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Civilizations That Withered in Drought
By Talal Al-Khatib,
Discovery News, 18 May 2015.

With California in its fourth year of a historic drought, its worst in 1,200 years, signs of a strengthening El Nino suggest at least some relief may be in sight. In fact, the promise of the rains El Nino might bring have already led some to describe the weather pattern as "the great wet hope."

Even if El Nino proves to be a benefit, California will still face a severe deficit to its water resources and will need to change its archaic and wasteful water management practices. No matter how innovative a society, a drought can push it to its breaking point or even past that.

This article takes a look at civilizations that were pushed to the brink and beyond as a result of major droughts.

1. Out of Africa

Lake Malawi, as seen today, holds more than 80 percent of the surface freshwater available in Africa. Photo: Paul venter/Wikimedia Commons.

Before the dawn of civilization, humans lived in sub-Saharan Africa. Eventually, these primitive people migrated out of the continent, spreading to the Middle East, Europe and Asia, compelled by drought to seek a more accommodating environment, according to a study published in 2007 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Between 135,000 and 90,000 years ago, Africa transformed from lush tropical country to an "arid scrubland," researchers discovered after analyzing sediment cores from Lake Malawi, one of the world's largest and deepest lakes, which borders Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. A reflection of how severe the droughts were, Lake Malawi's water level dropped at least 600 meters (1,968 feet), leaving shallow waters full of algae, instead of the deep, clear waters seen today.

Little evidence exists of human populations, which likely crashed, during this time. Beginning 70,000 years ago, traces of human activity sprout up once again, along signs of a northward migration.

2. Indus Valley

Ruins of the Harappa civilization demonstrate the potent effects of climate change. Photo: Hassan Nasir/Wikimedia Commons.

The annual cycle of the monsoon season, which stretches from June to September, is as environmentally and economically important to the Indian subcontinent today as it was 4,000 years ago. When the monsoons took a hiatus between 2200 B.C. and 2000 B.C., the climate shift decimated the Harrappa civilization, located in the Indus Valley in present-day Pakistan and northwest India.

The Harappa left behind "large, well-planned cities with advanced municipal sanitation systems and a script that has never been deciphered," according to an article published in Nature. Despite the civilization's advances, the Harappans abandoned their cities after monsoon failure sparked an extended drought.

3. Old Kingdom Egypt

The Pyramid of Djoser, seen here, dates back to the 27th century B.C. Photo: Wknight94/Wikimedia Commons.

Around the same time as the mega-drought in the Indus Valley, another climate event would bring Old Kingdom Egypt to its knees.

Just as the kingdom was recovering from a government crisis that saw 18 kings and possibly even one queen take the throne over a 20-year period, a severe famine caused chaos in Egypt, which led Egyptians to commit terrible acts, "such as eating their own children and violating the sacred sanctity of the royal dead," as recounted by the BBC.

The famine was the result of a drought triggered by a dramatic reduction in seasonal Nile floods. The event triggered a dramatic realignment in Egyptian social and political order, but the civilization of the pharaohs endured.

4. Late Bronze Age Drought

The ruins of old Hittite capital Hattusa blend in with the environment as a climate catastrophe claimed the entire civilization. Photo: Sergio e Gabriella Trentanni/Flickr.

A 300-year mega-drought that began 3,200 years ago around the Mediterranean lay ruin upon "a rich linkage of Aegean, Egyptian, Syro-Palestinian, and Hittite civilizations," according to a study published in 2013 in the journal PLoS One. Researchers analyzed pollen and sediment from Larnaca Salt Lake in Cyprus to pin down the reason behind the decline or, as in the case of the Hittites, disappearance of entire civilizations around the eastern Mediterranean and southwest Asia.

These ancient civilizations relied on a combination of dry farming, fishing and pastoral nomadism for subsistence, according to the study's authors. The climate shift sparked famine, which triggered mass migrations that in turn led to widespread socio-economic crises. As violent conflicts arose with nomadic raiders clashing with struggling empires, cities burned, and populations declined.

5. The Mayans

Tulum, pictured here, is one of the cities the Mayans used to call home, before abandoning it to the jungle. Photo: Joeldesalvatierra/Wikimedia Commons.

The Maya civilization had its roots in the eighth century B.C., and at its height, during what is known as the Classic period between 300 A.D. and 700 A.D., spanned an area the size of Texas in Central America. The Mayans built great cities, created the only known, complete writing system in the New World, and developed an astronomical system advanced enough as to convince a handful of 21st century kooks that these pre-Colombian people could predict doomsday.

Beginning around the eighth century A.D., the Mayans began to fall in decline. Cities were abandoned. Population levels crashed. Political turmoil took hold. All that remained of the civilization were the ruins they left behind.

The leading theory behind the downfall of the Mayans is the long periods of drought, with dramatic reductions in rainfall - up to 40 percent annually - over decades at a time, according to a study published in the journal Science in 2012. Such long periods of severe drought would have affected food supplies, furthered the spread of disease and sparked social unrest that brought down the civilization.

6. Khmer Empire

First encountered by missionaries in 1860, Angkor is a city twice as large as Manhattan and houses one of the most spectacular religious complexes in the world. Photo: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen/Wikimedia Commons.

Built in the 12th century, Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument on Earth, stands today as a reminder of the legacy of the Khmer empire, which thrived in Southeast Asia for five centuries. The city of Angkor hosted the largest urban complex in the pre-industrial world, as reported by Live Science, even bigger than some major metropolitan areas today.

Angkor and the empire that built it began to decline in the late 14th century, with historians placing the blame on drought based on tree-ring analysis. Although the Khmer built an extensive water management network to capture rains for the monsoon season for rice fields, it proved inadequate for the intense climate changes.

As is the case with civilizations that faced similar circumstances, resource scarcity led to social and political tensions that led to the downfall of the Khmer.

7. The Dust Bowl

Scenes such as this photo were common during the Dust Bowl years in the 1930s. Photo: NOAA George E. Marsh Album/Wikimedia Commons.

Of all the scenes to capture life during the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl encapsulates both the bitterness and resilience better than just about any other event. Numerous photographs were shot of giant clouds of dust, called "black blizzards," overtaking small farming communities, which were decimated as a result of this environmental catastrophe.

The Dust Bowl was a period where much of the Great Plains of the United States experienced drought, high winds and high temperatures, in addition to insect infestations and, of course, dust storms, according to the National Drought Mitigation Centre at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The Dust Bowl came in three waves over eight years and ruined farmers' economic livelihoods during that time, already strained with the depression.

The event forced the migration of millions out of the Great Plains, with most heading West in search of an escape out of poverty. Conflicts emerged between migrants and established residents and overwhelmed relief efforts.

Top image: A parched river bed is one of the many signs of California's enduring water woes. Photograph by Justin Sullivan, Getty.

[Source: Discovery News. Edited. Some images added.]