For other uses, see Drought (disambiguation).
A drought is a period of below-average precipitation in a given region, resulting in prolonged shortages in the water supply, whether atmospheric, surface water or ground water. A drought can last for months or years, or may be declared after as few as 15 days. It can have a substantial impact on the ecosystem and agriculture of the affected region and harm to the local economy. Annual dry seasons in the tropics significantly increase the chances of a drought developing and subsequent bush fires. Periods of heat can significantly worsen drought conditions by hastening evaporation of water vapour.
Many plant species, such as those in the family Cactaceae (or cacti), have drought tolerance adaptations like reduced leaf area and waxy cuticles to enhance their ability to tolerate drought. Some others survive dry periods as buried seeds. Semi-permanent drought produces arid biomes such as deserts and grasslands. Prolonged droughts have caused mass migrations and humanitarian crises. Most arid ecosystems have inherently low productivity. The most prolonged drought ever in the world in recorded history occurred in the Atacama Desert in Chile (400 Years).
Causes of drought
See also: Precipitation
Mechanisms of producing precipitation include convective, stratiform, and orographic rainfall. Convective processes involve strong vertical motions that can cause the overturning of the atmosphere in that location within an hour and cause heavy precipitation, while stratiform processes involve weaker upward motions and less intense precipitation over a longer duration. Precipitation can be divided into three categories, based on whether it falls as liquid water, liquid water that freezes on contact with the surface, or ice. Droughts occur mainly in areas where normal levels of rainfall are, in themselves, low. If these factors do not support precipitation volumes sufficient to reach the surface over a sufficient time, the result is a drought. Drought can be triggered by a high level of reflected sunlight and above average prevalence of high pressure systems, winds carrying continental, rather than oceanic air masses, and ridges of high pressure areas aloft can prevent or restrict the developing of thunderstorm activity or rainfall over one certain region. Once a region is within drought, feedback mechanisms such as local arid air, hot conditions which can promote warm core ridging, and minimal evapotranspiration can worsen drought conditions.
See also: Dry season
Within the tropics, distinct, wet and dry seasons emerge due to the movement of the Intertropical Convergence Zone or Monsoon trough. The dry season greatly increases drought occurrence, and is characterized by its low humidity, with watering holes and rivers drying up. Because of the lack of these watering holes, many grazing animals are forced to migrate due to the lack of water and feed to more fertile spots. Examples of such animals are zebras, elephants, and wildebeest. Because of the lack of water in the plants, bushfires are common. Since water vapor becomes more energetic with increasing temperature, more water vapor is required to increase relative humidity values to 100% at higher temperatures (or to get the temperature to fall to the dew point). Periods of warmth quicken the pace of fruit and vegetable production, increase evaporation and transpiration from plants, and worsen drought conditions.
See also: El Niño
Drier and hotter weather occurs in parts of the Amazon River Basin, Colombia, and Central America during El Niño events. Winters during the El Niño are warmer and drier than average conditions in the Northwest, northern Midwest, and northern Mideast United States, so those regions experience reduced snowfalls. Conditions are also drier than normal from December to February in south-central Africa, mainly in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Botswana. Direct effects of El Niño resulting in drier conditions occur in parts of Southeast Asia and Northern Australia, increasing bush fires, worsening haze, and decreasing air quality dramatically. Drier-than-normal conditions are also in general observed in Queensland, inland Victoria, inland New South Wales, and eastern Tasmania from June to August. As warm water spreads from the west Pacific and the Indian Ocean to the east Pacific, it causes extensive drought in the western Pacific. Singapore experienced the driest February in 2014 since records began in 1869, with only 6.3 mm of rain falling in the month and temperatures hitting as high as 35 °C on 26 February. The years 1968 and 2005 had the next driest Februaries, when 8.4 mm of rain fell.
Erosion and human activities
See also: Aeolian processes
Human activity can directly trigger exacerbating factors such as over farming, excessive irrigation,deforestation, and erosion adversely impact the ability of the land to capture and hold water. In arid climates, the main source of erosion is wind. Erosion can be the result of material movement by the wind. The wind can cause small particles to be lifted and therefore moved to another region (deflation). Suspended particles within the wind may impact on solid objects causing erosion by abrasion (ecological succession). Wind erosion generally occurs in areas with little or no vegetation, often in areas where there is insufficient rainfall to support vegetation.
