Global Droughts: Thirst for Profit Drains Planet Dry

In the face of the pandemic, the environmental crisis has been somewhat overshadowed. Its impact, however, rages on. We are now reaping the consequences of climate change with extreme weather conditions becoming increasingly common. This year, in particular, ominous droughts have impacted regions spread all over the world.

California, Brazil, and Taiwan have all seen record-breaking droughts. Entire regions including Europe, Africa, and the Middle East have also seen dire water shortages. Decades of capitalist mismanagement, corruption, and climate change have produced an extreme water crisis that is now posing an urgent choice before humanity: either we execute a planned emergency response, or we will see large swathes of our planet reduced to uninhabitability.

According to the WHO, an estimated 55 million people across the globe are now affected by droughts every year. The situation is posing a serious hazard to livestock and crops in nearly every part of the world. It threatens people’s livelihoods, increases the risk of diseases, and is fueling massive population displacement. By 2030, as many as 700 million people will be at risk of displacement as a result of drought. A recent study published in Nature Geoscience states that droughts of such severity haven’t been experienced in European summertime for over 2,100 years.

The situation is only getting worse. Droughts are expected to last longer and become more severe as the planet continues to warm due to greenhouse gas emissions, principally from fossil fuels. The Environmental Defence Fund (EDF) even speaks of a trend towards megadrought periods, which can last two decades or longer.

Capitalism is to blame

As rivers, lakes and reservoirs dry up, data from NASA has revealed that 13 of the world’s 37 most important groundwater basins are being depleted far faster than they can be recharged. Agriculture accounts for about 70% of global freshwater usage, with industry claiming another 20%, accounting for 90% in total. Such figures show clearly why ethical choices to cut personal water consumption by individuals cannot scratch the surface of the problem.

There is much that is completely irrational about agriculture under capitalism. Let us take the case of California. This US state is so dry—receiving only about 8 cm of rain a year—that it in fact qualifies as a literal desert. And yet this region produces about 90 percent of winter vegetables in the US. Acres upon acres of land in California are dedicated to producing alfalfa and almonds—two of the most water-intensive crops that exist. Farmers are flooding their rice fields with an obscene amount of water that evaporates almost as quickly as it is applied. California produces the second-largest rice crop in the US. But now, due to the drought, farmers will grow about 100,000 fewer acres of rice, down 20% from the average 500,000 acres grown annually in the state.

These are cash crops, which are farmed because agribusiness that owns the land can get a good yield and excellent prices. But it is residents in cities nearby that are left to deal with the repercussions of a severe water shortage. Rationally speaking, nothing about this situation makes any sense. From a water management point of view, these crops only contribute to further draining California’s limited water basin, paving the way for its complete collapse.

This is a direct consequence of the private ownership of land under capitalism. For the time being, it makes perfect sense for agribusiness to flood its fields. If the business that owns a field were to moderate its water usage by switching crops, others in the state will outcompete them by continuing to grow the most lucrative crops. The anarchic competition of the market means that the faster the water table is drained, the more greedily agribusinesses continue to suck it dry, hoping to grab as much of this precious and limited resource as they can before it is entirely depleted.

This is only one example. Such practices are widespread all over the globe; from flooding agricultural land with water (which is the least efficient way to irrigate a field), to growing crops in unsuitable climates because it is profitable in the short term to do so, to cutting down the Amazon and other rainforests for their short-term fertility.

The point is, the capitalists exploit the planet and its resources for immediate gain. Their motive is profit. As Engels already wrote back in 1876 in his incredible work, The Part Played by Labor in the Transition From Ape to Man:

As individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account … The same thing applies to the natural effects of the same actions. What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertilizer for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees—what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock! In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be quite different…


For small farmers across the globe, increasing occurrences of drought caused by climate change have rendered their old way of life completely untenable. The crisis has already led to radical protests in various regions. In Iran for example, farmers have taken to the streets once more this year against the lack of permanent access to water.

Iran Demonstrations of Farmers in Isfahan and Retirees in Tehran
In many places, including Iran for example, farmers have taken to the streets against the lack of permanent access to water. Image: Iranfocus.com

These people are rightfully furious and incredibly desperate. Farmers have had to sell literally everything they had in order to survive. Studies have shown that there is a clear correlation between drought and suicide rates among farmers.

Mass outbursts of anger in Iran over water shortages are not isolated. The Tigris-Euphrates basin is being drained faster than any other basin in the world with the exception of northern India. In Syria, a devastating drought in 2006 forced farmers to migrate to the cities to survive, swelling the ranks of the unemployed and feeding the reservoir of anger that exploded in 2011.

In the same region, the depletion of water reserves is stoking national tensions. Since 1975, Turkey’s construction of hydroelectric dams has cut water flow to Iraq by 90 percent and to Syria by 40 percent. Both have accused Turkey of hoarding water.

The lack of access to water was precisely one of the triggers of the protest movement in Iraq in 2019. The masses were forced to endure summers in which temperature reached 50 degrees without water or electricity. And yet the richest neighborhoods were able to enjoy air conditioning and fresh water without interruption. Lenin once said that “capitalism is horror without end.” Here is a case in point. The deteriorating water crisis will be a fundamental factor in the development of revolutionary consciousness for many workers and farmers.

