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A month into 2013, what will drought do to grain this year?

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The US government in 2013 January declared much of the central and southern US Wheat Belt a natural disaster area due to persistent drought threatening the winter wheat harvest.

The US government in 2013 January declared much of the central and southern US Wheat Belt a natural disaster area due to persistent drought threatening the winter wheat harvest.

Drought has tightened its dry grip on US winter wheat, reducing the condition of crops in Kansas, the top producing state, and neighbouring Oklahoma, said this report by Agrimoney. Estimates of the proportion of the crop in “poor” or “very poor” health at 39%, up from 31% at the end of December. The figures also represented a sharp deterioration from a year before, when 49% of winter wheat was rated good or excellent, and 12% poor or very poor.

The result of the continuing drought has been poor conditions for all fall-planted crops and limited grazing of small grains, Agrimoney quoted officials as having said. Most districts received 50% or less of normal rainfall last month, at a time when they had already been in drought for months.

The US Drought Monitor and the associated long-range forecasts spell trouble for grain stocks, movement and of course prices for 2013. Severe to exceptional drought conditions cover most of the cultivation area for hard, red winter wheat, running from the Texas panhandle to Colorado to South Dakota, the US Drought Monitor shows. Winter wheat crops were in the worst condition since at least 1985 at the end of November, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Bales of corn stalks covered with snow in the state of Nebraska, USA, in late December 2012. Despite some big storms in December, much of the US is still desperate for relief from the country's longest dry spell in decades. Photo: AP / Nati Harnik

Bales of corn stalks covered with snow in the state of Nebraska, USA, in late December 2012. Despite some big storms in December, much of the US is still desperate for relief from the country’s longest dry spell in decades. Photo: AP / Nati Harnik

In Russia, grain exports are expected to slump further, as also reported by Agrimoney. Russia’s farm ministry is to cut to 14m tonnes, from 15.5m tonnes, its forecast for grain exports in 2012-13. Trade at that level would represent half the 28m tonnes shipped in 2011-12 (USDA estimates) and imply only minimal exports for the rest of the season, with the tally already at some 13m tonnes.

In Britain, a third Agrimoney report on the impact of weather on grains has said, crop prices have soared thanks to the poor results from 2012 harvests, which showed the lowest wheat yields in 20 years and smallest potato crop since the 1970s. London wheat futures hit a record high of £227.00 a tonne last month, and remain at elevated levels, of £213.40 a tonne for the spot March contract, while potatoes are selling on the open market at £312.28 a tonne, more than triple their levels a year ago, according to the Potato Council.

Bloomberg has reported that the prices of wheat rose in Chicago as US production prospects “dimmed because of a persistent drought in the Great Plains, the biggest growing region for winter crops”. The Bloomberg report explained that the “central and southern plains [of USA] will have mostly below- normal rainfall in the next 10 days, with no significant relief expected”.

Roughly 57.64 percent of the contiguous United States was in at least ‘moderate’ drought as of 2013 January 22, reported the Huffington Post, which is a marginal improvement from 58.87 percent a week earlier. But the worst level of drought, dubbed ‘exceptional’, expanded slightly to 6.36 percent from 6.31 percent of the country.

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Heatwave blisters eastern USA, drought parches southern USA

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20110727 – The National Drought Mitigation Centre at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln has catalogued the consequences, using media reports, government analyses and contributions from the public, said The Economist in its report on the US drought and heatwave. In ‘Drought in the South: Bone-dry – Drought has blanketed nearly a third of the lower 48‘ the weekly said: “There are wildfires in the south-west and water restrictions in the south-east. Fields are scrubby and fallow, and in some counties the ground is riddled with deep cracks. Farmers are struggling to produce crops, and ranchers are worried about watering their cattle. As their losses mount, crop prices have risen.”