Loess is a homogeneous, typically nonstratified, porous, friable, slightly coherent, often calcareous, fine-grained, silty, pale yellow or buff, windblown (Aeolian) sediment. It generally occurs as a widespread blanket deposit that covers areas of hundreds of square kilometers and tens of meters thick. Loess often stands in either steep or vertical faces. Loess tends to develop into highly rich soils. Under appropriate climatic conditions, areas with loess are among the most agriculturally productive in the world. Loess deposits are geologically unstable by nature, and will erode very readily. Therefore, windbreaks (such as big trees and bushes) are often planted by farmers to reduce the wind erosion of loess. Wind erosion is much more severe in arid areas and during times of drought. For example, in the Great Plains, it is estimated that soil loss due to wind erosion can be as much as 6100 times greater in drought years than in wet years.
See also: Climate change
Activities resulting in global climate change are expected to trigger droughts with a substantial impact on agriculture throughout the world, and especially in developing nations. Overall, global warming will result in increased world rainfall. Along with drought in some areas, flooding and erosion will increase in others. Paradoxically, some proposed solutions to global warming that focus on more active techniques, solar radiation management through the use of a space sunshade for one, may also carry with them increased chances of drought.
As a drought persists, the conditions surrounding it gradually worsen and its impact on the local population gradually increases. People tend to define droughts in three main ways: 
- Meteorological drought is brought about when there is a prolonged time with less than average precipitation. Meteorological drought usually precedes the other kinds of drought.
- Agricultural droughts affect crop production or the ecology of the range. This condition can also arise independently from any change in precipitation levels when soil conditions and erosion triggered by poorly planned agricultural endeavors cause a shortfall in water available to the crops. However, in a traditional drought, it is caused by an extended period of below average precipitation.
- Hydrological drought is brought about when the water reserves available in sources such as aquifers, lakes and reservoirs fall below the statisticalaverage. Hydrological drought tends to show up more slowly because it involves stored water that is used but not replenished. Like an agricultural drought, this can be triggered by more than just a loss of rainfall. For instance, around 2007 Kazakhstan was awarded a large amount of money by the World Bank to restore water that had been diverted to other nations from the Aral Sea under Soviet rule. Similar circumstances also place their largest lake, Balkhash, at risk of completely drying out.
Consequences of drought
One can divide the effects of droughts and water shortages into three groups: environmental, economic and social.
- In the case of environmental effects: lower surface and subterranean water-levels, lower flow-levels (with a decrease below the minimum leading to direct danger for amphibian life), increased pollution of surface water, the drying out of wetlands, more and larger fires, higher deflation intensity, loss of biodiversity, worse health of trees and the appearance of pests and dendroid diseases.
- Economic losses include lower agricultural, forests, game and fishing output, higher food-production costs, lower energy-production levels in hydro plants, losses caused by depleted water tourism and transport revenue, problems with water supply for the energy sector and for technological processes in metallurgy, mining, the chemical, paper, wood, foodstuff industries etc., disruption of water supplies for municipal economies.
- Social costs include the negative effect on the health of people directly exposed to this phenomenon (excessive heat waves), possible limitation of water supplies, increased pollution levels, high food-costs, stress caused by failed harvests, etc. This explains why droughts and fresh water shortages operate as a factor which increases the gap between developed and developing countries.
Effects vary according to vulnerability. For example, subsistence farmers are more likely to migrate during drought because they do not have alternative food-sources. Areas with populations that depend on water sources as a major food-source are more vulnerable to famine.
Drought can also reduce water quality, because lower water-flows reduce dilution of pollutants and increase contamination of remaining water-sources. Common consequences of drought include:
- Diminished crop growth or yield productions and carrying capacity for livestock
- Dust bowls, themselves a sign of erosion, which further erode the landscape
- Dust storms, when drought hits an area suffering from desertification and erosion
- Famine due to lack of water for irrigation
- Habitat damage, affecting both terrestrial and aquatic wildlife
- Hunger – drought provides too little water to support food crops.
