Understanding Drought

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 in any enterprise that depends on water need to be prepared for drought. This would include:

  • 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

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

Key questions that the team needs to answer are:

  • "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 National Drought Mitigation Center 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 the 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.