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Drought is a recurring feature of nearly every climate on the planet. In many parts of the world, including North America, we have very little ability to predict exactly when drought will happen next. But if we look at history and climate data, we can be sure that drought will happen again at some point.

In the United States, a well-developed economy and agricultural system generally protect citizens from the most critical effects of drought such as shortages of food and water. However, drought still causes extreme hardship for farm and ranch families, and individual wells may run dry. Densely populated areas face difficult choices in dry years, such as whether to take agricultural land out of production to satisfy urban water needs.

Decision-makers


  • farming, ranching, rural communities, vendors
  • municipal water suppliers
  • wildfire managers
  • environmental organizations, advocates and agencies
  • public health specialists
  • hydropower producers
  • industry, including producers of biofuels
  • tourism and recreation operators
  • state, local and tribal governments, and any regional resource management entities

A first step in any drought-planning effort is to assemble a team of relevant decision-makers and stakeholders.

Key Questions


  • "How will drought affect us?" Looking at past drought impacts helps people understand their vulnerability to drought.
  • "How will we recognize the next drought in the early stages?" Understanding what data are available and collecting more, if necessary, are key. This is part of monitoring and early warning.
  • "How can we protect ourselves from the next drought?" The answer to this will vary tremendously depending on the enterprise. The NDMC maintains a searchable database that includes drought plans, mitigation actions, and more.

After researching impacts, monitoring, and management options, the team will need to come up with a plan detailing how the organization will recognize and respond to drought. In many cases it may be appropriate to use triggers to phase in response actions according to the severity level of drought.

The team should also consider what the organization can do to reduce long-term vulnerability to drought. For farmers, this could mean management practices that retain water in soil and reduce the need for irrigation. For municipalities, it could be fixing leaks in old pipes or identifying new water supplies. For the federal government, it could be recognizing the interconnections between food, water, and energy, and revamping policy accordingly.

Some management options will be comparatively easy to implement, such as encouraging homeowners to use xeriscaping rather than lawns in dry regions. Other options such as upgrading infrastructure or implementing smart growth development practices can take years. Fortunately, many measures that reduce long-term drought risk also contribute to community health in other ways, so implementing drought risk reduction measures can piggyback on other efforts to reduce greenhouse gasses, implement a healthier, more sustainable food and agriculture system, and prepare for other natural hazards.

Monitoring

Drought is a slow-moving natural hazard, so people may not realize that they're in the middle of one until it is long-established, with serious impacts. Urban dwellers, who live within very managed natural systems, may not have a way to notice dry conditions unless they deliberately seek data. Agricultural producers notice, but may tend to be optimistic about prospects for future rain, particularly given the choices presented by agricultural policy and financial necessity. Early warning systems can provide a "heads up" on dry conditions that would otherwise go unnoticed, allowing policymakers, water planners, and agricultural producers to make decisions based on the best available data.

Recommendations:


Adopt an operational definition of drought.

Use triggers to link planned responses to drought, such as voluntary or mandatory water conservation, to the measured intensity of drought conditions.

Definitions:


drought indicator looks at one or more variables, such as precipitation, to describe available water in soil or hydrologic systems. It may be a record of a single measurement, such as rainfall at a particular rain gauge.

drought index is a type of indicator that mathematically combines one or more variables, such as precipitation and temperature, into a single map or assessment.

For more information: See our detailed Handbook of Drought Indicators and Indices.

Drought Monitoring and Planning Scales


National

At the national level, when policymakers are deciding whether to allocate millions or even billions of dollars in drought relief to farmers and ranchers, statistics that document long-term dry weather can help build the case for distributing emergency assistance. A drought index is a statistical analysis of climate data.

Analyses based on climatology, hydrology, and satellite-derived data are all valuable. So are local history and experience. At the state and national scales, economic crop loss data may be available. Monitoring should also be tailored according to past drought impacts and present vulnerability.

State

Many water and resource management decisions are state's responsibilities. State approaches to drought planning vary greatly based on how much they experience drought and strained water supplies, and on what part of the country they are in. Water law and land management functions differently in the western and eastern United States.

The NDMC maintains an extensive collection of state drought plans and resources. It includes local, regional and tribal plans and resources, accessible by drilling down from the state level.

Resource: See the 10-Step Planning Process, which has been adapted by many U.S. states as well as countries around the world.

Local, Regional and Tribal

Indian tribes, river basin commissions, water suppliers, planning commissions, municipalities, and individual farmers and ranchers all make decisions about land and water resources. The NDMC recommends that each governmental authority develop its own drought plan, addressing the specific issues that occur within its scope of authority. Note that water utilities' drought plans may be narrower in focus than the full range of issues experienced within a municipality. It is ideal if municipal drought plans are developed with awareness of larger regional or state plans.

Resource: See the Guide to Community Drought Preparedness.

Impacts

The effects of drought ripple through economic sectors, communities, and ecosystems, leaving a variety of impacts in its wake. Understanding how drought affects you or your community or business is crucial, because then you can figure out why drought creates those effects, and what you may be able to do about them.

Recent Scholarly Work on Drought Impacts


Effects of drought on forests and rangelands in the United States,  U.S. Forest Service, Gen. Tech. Report WO-93a, November 2015, by James M. Vose, James S. Clark, Charles H. Luce, and Toral Patel-Weynand

The Missing Piece: Drought Impacts Monitoring, Report from a Workshop in Tucson, AZ, March 5-6, 2013, by Kirsten Lackstrom, Amanda Brennan, Daniel Ferguson, Mike Crimmins, Lisa Darby, Kirstin Dow, Keith Ingram, Alison Meadow, Henry Reges, Mark Shafer, Kelly Smith

"Field of Dreams, or Dream Team?: Assessing Two Models For Drought Impact Reporting in the Semiarid Southwest," by Alison M. Meadow, Institute of the Environment, University of Arizona; Michael A. Crimmins, Department of Soil, Water, and Environmental Science, University of Arizona; Daniel B. Ferguson, Institute of the Environment, University of Arizona, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 2013 ; e-View doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/BAMS-D-11-00168.1

"Local Observers Fill in the Details on Drought Impact Reporter Maps," by Kelly Helm Smith, Mark Svoboda, Michael Hayes, Henry Reges, Nolan Doesken, Kirsten Lackstrom, Kristin Dow, and Amanda Brennan. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 95: 11, Nov. 2014, 1659-1662.

Impacts in Drought Planning


Impacts Checklist

Through its work with drought planners around the world, the NDMC has developed a checklist of drought's impacts. The checklist can help planners identify areas of vulnerability so that policy makers can target resources as effectively as possible. 

How to Reduce Drought Risk

This planning guide goes beyond the impacts checklist and gets to the roots of risk and vulnerability.

Drought Impact Reporter Collaboration Possibilities

Learn more about the Drought Impact Reporter, and consider whether it could help you establish a network of observers.

Adding photos to observations in the Drought Impact Reporter

This video provides a step-by-step overview showing how to add photos to drought-related observations.

International Drought Impacts


Famine Early Warning System

The U.S. Agency for International Development and partners collaborate to produce the Famine Early Warning System. 

The Southern African Development Community

The Southern African Development Community monitors emerging droughts and many other factors to anticipate food shortages. Drought is one of the predictors of famine in developing countries.

Agroclimate Impact Reporter

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has developed an Agroclimate Impact Reporter that includes drought impacts.