- Malnutrition, dehydration and related diseases
- Mass migration, resulting in internal displacement and international refugees
- Reduced electricity production due to reduced water-flow through hydroelectricdams
- Shortages of water for industrial users
- Snake migration, which results in snake-bites
- Social unrest
- War over natural resources, including water and food
- Wildfires, such as Australianbushfires, become more common during times of drought and may cause human deaths.
- Exposure and oxidation of acid sulfate soils due to falling surface- and ground-water levels.
- Cyanotoxin accumulation within food chains and water supply (some of which are among the most potent toxins known to science) can cause cancer with low exposure over the long term. High levels of microcystin appeared in San Francisco Bay Area salt-water shellfish and fresh-water supplies throughout the state of California in 2016.
Drought is a normal, recurring feature of the climate in most parts of the world. It is among the earliest documented climatic events, present in the Epic of Gilgamesh and tied to the biblical story of Joseph's arrival in and the later Exodus from Ancient Egypt. Hunter-gatherer migrations in 9,500 BC Chile have been linked to the phenomenon, as has the exodus of early humans out of Africa and into the rest of the world around 135,000 years ago.
Main article: List of droughts
Well-known historical droughts include:
- 1900 India killing between 250,000 and 3.25 million.
- 1921–22 Soviet Union in which over 5 million perished from starvation due to drought
- 1928–30 Northwest China resulting in over 3 million deaths by famine.
- 1936 and 1941 Sichuan Province China resulting in 5 million and 2.5 million deaths respectively.
- The 1997–2009 Millennium Drought in Australia led to a water supply crisis across much of the country. As a result, many desalination plants were built for the first time (see list).
- In 2006, Sichuan Province China experienced its worst drought in modern times with nearly 8 million people and over 7 million cattle facing water shortages.
- 12-year drought that was devastating southwest Western Australia, southeast South Australia, Victoria and northern Tasmania was "very severe and without historical precedent".
The Darfur conflict in Sudan, also affecting Chad, was fueled by decades of drought; combination of drought, desertification and overpopulation are among the causes of the Darfur conflict, because the ArabBaggaranomads searching for water have to take their livestock further south, to land mainly occupied by non-Arab farming people.
Approximately 2.4 billion people live in the drainage basin of the Himalayan rivers.India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar could experience floods followed by droughts in coming decades. Drought in India affecting the Ganges is of particular concern, as it provides drinking water and agricultural irrigation for more than 500 million people. The west coast of North America, which gets much of its water from glaciers in mountain ranges such as the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada, also would be affected.
In 2005, parts of the Amazon basin experienced the worst drought in 100 years. A 23 July 2006 article reported Woods Hole Research Center results showing that the forest in its present form could survive only three years of drought. Scientists at the Brazilian National Institute of Amazonian Research argue in the article that this drought response, coupled with the effects of deforestation on regional climate, are pushing the rainforest towards a "tipping point" where it would irreversibly start to die. It concludes that the rainforest is on the brink of being turned into savanna or desert, with catastrophic consequences for the world's climate. According to the WWF, the combination of climate change and deforestation increases the drying effect of dead trees that fuels forest fires.
By far the largest part of Australia is desert or semi-arid lands commonly known as the outback. A 2005 study by Australian and American researchers investigated the desertification of the interior, and suggested that one explanation was related to human settlers who arrived about 50,000 years ago. Regular burning by these settlers could have prevented monsoons from reaching interior Australia. In June 2008 it became known that an expert panel had warned of long term, maybe irreversible, severe ecological damage for the whole Murray-Darling basin if it did not receive sufficient water by October 2008. Australia could experience more severe droughts and they could become more frequent in the future, a government-commissioned report said on July 6, 2008. Australian environmentalist Tim Flannery, predicted that unless it made drastic changes, Perth in Western Australia could become the world’s first ghost metropolis, an abandoned city with no more water to sustain its population. The long Australian Millennial drought broke in 2010.
Recurring droughts leading to desertification in East Africa have created grave ecological catastrophes, prompting food shortages in 1984–85, 2006 and 2011. During the 2011 drought, an estimated 50,000 to 150,000 people were reported to have died, though these figures and the extent of the crisis are disputed. In February 2012, the UN announced that the crisis was over due to a scaling up of relief efforts and a bumper harvest. Aid agencies subsequently shifted their emphasis to recovery efforts, including digging irrigation canals and distributing plant seeds.
