Drought Research Paper

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Drought is a feature of climate that is defined as a period of below-average rainfall sufficiently long and intense to result in serious environmental and socioeconomic stresses, such as crop failures and water shortages, in the affected area. Droughts can occur in any climatic region, but their characteristics vary considerably among regions. What droughts in all climatic regions have in common is their gradual onset, which—in contrast to other natural hazards—makes their beginning and end difficult to identify. Defined primarily as natural phenomena, droughts have not received much attention in the social sciences. Only since the 1990s, with the increasing appreciation of the linkages between the environment and society, have droughts begun to be viewed as an issue of interest also for the social sciences.

Drought is caused by the sinking motion of air in a high-pressure cell, which results in decreasing relative humidity of the air and little or no precipitation. Most climatic regions are temporarily under the influence of high pressure; droughts occur only when atmospheric circulation patterns that cause the high pressure persist or recur persistently over an unusually long period of time. Because of the global nature of atmospheric circulation, explanations for anomalous circulation patterns extend far beyond the drought-affected area. Thus global patterns of atmospheric pressure systems and sea surface temperatures have been invoked to explain the occurrence of periodically recurring drought events in some parts of the globe. Most prominent among those global patterns is the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a coupled oceanatmosphere anomaly that originates in the Pacific basin but has repercussions on the climatic conditions in areas as far apart as southern Africa, India, and Brazil. Anthropogenic processes that lead to changes in land cover, such as deforestation and overgrazing, affect localscale moisture recycling and can induce local reductions in rainfall. Although simulation models have shown the possibility of substantial reductions in rainfall resulting from land-cover change, anthropogenic disturbances large enough to explain more than local-scale reductions in rainfall have not been observed.

Types of Drought

The effects of drought on environment, economy, and society are manifold. In order of the increasing severity and scope of their impacts, four types of drought are commonly distinguished: A meteorological drought manifests itself in a shortfall of precipitation or changes in precipitation intensity and timing, possibly aggravated by other climatic factors, such as high temperatures and winds. Risks associated with this type of drought include wildfire hazard and reduced water infiltration into the soil. If the drought persists long enough to result in significant soil water deficits and plant water stress, it crosses the threshold into an agricultural drought. Lower crop yields and quality, as well as increased soil erosion and dust emission, are possible impacts expected from this type of drought.

Because various crops differ in their water demand, a farmer’s choice of crop type can either buffer or exacerbate the effects of an agricultural drought. A drought is classified as a hydrological drought once the precipitation shortfall affects surface and subsurface water supplies. Hydrological droughts usually lag behind the occurrence of meteorological droughts because of the time needed for precipitation deficits to reach the surface and groundwater levels of the water cycle. Their impacts, which consequently are also out of phase with those of a meteorological and agricultural drought, include reduced stream flow, below-normal reservoir and lake levels, loss of wetlands, and declining water quality. Although climate is the primary factor of a hydrological drought, humans contribute to its effects by changes in land and water use, such as urbanization and the construction of dams. Finally, a socioeconomic drought occurs when the supply of economic goods and services, including water, forage, food, and hydroelectric power, can no longer be met for drought-related causes. Farmers and ranchers, who depend on agricultural and pasture productivity, are the first to suffer losses. Then follow industries depending on agricultural production. As a result, consumers may have to pay more for their food and other weather-sensitive products and services.

The socioeconomic effects of a drought vary not only in proportion to the severity of the climatological event but also depending on the vulnerability of the affected population. Monetary costs arise for any economy hit by drought, such as to cover for lost crops, crop insurance payouts, and fire damage; but only in the most vulnerable populations of the developing world are drought effects— food insecurity, famine, health problems, and loss of life and livelihoods—often paired with economic, social, and political difficulties. Subsistence farmers and pastoralists in particular suffer from crop and livestock losses, as well as from increased food prices. Droughts force many of them to migrate from rural to urban areas, increasing pressure on resources there.

