Drought is an extended period when a region receives a deficiency in its water supply, whether atmospheric, surface or ground water. A drought can last for months or years, or may be declared after as few as 15 days. Generally, this occurs when a region receives consistently below average precipitation. It can have a substantial impact on the ecosystem and agriculture of the affected region. Although droughts can persist for several years, even a short, intense drought can cause significant damage and harm to the local economy. Prolonged droughts have caused mass migrations and humanitarian crises.
Many plant species, such as those in the family Cactaceae or cacti, have adaptations such as 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. Most arid ecosystems have inherently low productivity.
A livestock carcass in Marsabit, in northern Kenya, which has suffered prolonged drought.
Periods of droughts can have significant environmental, agricultural, health, economic and social consequences. The effect varies 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 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:
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.
Modern 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.
1900 India killing between 250,000 to 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 Millenium 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".
In 2011, the State of Texas lived under a drought emergency declaration for the entire calendar year. The drought caused the Bastrop fires.
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.
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 1984-1985, 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.
Ancient Meso-American civilizations may have amplified droughts by deforestation.
Generally, rainfall is related to the amount (determined by air temperature) of water vapour carried by regional atmosphere, combined with the upward forcing of the air mass containing that water vapour. If these combined factors do not support precipitation volumes sufficient to reach the surface, the result is a drought. This can be triggered by 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 from behaviors which prevent or restrict the developing of thunderstorm activity or rainfall over one certain region. Oceanic and atmospheric weather cycles such as the make drought a regular recurring feature of the Americas along the Midwest and Australia.
Hydrological drought: Ship stranded by the retreat of the Aral Sea.
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 period with less than average precipitation. Meteorological drought usually precedes the other kinds of drought.
Agricultural droughts are droughts that 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, Kazakhstan was recently 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.
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.
Aerosols over the Amazon each September for four burning seasons (2005 through 2008) during the Amazon basin drought. The aerosol scale (yellow to dark reddish-brown) indicates the relative amount of particles that absorb sunlight.
Succulent plants are well-adapted to survive long periods of drought.