In 2012, a severe drought struck the western Sahel. The Methodist Relief & Development Fund (MRDF) reported that more than 10 million people in the region were at risk of famine due to a month-long heat wave that was hovering over Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso. A fund of about £20,000 was distributed to the drought-hit countries.
Protection, mitigation and relief
Agriculturally, people can effectively mitigate much of the impact of drought through irrigation and crop rotation. Failure to develop adequate drought mitigation strategies carries a grave human cost in the modern era, exacerbated by ever-increasing population densities. President Roosevelt on April 27, 1935, signed documents creating the Soil Conservation Service (SCS)—now the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Models of the law were sent to each state where they were enacted. These were the first enduring practical programs to curtail future susceptibility to drought, creating agencies that first began to stress soil conservation measures to protect farm lands today. It was not until the 1950s that there was an importance placed on water conservation was put into the existing laws (NRCS 2014).
Strategies for drought protection, mitigation or relief include:
- Dams – many dams and their associated reservoirs supply additional water in times of drought.
- Cloud seeding – a form of intentional weather modification to induce rainfall. This remains a hotly debated topic, as the United States National Research Council released a report in 2004 stating that to date, there is still no convincing scientific proof of the efficacy of intentional weather modification.
- Desalination – of sea water for irrigation or consumption.
- Drought monitoring – Continuous observation of rainfall levels and comparisons with current usage levels can help prevent man-made drought. For instance, analysis of water usage in Yemen has revealed that their water table (underground water level) is put at grave risk by over-use to fertilize their Khat crop. Careful monitoring of moisture levels can also help predict increased risk for wildfires, using such metrics as the Keetch-Byram Drought Index or Palmer Drought Index.
- Land use – Carefully planned crop rotation can help to minimize erosion and allow farmers to plant less water-dependent crops in drier years.
- Outdoor water-use restriction – Regulating the use of sprinklers, hoses or buckets on outdoor plants, filling pools, and other water-intensive home maintenance tasks. Xeriscaping yards can significantly reduce unnecessary water use by residents of towns and cities.
- Rainwater harvesting – Collection and storage of rainwater from roofs or other suitable catchments.
- Recycled water – Former wastewater (sewage) that has been treated and purified for reuse.
- Transvasement – Building canals or redirecting rivers as massive attempts at irrigation in drought-prone areas.
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Drought and Floods in India
Drought and floods play havoc with Indian agriculture. In India, agriculture has always been dependent on nature. It still remains highly sensitive to the vagaries of weather. Droughts in various parts of the country in recent years have sufficiently proved that if rain Gods decides to play truant with India, then the farmers can do nothing but helplessly watch their crops wither away. Although we no longer experience the kind of devastating famines which occurred during the British Raj – thanks to the agricultural productivity, sustained economic growth and food security system developed in the country – the agricultural output still remains at the mercy of natural forces.
The last few years have been very unkind to the farmers. While there is a serious drought in one part of the country, the other parts suffer untold misery due to abnormal rainfall resulting in floods. A run of four poor monsoons, freaky weather conditions culminated in one of the worst droughts in 1987 when out of 35 meteorological sub-divisions in the country 21 had deficient rainfall. It caused substantial crop damage and scarcity of drinking water. People in the rural areas, particularly the small farmers, had to face hardships.
In a country where 80% of its people live in rural areas and depends on agriculture for their sustenance, one can imagine how such natural calamities play havoc with their lives. They are driven to starvation as they have nothing to fall back on. Most resign themselves to their fate. Some decide to move to urban areas to look for work to feed their families. While the shock of monsoon failure is most severely felt by the people in the rural areas where wide spread crop losses cause distress and misery, abnormal rainfall in some years also causes immense damage to human life, property and crops through floods.
