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Chinese drought, bread and the Arab Spring

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Relevance to three pillarsHuman, Societal and Developmental aspects of Climate Change: Y
Adaptation to impacts of Climate Change: N
Equitable Low-Carbon Development: N


By assessing the 2011 winter drought in the agricultural region of eastern China scientifically, with meteorological data and drought indices, Sternberg assesses its link to global wheat prices and revolution in Egypt to highlight how natural hazards may affect food security and influence political stability. The author broadens the scope of climate inquiry and suggests a potential research agenda that examines hazard impact on socio-political spheres. The scenario used reflects the vulnerability of countries seeking food security in their pursuit of stability and how climate hazards can reach a global scope.


In 2011, winter drought in eastern China’s wheat-growing region had significant implications beyond the country’s borders. Potential crop failure due to drought led China to buy wheat on the international market and contributed to a doubling of global wheat prices; the resultant price spikes had a serious economic impact in Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, where bread prices tripled. Egypt’s geography and population combine to create a dependency on imported wheat and a subsequent exposure to external commodity factors. Bread is the staple of the Egyptian diet, and for decades bread subsidies have been used to maintain social stability.


The effect of climatological hazards on wheat production in 2010-11 is a striking example of how climate hazards, agriculture and politics can become interwoven across spatial scales. The top nine wheat importing countries per capita are in the Middle East; seven experienced political protests in 2010 (the other 2 - Israel and the United Arab Emirates - are high income countries where the percentage of earnings spent on food is low). This reflects the vulnerability of Arab countries to commodity markets because of their high dependence on imported food. Equally striking is the percentage of household income spent on food in the region - citizens in the countries facing political unrest spend >35% of their household budget on food supplies.


• In an interconnected world we have reached the point where a regional climate event can have global impact. Unexpected circumstances saw extreme drought in China, the price of bread and political change become interconnected with Egypt in 2011.
• How both countries dealt with the perception of risk is key - China’s awareness of drought’s domestic implications led to mitigation efforts whilst the Egyptian government failed to grasp the social repercussions of escalating bread prices.
• Both countries remain vulnerable when attempting to achieve wheat security - China to drought and climate variability and Egypt to global markets and domestic costs.
• China has $3 trillion in foreign reserves that enable the government to spend as needed on commodities; in contrast, the Egyptian system was less capable of perceiving and meeting basic needs of its population. The chain of events and actions addressed in this paper highlight how government effectiveness, or lack thereof, in two autocratic regimes resulted in opposite outcomes.
• Drought can ultimately affect more people and resources than any other natural hazard. Other disasters may disrupt food supply or social order in situ, with some potential knock-on effect regionally. However, it is the indirect influence of climate events and disasters that have a global reach.

Directions for future research

• Links between climate hazards and social issues cross continents and stress the importance of examining issues that shape our world from multiple angles by combining different methodologies.
• Events discussed here suggest a potential research agenda for applied geography that may cross disciplines and strengthen the value and relevance of academic inquiry.


Sternberg Troy


Agriculture; Food security


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