Drought-wracked landscape in the southern USA. Photo: The Sydney Morning Herald/Jason South

According to a report from the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, wheat was selling at more than $8 a bushel at the beginning of the summer, compared with an average annual price of $5.25 last year. Still, Texas farmers will bring in only an estimated $274m this year; the average for the past five years was more than twice as high.

Meteorologists say it is impossible to explain fully how these things happen. In 2010 the westward slopping of cooler water across the tropical Pacific, a phenomenon called La Niña, made itself felt on weather around the world. That La Niña is now over, according to scientists, but the patterns of atmospheric circulation that were associated with it are persisting, which could account for some of the drought. There is also the problem of man-made climate change, which is expected to intensify both droughts and floods.

In recent years, the Colorado River has become less reliable, said the Scientific American. Since 1999, abnormally low precipitation totals and hot and dry conditions have brought reservoir water levels close to record lows. The multiyear drought, the most severe since documentation began more than 100 years ago, has put the water supply in the thirsty Southwest in jeopardy.

Graphic: The Economist

This year, heavy snowpack and spring precipitation have brought the region some relief by partially refilling the reservoirs. But while National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research shows that snowmelt runoff into the upper basin hasn’t been this high since 1986, the southern end of the Colorado River continues to stop shy of the Sea of Cortez, where it used to run until the late 1990s.

The paradox is that this season stands in such stark contrast to the past 11 years of drought, highlighting the types of variability that climate change can wreak on the hydrological cycle. The Bureau of Reclamation released the first of three interim reports last month as part of its broader Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study. The report is designed to provide an outlook on the next “highly uncertain” 50 years (until 2060) of the river’s life. Authors wrote that in the nearly quarter-million-square-mile Colorado River Basin, “climate change, record drought, population increases and environmental needs” are likely to make water supplies ever scarcer.

NASA’s Earth Observatory has said that by July 2011, Texas and New Mexico had completed the driest six-month period on record. Average rain between January and June was more than eight inches (203 millimeters) below average in Texas and 3.5 inches (89 millimeters) below average in New Mexico. Record warm temperatures also persisted in Texas between April and June. The lack of rain and the warm temperatures added up to exceptional drought.

This image shows the impact of drought on plants throughout Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. Made with data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Terra satellite, the image compares plant growth between June 26 and July 11, 2011, with average conditions for the period. The image [left] is dominated by brown, showing that plants were growing less than average throughout Texas and New Mexico. The image supports an assessment by the U.S. Drought Monitor, which states that 94 percent of the range and pastureland in Texas was in poor or very poor condition in June 2011. In Oklahoma, 78 percent of range and pastureland was in poor condition.

Though drought is not a disaster that strikes all at once, it is nonetheless a devastating event that can cause death, disease, and loss of money and property. For these reasons, drought is termed the creeping disaster. So far farmers in Texas have lost 30 percent or more of their crops and pasture in 2011. The loss led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare a natural disaster in 213 Texas counties and additional counties in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. The declaration qualifies farmers in these regions for low-interest loans to cover their losses.

20110724 – This temperature chart by state explains the heat gripping southern and eastern USA. The heat wave enveloping the Eastern Seaboard brought punishing record temperatures to the Washington region Friday, sending scores of people to emergency rooms with heat-related illnesses and closing down outdoor events. The combination of heat and humidity produced a heat index in Washington of 121 degrees, the highest since July 1980.

Unhealthy levels of heat and humidity are encompassing much of the eastern half of the US, according to NOAA’s National Weather Service, as a persistent heat wave continues its grip on the central US while expanding into the East. According to NOAA’s National Weather Service, approximately 132 million people in the United States are under a heat alert (Excessive Heat Warning or Watch or Heat Advisory) as of Friday morning.

Temperatures in the 90s to near 100 degrees will feel as hot as 115 degrees or higher when factoring in the high humidity. Record high temperatures are likely to be set in some locations — adding to the more than 1000 records that have been set or tied so far this month.

