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Nearly every part of our planet experiences times of less rain than usual. If we don’t plan for drought and we assume instead that every year will be a good one, we’re eventually in for an unpleasant surprise. But if we plan for drought, then we can enjoy the benefits of normal or rainy years and not get caught unprepared in dry years.

Drought is Expensive

Because it is slow-moving and doesn’t usually involve direct property damage, we tend to underestimate the effects of drought. The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimated in 1995 that drought costs the United States an average of $6 to 8 billion a year. The National Climatic Data Center has assembled a list of “Billion Dollar Weather Disasters” since 1980. Of the 90 events listed from 1980 to 2008, including hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and wildfire, 14 were drought and wildfire. Widespread drought in 2008 was estimated to cost at least $2 billion and threatened metropolitan Atlanta. Drought in 1980 led to estimated losses of $55.4 billion and about 10,000 heat-related deaths, and in 1988, $71.2 billion, with about 7,500 heat-related deaths.

One frequently cited estimate from FEMA is that “mitigation” – taking steps ahead of time to prevent known impacts from a natural disaster – saves $4 for every $1 expended. Planning ahead is generally seen as more efficient and more effective than measures taken in crisis mode. Drought researchers have found that after-the-fact assistance to farmers, for example, is expensive and doesn’t necessarily reach the right people.

Drought Reduces Agricultural Productivity

In the United States, farmers bear the most direct stress from drought. In rural settings, wells may run dry, crops may fail, and forage for livestock may be scarce. Drought is one of the stressors on farm families that contribute to the pattern of small farms being consolidated into large agribusinesses. Ultimately, costs are spread more widely to taxpayers and consumers, who are also part of the food system.

In developing countries where many people practice subsistence farming, rainfall is closely linked to gross national product, and drought can trigger migration and famine.

Drought Reduces Urban Water Supplies

Urban water users are more insulated from drought because operators of large municipal water systems may be able to manage components of supply and demand. However, growing populations in chronically water-short areas such as the western United States, and in areas such as Atlanta that are more dependent on regular rains, contribute to vulnerability to drought. Recent studies of the Colorado River Basin have emphasized that the 1920s, when patterns of western settlement were established, were anomalously wet years. Los Angeles, Phoenix, and other western cities are built in part on unrealistic expectations of water supply.

As urban water supplies in some areas are strained, recognition is growing of the need to balance environmental, urban, and agricultural water use. The Endangered Species Act now requires river system managers to maintain certain amounts of water in channels for fish and wildlife habitat.

Who Should Plan for Drought?

Drought planning can and should be conducted at all levels of decision-making – by federal and regional water management agencies; by state agencies with authority over water, agriculture, the environment and natural resources, and health; by tribal governments; by water suppliers; and by counties and municipalities. Farmers, ranchers, and others whose livelihoods depend on regular rain should also know their options and have plans in place in case the rain stops.

Hydro Illogical Cycle

Please use this illustration with the associated copyright information. The National Drought Mitigation Center commissioned the artwork in the late 1990s to show how drought, as a slow-moving natural disaster, tends to emerge under the radar screen, and then intensify until people can no longer ignore it or wish it away. When drought ends, people are often glad to forget about it and to resume business as usual. Although people need to appreciate the return to normal, they also need to stop and learn from their experiences. Climatology shows that drought will happen again. What can people learn from one drought that will ease the pain of the next?

The NDMC's illustration of the hydroillogical cycle builds on earlier observations of human perception. I.R. Tannehill noted in Drought: Its Causes and Effects in 1947:

We welcome the first clear day after a rainy spell. Rainless days continue for a time and we are pleased to have a long spell of such fine weather. It keeps on and we are a little worried. A few days more and we are really in trouble. The first rainless day in a spell of fine weather contributes as much to the drought as the last, but no one knows how serious it will be until the last dry day is gone and the rains have come again.