Research in the early 1980s uncovered more than 150 published definitions of drought. The definitions reflect differences in regions, needs, and disciplinary approaches.
Wilhite and Glantz1 categorized the definitions in terms of four basic approaches to measuring drought: meteorological, hydrological, agricultural, and socioeconomic. The first three approaches deal with ways to measure drought as a physical phenomenon. The last deals with drought in terms of supply and demand, tracking the effects of water shortfall as it ripples through socioeconomic systems.
Meteorological drought is defined usually on the basis of the degree of dryness (in comparison to some “normal” or average amount) and the duration of the dry period. Definitions of meteorological drought must be considered as region specific since the atmospheric conditions that result in deficiencies of precipitation are highly variable from region to region.
For example, some definitions of meteorological drought identify periods of drought on the basis of the number of days with precipitation less than some specified threshold. This measure is only appropriate for regions characterized by a year-round precipitation regime such as a tropical rainforest, humid subtropical climate, or humid mid-latitude climate. Locations such as Manaus, Brazil; New Orleans, Louisiana (U.S.A.); and London, England, are examples. Other climatic regimes are characterized by a seasonal rainfall pattern, such as the central United States, northeast Brazil, West Africa, and northern Australia. Extended periods without rainfall are common in Omaha, Nebraska (U.S.A.); Fortaleza, Ceará (Brazil); and Darwin, Northwest Territory (Australia), and a definition based on the number of days with precipitation less than some specified threshold is unrealistic in these cases. Other definitions may relate actual precipitation departures to average amounts on monthly, seasonal, or annual time scales.
Agricultural drought links various characteristics of meteorological (or hydrological) drought to agricultural impacts, focusing on precipitation shortages, differences between actual and potential evapotranspiration, soil water deficits, reduced groundwater or reservoir levels, and so forth. Plant water demand depends on prevailing weather conditions, biological characteristics of the specific plant, its stage of growth, and the physical and biological properties of the soil. A good definition of agricultural drought should be able to account for the variable susceptibility of crops during different stages of crop development, from emergence to maturity. Deficient topsoil moisture at planting may hinder germination, leading to low plant populations per hectare and a reduction of final yield. However, if topsoil moisture is sufficient for early growth requirements, deficiencies in subsoil moisture at this early stage may not affect final yield if subsoil moisture is replenished as the growing season progresses or if rainfall meets plant water needs.
Hydrological drought is associated with the effects of periods of precipitation (including snowfall) shortfalls on surface or subsurface water supply (i.e., streamflow, reservoir and lake levels, groundwater). The frequency and severity of hydrological drought is often defined on a watershed or river basin scale. Although all droughts originate with a deficiency of precipitation, hydrologists are more concerned with how this deficiency plays out through the hydrologic system. Hydrological droughts are usually out of phase with or lag the occurrence of meteorological and agricultural droughts. It takes longer for precipitation deficiencies to show up in components of the hydrological system such as soil moisture, streamflow, and groundwater and reservoir levels. As a result, these impacts are out of phase with impacts in other economic sectors. For example, a precipitation deficiency may result in a rapid depletion of soil moisture that is almost immediately discernible to agriculturalists, but the impact of this deficiency on reservoir levels may not affect hydroelectric power production or recreational uses for many months. Also, water in hydrologic storage systems (e.g., reservoirs, rivers) is often used for multiple and competing purposes (e.g., flood control, irrigation, recreation, navigation, hydropower, wildlife habitat), further complicating the sequence and quantification of impacts. Competition for water in these storage systems escalates during drought and conflicts between water users increase significantly.
Socioeconomic definitions of drought associate the supply and demand of some economic good with elements of meteorological, hydrological, and agricultural drought. It differs from the aforementioned types of drought because its occurrence depends on the time and space processes of supply and demand to identify or classify droughts. The supply of many economic goods, such as water, forage, food grains, fish, and hydroelectric power, depends on weather. Because of the natural variability of climate, water supply is ample in some years but unable to meet human and environmental needs in other years. Socioeconomic drought occurs when the demand for an economic good exceeds supply as a result of a weather-related shortfall in water supply. For example, in Uruguay in 1988–89, drought resulted in significantly reduced hydroelectric power production because power plants were dependent on streamflow rather than storage for power generation. Reducing hydroelectric power production required the government to convert to more expensive (imported) petroleum and implement stringent energy conservation measures to meet the nation’s power needs.
In most instances, the demand for economic goods is increasing as a result of increasing population and per capita consumption. Supply may also increase because of improved production efficiency, technology, or the construction of reservoirs that increase surface water storage capacity. If both supply and demand are increasing, the critical factor is the relative rate of change. Is demand increasing more rapidly than supply? If so, vulnerability and the incidence of drought may increase in the future as supply and demand trends converge.
1Wilhite, D.A.; and M.H. Glantz. 1985. Understanding the Drought Phenomenon: The Role of Definitions. Water International 10(3):111–120.
A more recent effort focuses on ecological drought, defined as "a prolonged and widespread deficit in naturally available water supplies — including changes in natural and managed hydrology — that create multiple stresses across ecosystems."