More than 4000 daily high temperature records were tied or broken in June, mostly east of the Rockies, and there were 159 reports of the record hottest temperature for June and 42 reports of all-time record hottest temperature ever. Drought intensified across parts of the Southwest to Southeast. While the southern Plains’ 1950s drought of record is unsurpassed in terms of duration, the current drought in parts of Texas is more intense than the 1950s drought when measured by the Palmer Hydrological Drought Index. While blanketing the southern U.S. with hot and dry weather, a upper level high pressure system effectively blocked any Gulf of Mexico moisture from feeding into the area. Meanwhile, the upper-level low pressure trough in the Northwest attributed to the cool, wet anomalies in the region.

Right now, the Examiner has said, approximately 29 percent of the country is experiencing some level of drought. About 12 percent of the US is experiencing “exceptional drought”, which is the highest level of drought. The combination of very little rain and scorching heat over much of the nation has been absolutely devastating. Many areas have been dealing with high temperatures in the 90s and the low triple digits for weeks.

The US Drought Monitor has said that the drought conditions across the Southern Great Plains persisted, and worsened across most areas, with localized improvements due to isolated rain events. AHPS precipitation estimates in excess of 5 inches prompted the improvement across southeastern Texas while sparse rainfall just east of El Paso also allowed for minor improvement. The rest of the southern Great Plains experienced continued hot (2 – 8 degrees F above normal) and dry weather.

Exception drought (D4) coverage was expanded in coverage across portions of Texas, including Erath, Hood, Somervell, Comanche, Jim Wells, and Duval counties. Additional expansion and intensification of the less severe drought conditions was included in the latest analysis across central Texas. Range and pastureland across Texas and Oklahoma continued to deteriorate. Across Texas, 94% of the range and pastureland was described as being in poor or very poor condition. This is a record weekly value, although measurement sof this kind only extend back to 1995. Across Oklahoma, 78% of the range and pastureland described as poor or very poor, tied for the fifth highest percentage (August 6, 2006). The rest of August 2006 saw statewide poor and very poor conditions expand to over 80% of all range and pasturelands.

The global water trade, by ship from Alaska to India

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Niger-Men draw water

Niger: Men draw water from a deep well in Zinder. They must make tough decisions as to how to divide the scarce resource between cattle, people and crops. Photo: Anne Isabelle Leclercq/IRIN

The ecological crimes committed in the name of trade and for the benefit of the ‘market’ grow in outrageousness. The latest example of utter irresponsibility, both regulatory and environmental, comes from a company headquartered in the state of Texas, USA, which plans to ship water from Alaska, USA, all the way across the Pacific Ocean, to India, where it plans to set up what it calls its ‘global water hub’.

The alert came on the Triple Pundit site, which quickly explained that the Texan company, S2C Global Systems, plans to ship 11.35 billion litres of water every year from the Blue Lake Reservoir in Sitka, Alaska to the west coast of India and other Asian countries. From there, S2C Global Systems plans to sell the water via “smaller ships that can deliver to shallower ports, like Umm Qasr in Iraq”. Do you smell the hand of US defence contractors like Halliburton here? S2C said the project is expected to begin moving water within six to eight months.

There are a number of obvious questions here. How has a Texan company gained conttrol of an entire lake in Alaska, which is a common property resource? How have the communities and settlements there in Alaska permitted this, or have they? How can US environmental regulation – the EPA for example – permit such commercial exploitation? Who is funding this obscene project – India may be a way-station for S2C now, but the company categorically says India is going to be an important market for its water. But at what cost to Alaska and to India?

S2C says it will sell the water in “20-foot containers with flexi-tanks suitable for pharmaceutical/high tech manufacturing and packaged water (18.9 and 10L) for the consumer markets anywhere containers are delivered in south and west Asia from India.” In a statement dated 07 July 2010, the company said that for “security reasons” the Indian port which is to serve as its “world water hub” will not be disclosed. It will “include a berth for a Suezmax vessel (156,000 cubic meters/41Million USG), an offloading system to a dedicated tank farm and a distribution complex for packaged water. Within 18 months after that we will be able to switch to a very large class vessel (302,833 cubic meters/80 Million USG), as both the ship and the berth for her will be completed within this time frame. Contracts for the distribution hub and ships are being finalised.”

