According to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) drought causes more deaths and displaces more people than any other natural disaster. UNCCD also states that by 2050, worldwide population growth will result in a 50 percent increased demand for water.

Drought is often defined as an unusual period of drier than normal weather that leads to a water shortage. However, high temperatures and lack of precipitation are not the only causes of drought; overuse and misuse of water can also result in drought.

Droughts can occur in any climate zone and are a normal part of the climate cycle. They can be short or last several years.

Like other weather hazards, droughts may require extra vigilance or a change in normal behavior. For example, water usage such as watering lawns may be restricted. Similarly, camp or trash fires may be prohibited to prevent a wildfire.

According to LiveScience there are four types of drought:

  • Meteorological drought is specific to different regions, depending on the amount of yearly precipitation that’s average for that area. For example, the southwest portion of the United States averages less than 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) of precipitation per year, while the Northwest gets more than 150 inches (381 cm) per year, according to the U.S. Department of Interior. A decrease in precipitation compared to the historical average for that area would qualify as a meteorological drought.
  • Agricultural drought accounts for the water needs of crops during different growing stages. For instance, not enough moisture at planting time may hinder germination, leading to low plant populations and a reduction in yield.
  • Hydrological drought refers to persistently low water volumes in streams, rivers and reservoirs. Human activities, such as drawdown of reservoirs, can worsen hydrological droughts. Hydrological drought is often linked with meteorological droughts.
  • Socioeconomic drought occurs when the demand for water exceeds the supply. Examples of this kind of drought include too much irrigation or when low river flow forces hydroelectric power plant operators to reduce energy production.

The U.S. Drought Monitor is a weekly map – released every Thursday – that highlights drought risk across the country. The map categorizes drought into five levels of severity:

  • Abnormally dry (D0) – showing areas that may be going into (short-term dryness affecting plant growth) or are coming out of drought (still exhibiting some lingering water shortages).
  • Moderate (D1) – there may be voluntary water-use restrictions in place; water shortages are developing, there may be some damage to pastures or crops
  • Severe (D2) – water shortages are common and water restrictions are in place
  • Extreme (D3) – major losses of crops and pastures; widespread water shortages
  • Exceptional (D4) – water emergencies in place due to extreme shortages of water

Produced since 1999, the Drought Monitor is a joint project of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). According to a Drought Monitor brochure it is used in several ways:

  • The USDA uses the drought monitor to trigger disaster declarations and eligibility for low-interest loans.
  • The Farm Service Agency uses it to help determine eligibility for their Livestock Forage Program.
  • The Internal Revenue Service uses it for tax deferral on forced livestock sales due to drought.
  • State, local, tribal and basin-level decision makers use it to trigger drought responses, ideally along with other more local indicators of drought.

A similar process and scale is used at the international level through the Global Integrated Drought Monitoring and Prediction System (GIDMaPS).

Key Facts

– Cover 41 percent of the earth’s surface
– Are inhabited by 30 percent of the world’s population (2.5 billion people)
– Support 50 percent of the world’s livestock
– Grow 44 percent of the world’s food
– Account for the majority of the world’s poor, with around 16 percent living in chronic poverty. Most of the world’s poor live in dry areas, with 400 million living on less than $1.25 per day.

  • Additionally, the CGIAR Research program states that drylands lose the equivalent of 23 hectares (or 56.8 acres) per minute to drought and desertification – a loss of 20 million tons of potential grain production every year.
  • At the onset of a drought, the visuals are not as dramatic as those associated with hurricanes or wildfires, yet, droughts are one of the costliest weather events. According to the National Center for Environmental Information (NCEI) droughts are second only to hurricanes in types of phenomena associated with billion-dollar weather disasters over the past three decades. Annual losses in the U.S. are close to $9 billion.
  • The most famous U.S. drought historically is the 1930s Dust Bowl drought, but there have been at least three major droughts in the past 100 years. Between 1980 and 2014, there were 22 $1 billion plus drought events within the United States. Sixteen of them cost a combined $210 billion and killed thousands of people.

How to Help

  • Support eco-farming initiatives. Drought is often exacerbated by high water usage for agriculture so funders should support agricultural initiatives and technological adaptations that reduce reliance upon water and/or decrease amount of water used.
  • Fund drought impact projects. Drought often leads to hygiene issues and famine. Support delivery of food supplements and projects that provide low-cost grains, proteins and other foods to communities. Similarly, projects that address water delivery and provision of water for sanitation and hygiene (WASH) are important.
  • Educate more young people about how to adapt to a warming and drier climate. They will spend more of their lives in an unstable environment. Two programs designed to teach students about climate science and impacts are the Alliance for Climate Education and the National Wildlife Federation’s Eco-Schools USA program.
  • Fund more private and public research on the most effective methods of preventing drought. Educating the public, particularly farmers and policy-makers, is key to ensuring prevention of drought.
  • Fund public education campaigns about reducing water usage. Many people assume water is a never-ending resource. They need to learn how to change their habits regarding water usage including reducing outdoor water use, learning how to identify and fix leaks and the availability of water saving appliances or fixtures (like low-flush toilets).
  • Support the development of water retaining gardens and initiatives. This includes prioritizing public policies that include water retention gardens, native plantings and better water use practices.
  • Support the adaptation of water saving appliances and fixtures for low-income communities. People with the least resources would benefit the most from reducing water bills. Given that most of the world’s poor live in dry lands, initiatives to support more efficient use of water would go a long way.

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