Droughts are among the most complex and severe climate-related hazards experienced.
According to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), drought is one of the most far-reaching disasters, causing economic and social losses to millions of people. Defining drought can be difficult. However, it is often understood to be a prolonged dry period that results in extensive damage to crops and/or water supply shortages.
High temperatures and lack of precipitation are not the only causes of drought; overuse and misuse of water can also result in drought. It can occur anywhere globally and can have short-term or long-term impacts.
According to the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), scientists have defined several types of droughts:
- Meteorological: When dry weather patterns dominate an area.
- Hydrological: When a low water supply becomes evident in the water system.
- Agricultural: When crops become affected by drought.
- Socioeconomic: When the supply and demand of various commodities is affected by drought.
- Ecological: When natural ecosystems are affected by drought.
The U.S. Drought Monitor is a weekly map highlighting drought risk across the country. The map categorizes drought into five levels of severity. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses the map to trigger disaster declarations and eligibility for low-interest loans. State, local and tribal decision-makers use it to trigger drought responses and other local indicators.
The Global Drought Monitor depicts current drought conditions globally as assessed by nations. The National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) merges these assessments into the Global Drought Monitor product, supplemented by drought indices and indicators.
Determining the number of people affected and killed by drought is challenging. The onset of drought is usually slow, making measurement difficult until a threshold has been reached. Drought events are often associated with complex humanitarian emergencies involving multiple hazards. However, droughts have profound and widespread impacts, affecting millions of people worldwide.
In 2021, the African and Asian continents were the most heavily impacted based on the number of people affected. However, drought is not confined to these parts of the world. Research within the last decade has revealed areas that are particularly often or severely affected by drought: the Mediterranean region, southern Australia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southern South America, some parts of China, southwestern U.S. and northeastern Brazil.
A study published in 2022 found that the drought that has affected southwestern North America for the past 22 years is the region’s driest “megadrought”, defined as a drought lasting two decades or longer, since at least the year 800. The study also revealed that climate change was responsible for about 40% of the intensity of the megadrought. Climate change is expected to increase the risk of droughts in many world regions, particularly those with rapid population growth, at-risk populations and food security challenges.
- Drought is costly and increasing in duration. According to UNCCD’s “Drought in Numbers” report, from 1998 to 2017, droughts triggered global economic losses of approximately $124 billion. Since 2000, the number and duration of droughts have risen by 29%. Also, nearly 30 million acres (12 million hectares) of land were lost each year in the past 40 years to drought and desertification. In the U.S. alone, the cost of drought is in the billions.
- Drought affects women and children disproportionately. A study found that due to a lack of water during a drought, the burden of work on women and children has increased. The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that 920 million children (over one-third of children globally) are currently highly exposed to water scarcity. This will likely worsen as climate change increases the frequency and severity of droughts.
- Drought may have acute and chronic health effects. According to the World Health Organization, there can be many health impacts on drought-affected populations, including malnutrition due to the decreased availability of food, increased risk of infectious diseases, psycho-social stress, mental health disorders and disruption of local health services.
- The drought events of the 1930s are considered to be the “drought of record” for the U.S. Commonly known as the Dust Bowl, the drought of this time was actually “several distinct events occurring in such rapid succession that affected regions were not able to recover adequately before another drought began.” However, drought continues to be a present-day reality and challenge. The NIDIS regularly monitors and updates current drought conditions in the U.S. As of May 17, 2022, nearly 44% of the country was in drought.
How to Help
- Advocate for and invest in drought planning. Drought is a recurring climate hazard worldwide, and by looking at history and climate data, we know drought events will continue. Planning for drought is crucial, and examples of effective solutions demonstrate the return on investment.
- Support proactive interventions that address drought. Rather than a reactive approach that responds to drought, addressing drought and minimizing its impacts requires being proactive through planning and creative solutions. Examples include combining Indigenous knowledge and forecasting in drought early warning systems, restoring and protecting landscapes, and adopting proactive drought policies that support affected people.
- Educate and empower young people. A big reason for hope is the power of children and young people. They have demonstrated their role as key stakeholders in addressing the climate crisis. The Alliance for Climate Education and the National Wildlife Federation’s Eco-Schools USA are examples of initiatives that educate and support young people fighting for their futures.
- Support integrated water resources management (IWRM). IWRM is “an approach to managing water that looks holistically at the planning and management of water supply, wastewater, and stormwater systems.” The approach has been accepted internationally as the way forward to manage the world’s limited water resources and address conflicting demands.
- Fund initiatives that encourage efficient water use. Public education campaigns on efficient water use at the household and regional levels are needed. Programs that subsidize or fund the purchase of native plants, efficient appliances and other investments that save water and reduce expenses can be helpful, particularly for low-income communities.
What Funders Are Doing
- The Center for Disaster Philanthropy, through its Global Recovery Fund, awarded $250,000 to Concern Worldwide U.S. in 2022 to improve resilience capacities among households to respond to and cope positively with the effects of drought and future climatic shocks in Turkana County, Kenya. The project focuses on improving access to basic needs, restoring agricultural production, and increasing access to adequate and safe water.
- American Jewish World Service awarded $10,500 to Pastoralist Girls Initiative in 2020 to provide emergency access to food and clean water for families in Tana River and Garissa Counties, Kenya, affected by sustained droughts and poor crop production.
- Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal awarded $40,832 to Riverland Connect Association in 2021 to increase local tourism and support the economy through establishing large mural artwork on local silos in drought-affected Paringa, Australia.
- Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund awarded $60,000 to Greenbelt Alliance in 2020 to influence San Francisco, California area local land use planning decisions focusing on adapting to the current and future effects of climate change while mitigating the risk of wildfire, flooding and drought.
- U.S. Drought Monitor
- National Integrated Drought Information System
- Ready.Gov: Drought
- National Drought Mitigation Center: University of Nebraska
- National Drought Mitigation Center: Planning Processes
- National Geographic: Encyclopedia – Drought
- United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction: Special Report on Drought 2021
- UNCDD: Drought Toolbox
- UNCDD: World Atlas of Desertification
- UNCDD: Global Land Outlook 2
- UNCDD: Land rights matter for people and the planet
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