Coping with Drought

Scientists and decision-makers have devised a number of ways to deal with drought, which can be grouped into drought monitoring, forecasting, and mitigation. Meteorologists around the world carefully monitor meteorological and hydrological variables (precipitation patterns, soil moisture, stream flow) over time to determine the onset and end of a drought. Satellite remote sensing technology has contributed immensely to quantitative monitoring over large geographic areas. Understanding the complex physical aspects leading to droughts is a prerequisite for making increasingly reliable and credible drought predictions. Empirical studies have shown that drought results from a complex interplay of different climatological factors, which makes forecasting difficult. In the tropics, where scientists have made significant advances in understanding the climate system, the potential for seasonal drought predictions is promising, particularly with respect to droughts related to ENSO. Multiyear droughts as well as droughts outside the tropics still cannot be predicted with a level of accuracy that is without risk for the users of those predictions. Knowing the frequency, duration, and spatial extent of past droughts, however, helps in determining the likelihood and potential severity of future droughts.

In addition to the assessment of meteorological processes, drought mitigation also requires an understanding of the vulnerabilities of different population groups to drought. Mitigation tools range from early warning systems, which monitor both meteorological conditions and vulnerable populations (e.g., the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, operating in Africa, Central America, and Afghanistan), to various forms of weather-related crop insurance schemes (e.g., in the United States and Australia among others), emergency water supply augmentation (e.g., tapping new water resources), and water demand reduction (e.g., by means of economic incentives for water conservation, improvement of water use efficiencies, breeding for drought tolerance, diversification to less weather-dependent economic activities, and public water conservation awareness programs). As droughts are expected to become more frequent and more extreme with global warming, it is imperative to improve drought mitigation efforts and increase future drought preparedness.

Major Drought Events

Major drought events in modern history include:

  • China, 1877–1878: Provinces across northernChina were depopulated as grain stocks ran out as a result of severe droughts. Millions of people perished from starvation.
  • Soviet Union, 1921–1922: A fierce drought hit theUkraine and Volga regions. The death toll reached almost five million people, more than the total number of casualties in World War I (1914–1918).
  • United States, 1930s: The Dust Bowl drought,which ravaged the American and Canadian Great Plains in the 1930s, is considered one of the major droughts of the twentieth century. Coinciding with the Great Depression, it had major impacts on the United States and Canada, including a mass migration from the Great Plains to the western coast in search of better living conditions.
  • West Africa, 1970s: The West African Sahel regionexperienced droughts of unprecedented spatial extent and duration, which created a famine that killed a million people and affected the livelihoods of more than fifty million. The great Sahelian droughts were also blamed for widespread environmental degradation of this dryland region.
  • Ethiopia, 1984–1985: A severe drought, exacerbatedby the government’s censorship of news of the emerging crisis, brought about famine and forced millions to leave their homes, triggering the world’s worst refugee crisis to date.

In 2005 Australia experienced a major drought coupled with above-average temperatures, with the southern agricultural areas particularly hard hit. In 2006 drought conditions prevailed across much of Europe—for Spain the most serious drought in more than a century—and caused water shortages for agricultural and tourism sectors. At the same time, China faced its worst drought in fifty years, with crop failures and deaths of cattle causing huge economic losses.


  1. Glantz, Michael H., ed. 1987. Drought and Hunger in Africa: Denying Famine a Future. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Glantz, Michael H., ed. 1994. Drought Follows the Plow: Cultivating Marginal Areas. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Kogan, Felix. 1997. Global Drought Watch from Space. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 78 (4): 621–636.
  4. National Drought Mitigation Center. University of Nebraska–Lincoln. http://www.drought.unl.edu.
  5. Vogt, Jürgen V., and Francesca Somma, eds. 2000. Drought and Drought Mitigation in Europe. Dordrecht and Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  6. Wilhite, Donald A., ed. 2000. Drought: A Global Assessment. London and New York: Routledge.
  7. Wilhite, Donald A., ed. 2005. Drought and Water Crises: Science, Technology, and Management Issues. Boca Raton: Taylor and Francis.

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