The sudden strain which is imposed on the economy by such massive drought causes a severe setback to the momentum of development. The decline in the water levels in important reservoirs, shortage of power supply for tube-well irrigation further put strain on agricultural production. Although the immediate impact of drought is invariably on agriculture and the rural people, the industrial sector is not immune to it. A poor monsoon leads to fall in agriculture production thus causing a shortage of raw materials specially for the agro-based industries; reduction in rural demand for industrial goods due to fall in income; increase in expenditure on food due to shortage and rise in prices thereby forcing the consumers to reduce spending on even articles of every day requirement. Since a large amount of money has to be diverted towards relief measures for drought victims, it leads to decline in investment in public sector and other development projects. It is altogether another matter that money allocated for relief measures hardly ever reaches the people it is meant for.
In the past, major droughts have been followed by recession in the industry. Industries like fertilizers, pesticides, farm machinery play a very significant role in modernizing agriculture. But fluctuations in agricultural production due to drought or floods adversely affect the demand for the goods produced by these units. However, over the years there has been a decline in the share of agriculture in the national income. Consequently there has been a decline in the adverse effect of fall in agricultural income on industrial sector. Although the adverse impact of drought on industrial production cannot be avoided altogether, the economy has become resilient enough to bear the setbacks like this.
Nevertheless, the plight of the common man really becomes pathetic due to increase in prices as a result of shortage in the supply of food and non-food commodities. Lower middle class, salaried class and the unskilled workers are worst affected. Small businessmen do not let this opportunity go to create artificial shortages and sell the articles in the black market. The harassed consumer is left with no choice but to pay the price. Since the income of the people does not increase in proportion to the rise in inflationary trends, there is a fall in the savings, as people have to spend more to procure articles of daily necessity. Those employed in government and semi-government jobs get some relief in the form of dearness allowance, but the self employed and the workers in the private sector do not get such financial relief to offset the increase in prices.
The plight of the rural people, more particularly of the small and marginal farmers is really pitiable. Drought causes severe dislocation of everyday life. Whatever meager resources they have are soon exhausted on meeting daily expenses. In States such as Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra, where rains failed successively for four years, not only did the agricultural production completely collapse, but the declining water table led to an acute shortage of drinking water as well. Hence, people had to face extremely difficult living conditions. Cattle started dying due to lack of fodder and water. In some areas, one even heard of people adopting extreme measures like selling their children or committing suicide.
The Government has adopted a number of measures to create additional avenues of employment and income, assure adequate supplies of essential commodities and drinking water, provide additional power to areas irrigated by tube-wells and pump-sets to boost rabi production, supply fodder for the cattle. Financial assistance is also extended by the banks on priority basis to persons affected by droughts to enable them to undertake a second sowing, raise an alternative short duration crop or grow much needed fodder for the cattle. Any programs are started to provide employment to the drought affected people. Essential commodities like food-grains, edible oils, controlled cloth, etc. are made available through public distribution system. Efforts are made to keep the prices of essential commodities under control.
In 1973, Drought Prone Area Programme was started as a long term measure for restoration of ecological balance and optimum utilization of land, water, live-stock and human resources and to mitigate effects of drought. It is being implemented in 615 blocks in 91 districts of 13 states from 1985-86 covering about 5.36 lakhs sq. km area. It covered about 7 to 7.5 crores people.
Almost 1/8th of India’s total area has been declared as flood prone. Three-phased – immediate, short-term and long–term – flood control programme was launched in 1954. Since then about Rs. 1,763 crores have been spent on flood control till the end of Sixth Plan. An outlay of Rs. 947 crores was approved for the Seventh Plan for this purpose. The flood control measures taken include construction of new embankments, drainage channels, town protection works and raising the level of low lying villages. In addition anti-sea erosion measures to protect the coastline have also been taken up. Government has also set up a flood forecasting organization to issue advance warnings about impending floods so as to alert rescue and relief agencies. In 1989, damage suffered on account of floods was about Rs. 2,380 crores.
However what is needed is a long term strategy to free agriculture from the uncertainties of weather. Droughts and floods will continue to cause agony and hardship to people. Even after 40 years of planned development, about 70% of total cropped area is still dependent on rainfall. To overcome this dependency, methods should be adopted for better water management. Research should be conducted on improving methods and techniques for the development of rain fed and dry land agriculture. Unless all these plans and programs are implemented in earnest, the droughts and floods will continue to play havoc with the life of the people.