In marking the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, the United Nations is calling for better land management and regreening initiatives to tackle the twin disasters.
Europe is struggling with an unusually early and intense heat wave, which has spread from North Africa. That has been preceded by a prolonged heat wave in India and Pakistan in March and April.
Spokeswoman for the World Meteorological Organization, Clare Nullis, said European countries are experiencing scorching temperatures in mid-June that are more typical of those in July or August. She added that temperatures more than 10 degrees higher than average are combined with drought in many parts of Europe.
"As a result of climate change, heat waves are starting earlier. They are becoming more frequent and more severe because of concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which are at record level," Nullis said. "What we are witnessing today is, unfortunately, a foretaste of the future."
Heat waves can exacerbate drought and wildfires, and trigger desertification. Droughts are increasing in frequency and severity, the WMO says, adding that they have gone up by 29 percent since 2000, affecting 55 million people a year.
The World Health Organization calls drought an urgent, global issue. It says droughts are getting more frequent and fiercer in all regions, affecting the health and well-being of millions of people. WHO spokeswoman Carla Drysdale said a particularly hard-hit region is the greater Horn of Africa.
"In the past 10 years, the region has endured three severe droughts," Drysdale said. "The frequency and severity of droughts in recent years, linked to the changing climate, has made it harder and harder for families to recover from these shocks. … Millions in the greater Horn of Africa are facing acute hunger."
U.N. agencies agree early action can avert a crisis, lessen the impact of drought, and reverse desertification. They say measures such as rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation systems, and crop engineering that increases resilience to dry conditions can ward off some of the worst effects of drought.
They recommend better land management, tree planting and other regreening projects to combat desertification and restore the land to what it was. They also point to the Great Green Wall of the Sahel project in Africa, which has restored millions of hectares of land and created thousands of jobs, from Dakar, Senegal, to Djibouti.