Nepal-children fetch water

Nepal: In some places, children have to walk more than five hours to fetch water. Photo: Naresh Newar/IRIN

The company says: “India itself provides a particularly significant growth market for the packaged waters with a current population of 1.15 billion people, an emerging middle class and an increasing clean water shortage. Sales efforts throughout south and west Asia will continue with travels planned immediately through the region.”

Rod Bartlett, managing partner of Alaska Resource Management and President of S2C Global Systems, USA, is quoted in the statement as saying: “S2C Global has an exciting future in India and the region. After recently spending time in India meeting port authorities and potential distributors, our vision to distribute water globally became real. We fully expect the India World Water Hub to fulfill our minimum expectations of a half a billion gallons sold annually”.

Export Development Canada (EDC), Canada’s export credit agency, announced in March 2010 up to US$10 million in equity commitments to XPV Water Fund Limited Partnership, a venture capital fund focused on investing in the water sector. The press release described the water sector as an “area of significant growth potential for Canada”.

I can’t imagine this profiteering being part of a ‘growth’ strategy that the average Canadian would subscribe to. Meanwhile, what are conditions in countries which companies like S2C say are its world water market?

In India, figures from the Ministry of Rural Development show that the country had enough drinking water for its people in 1951 at 5,177 cubic metres per person per year. But by 2000 India had become a water-deficient country. In 2003, the country had a 25 per cent deficit, at a rate of 1,500 cubic metres per person per year. The deficit is projected to rise to 33 per cent by 2025, unless measures are taken to resolve it.

In Liberia, three out of four Liberians have no access to safe drinking water and six out of seven cannot access sanitation facilities, such as toilets, according to Oxfam. A further US$93.5 million is needed to boost clean water access to 50 percent of all Liberians; and to improve access to toilets to 33 percent – goals set out in the government’s 2008-2011 poverty reduction strategy.

Children draw water in Chad

Chad: Chadians receive US$3 in water aid per capita annually. Photo: WaterAid

In Iraq, there is an acute shortage of water nationwide and a collapsed economy, which makes it very difficult for farmers to do other work. Tribal sheikh Ali Ismael al-Zubaidi from Diwaniya Governorate, about 200 km south of Baghdad, said in an IRIN report he had been having “tough negotiations” over water allocations with another tribe that lives upstream from his. “We have daily problems with water. They are siphoning water with huge electric water pumps and leave only drops for us. Government officials can’t control the regulation of irrigation and stop those who violate their regulations either because of corruption or because they fear for their lives. So we have to solve this issue ourselves.”

In Nepal, according to government statistics, more than 4.4 million people do not have regular access to safe drinking water in rural and urban areas, be it via piped water, wells, rainwater or bottled water. Public health concerns are increasing as a result. Already, more than 10,500 children die before their fifth birthday from diarrhoea, mainly due to inadequate access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, according to WaterAid. More than 80 percent of diseases are the result of unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation, according to its 2009 report, ‘End Water Poverty in Nepal’.

In 2000 the world pledged that half the 2.6 billion people without safe drinking water and basic sanitation would have access to these basic facilities by 2015, but poor countries will need US$18.4 billion more a year to reach this Millennium Development Goal (MDG), which at this rate will only be met in 2200. In 1997, 8% of overall development aid went to water and sanitation; in 2008 this dropped to just 5%-less than commitments for health, education, transport, energy and agriculture, according to the Global Annual Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking Water (GLAAS) report by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Moreover, the bulk of this global aid went to middle-income countries, with low-income countries receiving just 42%, said WaterAid, an international NGO working to provide access to clean water, sanitation and health education.