Refugee crisis

Both the environmental crisis itself, and consequent water wars, are likely to exacerbate the horror of the refugee crisis. According to the UN’s estimates, by 2050 around 200 million people could be displaced by climate change. Extreme weather events, desertification, and rising sea level—which as well as flooding coastal areas will cause the further salination of freshwater supplies if planning measures are not implemented in time—will all contribute to driving people from their homes.

Meanwhile, the Dutch government-funded WPS (Water, Peace, and Security) has predicted that there is on average an 86% chance of violent water-related conflict in Iraq, Iran, Mali, Nigeria, India and Pakistan this year alone.

Under capitalism, it’s every man for himself and every nation for itself. Rather than a global, planned response that prioritizes human need, each capitalist nation will protect its own access to water at the expense of its neighbors.

An alternative exists

Despite the environmental destruction that we have experienced, we must highlight that we have all the means necessary to resolve these problems.

Farmer working in the field
Every day this rotten system lives on, the crisis becomes more severe, and ultimately lives are lost. We urgently need a revolution. Image: Sher Khan, Pixahive

First and foremost, what is required is a rational plan of production. Rather than each capitalist producing such and such a crop because it is most profitable to do so on their given farm, specific crops ought to be grown based on soil type, moisture content, temperature, rain etc. Rather than producing water-intensive crops in semi-arid environments, other more appropriate crops ought to be grown there, and the more water-intensive crops grown where freshwater is more abundant. As long as individual capitalists and national gangs of capitalists are in competition, such a plan is impossible. In other words, we need a rational, global agricultural plan run by and for working people. Imagine what we could do on a worldwide scale.

Furthermore, technology that is already in existence must be placed at the disposal of society to make water usage as efficient as possible. The highly developed Dutch agriculture sector is already putting such technology to use.

Direct crop monitoring and geo-information are used by Dutch agribusiness to give better insights into water resources, measuring soil quality and moisture levels etc. in order to improve agricultural methods and the efficiency of irrigation. One innovation that has made a sharp impact on production is known as “protected cultivation” or the “closed” greenhouse method, which improves the efficiency of water usage immensely. Of course, this requires a lot more energy. However, under socialism we would find sustainable means to power these greenhouses using renewable energy.

This “closed” greenhouse method reduces water losses to air significantly, which on average accounts for about 70% of the water lost through irrigation. Through hydroponic recycling, water emission to soil can also be reduced. Dutch agriculture has achieved a water efficiency that is unmatched anywhere in the world. Just to give an example, in a Spanish tomato field, a farmer would produce about 20 kg of tomatoes per cubic meter of water. In the Dutch “closed” greenhouse, the same amount of water can produce 250 kg of tomatoes.

Yet the Dutch capitalist class hoards this technology for itself, having no interest in sharing such knowledge and techniques with its competitors on the world market. They are interested in water efficiency because it is profitable. Their motivation is not to produce food to feed people, but to compete on the world market.

Such methods are therefore completely inaccessible to small farmers in Iran, India, and anywhere else in the world. This is not “their fault,” but rather the fault of the capitalists. As their old methods of irrigation are made unviable by dwindling water supplies, rather than assisting farmers to upgrade their methods, the capitalist state simply elbows them aside, reserving the limited water that is left for the giant monopolies. Today the rich nations like the Netherlands jealously guard important innovations in water usage. Even if they were to share them, the big banks wouldn’t lend sufficient capital to small farmers to make use of them. Under a socialist plan of production, on the contrary, it would be in the interest of society as a whole not only to share these groundbreaking technologies with the whole of humanity, but also to assist small farmers in collectively rationalizing agriculture, laying all the necessary capital and expertise at the disposal of small farming communities.

Agriculture suffers from the same fundamental problem that prevents the capitalists from urgently switching to green energy. It’s simply not profitable to do so.

Protection of many precious water sources would require massive economic planning. There is no immediate profit in an individual capitalist investing in desalinating groundwater or creating the infrastructure for a national, and indeed international, management system for water usage for human consumption, agriculture and industry. There is no loss to profit in just dumping waste pollutants into rivers and oceans. Indeed, it is often the cheapest thing to do for an individual capitalist. The cost for humanity, however, is immeasurable.

None of this can be solved under capitalism. That’s the point. We must therefore be possessed by a sense of urgency to overthrow capitalism at the first opportunity.

When capitalism has been done away with, we can finally begin to address the manifold environmental catastrophes that capitalism has bestowed us as its legacy. Workers can introduce a rational system, where we share the immense wealth of knowledge and technology we have to manage water sustainably. No one needs to go hungry, become a refugee, or suffer as a consequence of climate change. We have the means to change this situation, but we cannot change something we cannot control, and we cannot control what we do not own.

Nationalization of giant agribusiness, mining and other water-intensive industries, and the banks under a democratic plan of production is the primary condition for solving the water crisis.

Capitalism has severely damaged the planet. But once the working class has control, we can make the switch to green energy to reverse the long-term effects of climate change, and we can begin immediately tackling issues such as droughts. Every day this rotten system lives on, the crisis becomes more severe, and ultimately lives are lost. We urgently need a revolution.

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