National Drought Mitigation Center

What is Drought?

Defining drought can be difficult. For example, though droughts are natural events that humans cannot control, the ways people use water can make the consequences of a natural water scarcity like drought even worse.  So if we say that a drought is when there isn't enough water, what does "enough" mean? And enough for what or whom?

That is why scientists describe drought conceptually, as an idea or concept; and operationally, by how drought functions or operates in ways that can be measured.

Conceptual Definitions

Conceptual definitions of drought offer a general idea or concept of drought. for example, a conceptual definition of drought related to farming could be:

Drought is a protracted period of deficient precipitation resulting in extensive damage to crops, and a consequential loss of yield.

Conceptual definitions may also be important in establishing drought policy. For example, Australian drought policy incorporates an understanding of normal climate variability into its definition of drought. The country provides financial assistance to farmers only under “exceptional drought circumstances,” when drought conditions are beyond those that could be considered part of normal risk management. Declarations of exceptional drought are based on science-driven assessments. Previously, when drought policy was less well defined and less well understood by farmers, some farmers in the semiarid Australian climate claimed drought assistance every few years.

Operational Definitions

Operational definitions help define the onset, severity, and end of droughts, how a drought functions or operates. No single operational definition of drought applies to all circumstances. This is a big part of why policy makers, resource planners, and others have more trouble recognizing and planning for drought than they do for other natural disasters. In fact, most drought planners now rely on mathematic indices to decide when to start implementing water conservation or drought response measures.

To determine the beginning of drought, operational definitions specify the degree of departure from the average of precipitation, or some other climatic variable, over some time period. This is usually done by comparing the current situation to the historical average, often based on a 30-year period of record. The threshold identified as the beginning of a drought (e.g., 75% of average precipitation over a specified time period) is usually established somewhat arbitrarily, rather than on the basis of its precise relationship to specific impacts.

An operational definition for agriculture might compare daily precipitation values to evapotranspiration rates to determine the rate of soil moisture depletion, then express these relationships in terms of drought effects on plant behavior (i.e., growth and yield) at various stages of crop development. A definition such as this one could be used in an operational assessment of drought severity and impacts by tracking meteorological variables, soil moisture, and crop conditions during the growing season, continually reevaluating the potential impact of these conditions on final yield.

Operational definitions can also be used to analyze drought frequency, severity, and duration for a given historical period. Such definitions, however, require weather data on hourly, daily, monthly, or other time scales and, possibly, impact data (e.g., crop yield), depending on the nature of the definition being applied. Developing a climatology of drought for a region provides a greater understanding of its characteristics and the probability of recurrence at various levels of severity. Information of this type is extremely beneficial in the development of response and mitigation strategies and preparedness plans.