Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Drought is the darkest of calamities

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A thousand years ago, the Mayans thirsted into oblivion. For centuries, the mingy rulers of that ancient civilization held power by storing seasonal rainwater and, during the dry rest of the year, only sparingly doling it out to their parched and necessarily grateful citizens.

When climate change brought a 200-year drought to suck the royal cisterns dry, the leaders failed to see it coming. The people had just a few years to realize they had been duped, but by then only the dust would hear their complaints.

Last week, Canada became the lone global nation to withdraw from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and delivered, at last, a unifying metaphor for the Conservative government's approach to climate-relevant science: Stephen Harper's obsessive belief that public gratitude is won by limiting and controlling information -- to the point of withdrawing support for organizations like the UN drought group that might raise uncomfortable questions -- is eerily reminiscent of the Machiavellian water management methods of the Mayan kings. The likely outcome should worry us.

Drought has been the darkest, most catastrophic face of climate change since the beginning of human civilization.

The first empire of Akkad was desiccated by it some four millennia ago, Egypt's Old Kingdom choked on it, and it toppled the Tang Dynasty at China's artistic pinnacle.

It has launched more mass migrations, upset more nations and moved more millions than any war could ever hope to do; and it has killed with a far more placid efficiency.

Importantly, drought is a traveller, and more so now as the world climate grows mercurial.

Today, it is still best known for its practised work in Africa's Sahel bringing village cattle to their knees and hovering over skeletal, milk-eyed children.

Canada was among the first to join the UN drought convention in part to fight this humanitarian travesty. But we also knew that supporting science to battle drought in Africa also promised dividends here.

Between 1999 and 2004, a five-year drought across the Canadian Prairies begat the most expensive natural disaster in this country's history.

In 2001 and 2002 alone, the devastating dry spell cost Canada $3.6 billion in farm losses and left more than 41,000 people out of work, according to the Saskatchewan Research Council. Hay and feed had to be shipped from Ontario and Quebec just to keep many Alberta cattle alive.

Researchers say it was likely just an opening act.

While Canada may feel smug among the five most water-rich countries in the world, scientists nevertheless warn of an impending water crisis on the western Prairies and perhaps the eventual desertification of central North America.

Prairie temperatures have increased by 1úC to 4úC in the past 80 to 100 years, and most of the change has occurred since 1970.

Rain and snowfall have declined by 14 to 24 per cent in the same period. The amount of water flowing in Prairie rivers during the summer has decreased 20 to 84 per cent since the turn of the last century.

Yet, despite this evidence and despite drought's enormous costs to Canadians, the Harper government pulled the plug a couple of years ago on the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (CFCAS), which funded Prairie drought research and shuttered, more recently, the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, which addressed some of this same science.

Climate-relevant research coming from Canada's world-leading Experimental Lakes Area, meanwhile, has also been closed. And now any disagreeable facts that might emerge from the work of the UN Convention on Desertification at least have no blessing or support from Ottawa.

The often-arid length of human history offers an indisputably clear and non-partisan view of how shortsighted this all is.

The Conservatives would probably recognize it, too, if they would only look up for a moment from their shrewdly detailed plans to control science and information. The Mayans, alas, didn't have that choice.

Peter Christie is a science writer and the author of The Curse of Akkad: Climate Upheavals that Rocked Human History.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 2, 2013 A7

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