Differences in Drought: Taking Out the Doubt

When people hear “drought” the scenarios they conjure up go to one of two extremes. There’s hardly been any rain this summer and there is a temporary ban on car washing and watering lawns. Or, they think of California, plagued by wildfires and Midwest farmers who lost their livelihood. Even today, with the increased awareness and knowledge of water responsibility and preservation, the go-to definition of drought is one of reduced water over an extended period of time due to lack of precipitation.

But in fact, “meteorological drought” is just one type of drought being studied and brought into the water conversation. The other three are:

  • Hydrological drought: occurs when water reserves in aquifers, reservoirs and lakes drop below a level determined to be sufficient for supporting water needs in a given area.
  • Socioeconomic drought: in essence, supply vs. human demand.
  • Agricultural drought: occurs when precipitation is not enough to support crops and feed for livestock.

As you can see, lack of rainfall is far from the only factor contributing to drought. Depleting reserves and growing demand—whether brought on by population growth or excessive use of water by the current population—also contribute to drought situations. These factors can be mitigated by individual and community-wide efforts in responsible water consumption. What also helps are conservation efforts pursued by businesses, and a wider incorporation of water reuse and desalination into a community’s water supply.

But what about “Mother Nature’s” role in droughts? While humans cannot make it rain, scientists have become increasingly better at understanding the nature and patterns of drought. What they’ve found is, while droughts are temporary, they are also cyclical. Because of this cyclical nature of droughts, we need to move away from thinking of droughts as having a beginning and an end. With this shift in thinking about droughts, and understanding that climate change can impact those drought cycles, water utilities and the communities they serve can better plan for and minimize the impacts associated with both dry and wet weather patterns.

Regardless of the type of drought, there will be an impact on surrounding communities and quite possibly beyond. Yes, temporary water restrictions may be an inconvenience to gardeners for a summer, but the consequences of more extensive droughts can bring about skyrocketing prices for products dependent on crops in drought-stricken areas, public health concerns and devastation from wildfires and the like. The study of the cyclical nature of droughts, coupled with awareness and preparation, offer the best defense for making it through safely in years to come.