Lived under Drought Conditions in Past Two Years, UN Report Says

A dust cloud silhouettes a horse in pastures along the Rio Grande, in Sandoval County, New Mexico. Drought and climate change have created a tinderbox in the American West for destructive wildfires. Water sources like the Rio Grande have become vulnerable. Photo © Pablo Unzueta for Circle of Blue


  • More than 1.8 billion people, nearly one quarter of the Earth’s population, lived under drought conditions in both 2022 and 2023, according to a United Nations report.
  • More than 300 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo have died amidst torrential rains and flooding.
  • Eleven countries have signed a global pact to protect endangered river dolphins, months after a mass die-off in Brazil.
  • In Colorado, two people have been appointed legal guardians of Boulder Creek and its watershed in a new approach to conservation.

On the island of Guadeloupe, located in the French Caribbean, more than 70 percent of wastewater treatment plants are out of order.

“It’s been going on for years. Every time the signs are put up, they’re removed. Anyway, we still swim. I know there’s fecal matter, but we just rinse it off, and life goes on.” — One local beachgoer interviewed by France24.

Years of corruption and financial mismanagement have pushed the French Caribbean island’s sewage systems to the brink, France24 reports. Untreated sewage spills have prompted multiple swimming bans and health advisories — which are largely ignored —  for local beaches and waterways. 

Nearly three-quarters of the island’s wastewater treatment plants are currently out of order, some built as recently as 10 years ago and costing the European Union millions of dollars. Instead, the money was locally spent “on fictitious jobs,” and a 2021 report revealed government employees at the wastewater facilities had working hours below the legal limit. 

Meanwhile, ecological crises loom. Drinking water contamination and habitat loss — much like that of a massive fish die-off in 2021 — are equally at risk without immediate attention, according to the investigation.

— Christian Thorsberg, Interim Stream Editor

Recent WaterNews from Circle of Blue

The Lead

Droughts across the world — including in the Middle East, Brazilian Amazon, northern Africa, and South Asia — affected nearly a quarter of humanity in 2022 and 2023, the New York Times reports. On the heels of the Covid-19 pandemic and exacerbated by the economic impact of war and violence in Ukraine and Gaza, these droughts have influenced a rise in food shortages that “could have consequences for hunger, elections and migration worldwide” this year and beyond.

According to the United Nations’s “Global Drought Snapshot,” the price of rice reached its highest level last year since the 2008 financial crisis, contributing to the record 258 million people who continue to face “acute hunger.” In India, the world’s largest rice exporter, drought has weakened farm output, prompting officials to place export limits and tariff hikes. Meanwhile, the research group Famine Early Warning Systems Network estimates that El Niño weather patterns will “affect crop yields on at least a quarter of the world’s agricultural land.”

In certain countries, such as Syria, Iran, and Iraq, where a three-year drought continues, scientists have concluded that arid conditions have been made worse by the burning of fossil fuels. A recent study also found that droughts in Central America “were associated with greater levels of migration,” the Times reports.

In context: War in Ukraine, Drought Converge to Worsen Hunger Crises in Horn of Africa

This Week’s Top Water Stories, Told In Numbers


Years since the Congo River’s flows have been higher than they are now, as intense rains spurred flash floods that have killed more than 300 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Reuters reports. Officials have warned that the entire flood plain of Kinshasa, the country’s capital which lies on the river’s banks, could continue to be threatened. Flows exceeded 20 feet above sea level last week, destroying tens of thousands of homes.



Number of countries within the river dolphin’s wild range who have signed a global pact to protect the endangered species, Mongabay reports. The “Global Declaration for River Dolphins” commits the countries to “implement specific actions and strengthen regional and national initiatives,” including working with the World Wildlife Federation and the World Bank. The dolphins’ native waterways are among the most ecologically and culturally important in the world, providing for one billion humans and wildlife alike — “the Amazon, Irrawaddy, Ganges, Indus, Mahakam, Mekong, Orinoco, and Yangtze.” The commitment of three remaining countries — China, Indonesia, and Myanmar — is pending. 

On the Radar

The rights of nature movement in Colorado took a new step forward last week, as the town of Nederland appointed two people as legal guardians of Boulder Creek and its watershed. The guardians will be charged with making recommendations on the ecosystem’s health, improving water quality, and protecting habitat, InsideClimate News reports. The responsibility is similar to that of a legal guardian making decisions on behalf of a child, and represents an innovative advance in recognizing the rights of nature. 

More Water News

La Réunion: Cyclone Belal brought torrential rains to the island on Monday and caused “significant disruptions to its drinking water supply networks,” Le Monde reports.

Strikes in Syria: A wave of airstrikes carried out by Turkey in Syria’s Kurdish-held northeastern region has destroyed power stations, water pumping stations, and oil infrastructure, leaving at least 10 border towns without electricity or running water, Reuters reports

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