What On Earth

This year's drought is a 'creeping disaster' that affects more than just farmers

Climate change is making the water cycle less predictable and more extreme, and this year's widespread drought in Western Canada and the U.S. is something we can expect to see more of. CBC Radio's What On Earth looks at how science and Indigenous knowledge might both help us adapt — and change how we manage water.

Widespread extreme heat and lack of rain also impacts infrastructure, and even grocery bills

Southern Alberta Farmer, Richard Owen, stands in the same spot of his barley field in July 2020 and July 2021. (Kim Owen)

Farmers in Western Canada have been struggling with the extreme heat and lack of rain this summer, with some selling off cattle herds they don't have hay to feed, and others writing off crops that are stunted and brown, instead of lush and green.

But this drought is so widespread, it's also having impacts outside the agricultural sector, even if they're not obvious, says Trevor Hadwen, an agroclimate specialist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

"We don't look at drought as a huge impact often because we don't see it," he told What On Earth.

"Drought is more of a creeping disaster ... it starts out very slow and it lasts a long period of time."

Beyond the wildfires burning and leaving skies smoky, the drought can also lead to infrastructure damage, said Hadwen. When soil dries out, it can literally shrink, causing problems for water and gas lines.

As well, the difficulties in farmers' fields will be passed on to consumers.

"Our grocery bills will go up because it's costing more to produce livestock and more to [grow] produce and greens," he said.

This week, CBC Radio's What On Earth explores how climate change is making water less predictable and more extreme — from drought to flooding — and how science and Indigenous knowleges can help us adapt.

Guest host Lisa Johnson talks to:

  • Jay Famiglietti, the executive director of the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Sask., about the global crisis in groundwater, and why it's important to have good science on what's available before relying on aquifers as a safety net.

  • Deborah McGregor, an associate professor at York University and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Environmental Justice, about the ways Anishinaabek people relate to water, and how Indigenous knowledges could improve water management.

  • Trevor Hadwen, an agroclimate specialist with Agriculture Canada, about a new drought forecasting tool, offering a 30 day forecast to help farmers plan. 

Agriculture Canada's new drought outlook, issued on the first Thursday of the month, is meant to help producers plan and adjust to what is becoming a less predictable water cycle under climate change. This outlook was for July. (Agriculture Canada)