Drought is a common feature of the landscape in virtually all climatic regions of the world. In fact, it is a normal part of climate, rather than apart from it. Droughts differ from one another in terms of three important characteristics—intensity, duration, and spatial extent. The frequency and severity (intensity) of drought varies markedly from region to region and, as a result, keeping the attention of water managers, policy makers, and the public on its improved management once it has abated has typically been difficult. Thus, moving societies from a reactive approach to drought management (i.e., crisis management) to a more proactive, risk-based management approach has been a significant challenge.
The crisis management approach that has historically characterized government and donor-driven response to drought throughout the world is illustrated by what I refer to as the hydro-illogical cycle (picture right). Drought is a slow-onset, creeping phenomenon. Absent a comprehensive, integrated early warning system that gathers and assesses the status of water supplies on a regular basis and communicates that assessment to decision makers, the severity of drought often goes undetected until a water shortage reaches crisis stage. Once we have reached a state of crisis, there are few alternatives other than providing relief to the most drought-affected sectors. However, studies have shown that drought or disaster relief does little to reduce societal vulnerability to the next event. It could even increase vulnerability because it encourages the status quo in terms of resource management practices. In other words, vulnerability to drought is often the direct result of poor planning and resource management. If we are to reduce societal vulnerability to drought, we need to encourage improved planning and resource management by redirecting a significant portion of the funds spent on disaster relief to mitigation programs that target those people and sectors most at risk and, thus, create a greater coping capacity through improved resource management.
Changing the Paradigm
To break the hydro-illogical cycle, nations need to establish national integrated drought monitoring and early warning information systems that compile information continuously on the status of all segments of the hydrologic cycle and deliver that information to decision makers quickly so risks can be reduced through the implementation of pre-determined mitigation actions. Needed information includes not only precipitation deficiencies and temperature anomalies but also the status of surface and groundwater supplies, soil moisture, snowpack, and vegetation. Long-term climate forecasts, although not always reliable for many regions, may provide usable information for decision makers as well, especially in areas where phenomena such as El Niño and La Niña result in significant climatic anomalies. Additional research should also be directed to the identification of the key causes of drought in various regions in order to improve seasonal forecast skill to enable better planning.
In the United States, the development of the U.S. Drought Monitor in 1999 signaled a new approach to monitoring drought across the nation. This approach integrates information on a weekly basis from a wide range of sources on many drought indicators and indices to inform managers, policy makers and the public on the severity of drought conditions across the country. The preparation of this weekly map is a collaborative effort between the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) at the University of Nebraska, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This integrated approach for characterizing drought conditions in the United States can be used as a template for other countries, basing their characterization of drought conditions and severity on a broader range of variables than precipitation alone. The development of the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) by NOAA for the United States in 2006 represents the next step in integrating information, including impacts, into national assessments of drought severity and spatial extent.
However, the development of integrated drought monitoring and early warning information systems is only the first step that nations can take to be better prepared for future drought conditions. A national, regional, or provincial/state based drought mitigation plan should also be developed and implemented. A drought mitigation plan has these essential elements:
Monitoring, early warning, and information delivery systems, including integrated monitoring of key indicators, the use of appropriate indicators and indices, and the development of decision support tools; Risk and impact assessment, including monitoring and archiving of drought impacts; and Mitigation and response measures to lessen impacts and increase coping capacity.