What the California drought means for Canadians

Categories: Big picture
Published on: April 7, 2015

Globe and Mail / Dustin Garrick / 07 April 2015

California DroughtLike a financial crisis, drought is a ‘systemic risk’ – and we are all part of the economic and geopolitical system impacted by current shortages in California and Sao Paulo, Brazil. The consequences of the California drought do not stop with the California border or even the Western United States. These ripple effects are delivered through global trade, potential for price shocks in agricultural commodity markets, and energy security issues due to the double crunch of lost hydropower supplies and rising energy demand for groundwater pumping. (In 2013 alone, Canada imported $2.7-billion in food products from California according to Statistics Canada.)

Canadians are also less and less insulated from the geopolitical instability linked to extreme droughts and floods. Drought in Syria accelerated migration from farms to rapidly growing cities without the work or infrastructure to absorb the arrivals. A headline for a 2013 column by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times on the conflict observed “without water, revolution.” Although the prospect of water wars has so far proven more rhetoric than reality, water is a threat multiplier, a factor that combines with other social, economic and environmental pressures.

The climate shocks are not just droughts, but also floods. Even relatively minor floods can have dire consequences based on our choices about where and how we live. And these shocks are not isolated. With the immediate focus on California in the wake of its first mandatory state-wide water restrictions, it is possible to overlook the fact that the Sao Paulo drought has left Brazil’s largest city with shrinking reservoir storage, declining to 5 per cent of capacity in the vital Cantareira system until a slight rebound last month. This leads to a ‘perfect storm’ – synchronous droughts in multiple regions with unpredictable and possibly synergistic impacts.