Researchers warn of 'unexpected implications' as climate risks converge

ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - If India’s water-short farmers were to adopt more efficient methods of irrigation, cutting evaporation from their fields, farmers in East Africa might see less rainfall - and worsening drought - within five years, scientists warned Monday.

In a paper in Nature Sustainability, researchers from the United States, Sweden and Australia said environmental risks from human activities are becoming increasingly complex and interconnected, with far-reaching consequences for food production and livelihoods.

They called for new global approaches to calculating and understanding such risks - and new thinking on how to deal with them.

For example, evaporation and subsequent moisture flows from large-scale irrigated farming in India contribute up to 40% of rainfall in East Africa, according to the paper.

“If communities in India improve sustainable agriculture practices (reducing irrigation and groundwater depletion), then pastoralists and farmers in Africa could suffer,” it warned, calling the situation “a delicate dilemma”.

“If rainfall reduces in key months in East Africa, that could have knock-on effects on migration and livelihoods,” said Nathanial Matthews, one of the authors and program director for the Stockholm-based Global Resilience Partnership.

“You could see crop failures. It could be linked to political unrest. It could have all these unexpected implications,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.

“This could happen within the next five years. We’re already seeing huge droughts in India,” he added.

Such unexpected connections are little known and even less well-understood, but it is essential to take them into account if the world is to be adequately prepared for future shocks, said Patrick Keys, the paper’s lead author.

“The demands that humanity is putting on the planet require a reframing of how we conceptualize what is an environmental risk,” said Keys, a researcher with the School of Global Environmental Sustainability at Colorado State University.

“All these rapid environmental changes are going to touch all of our lives, and given how quickly these changes are happening, there is an urgent need to understand them so we can respond correctly and thoughtfully,” he added.


Another looming risk the authors identified concerns the rise of aquaculture, touted by governments and researchers as a solution to overfishing in the world’s oceans and as an important source of animal protein.

But aquaculture’s explosive growth threatens its own future viability because it can denude coastal mangrove forests, trigger pollution, spread diseases and reduce the hardiness of wild fish species, the paper warned.

Many places in Southeast Asia - Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and parts of the Philippines - have vast aquaculture operations and threats to the industry could upend jobs and incomes of people as early as the next few years, Matthews said.

Meanwhile, the arid Sahel region in West Africa - a belt below the Sahara desert - faces a longer-term risk that rising temperatures will make it uninhabitable for plants and animal species that currently live there, the researchers said.

Desert areas are likely to spread south and hotter days and nights could slash the productivity of local sorghum and millet varieties, it said.

“Future societies face the options of importing heat-tolerant varieties, developing new varieties, switching crop types altogether or abandoning farming,” the paper noted.

Already, the Sahel is one of the world’s poorest regions and is increasingly prone to attacks from militant groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State as well as inter-communal violence over rapidly diminishing natural resources.

Keys said the risks wouldn’t automatically lead to worsening conditions but it’s important, he said, “to emphasize and highlight the possibility for surprising, unexpected connections to blossom into something more than we thought they could be”.

Reporting By Thin Lei Win @thinink, Editing by Laurie Goering Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, and property rights. Visit