Defining Drought and its Impact

By William Whited

Drought is a word some people may define to mean a sudden lack of rainfall, seemingly happening at random, perhaps in desert-like climates.

But Michael Hayes, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the only center in the U.S. specializing in mapping droughts and their impacts, defines drought as a naturally occurring phenomenon based on how the atmosphere interacts with land and oceans. He said droughts can happen anywhere in the world.

Preparing for the Future
"A lot of people think droughts happen in arid orsemi-arid regions, and that you can't have droughts in wet regions," Hayes said, "whereas the Amazon is a region where you can have a drought, or the southeast United States can experience drought." Hayes said while drought often bringseconomic slowdown and human hardship in surviving a period of scarce water supplies, a misconception some people may have is that nothing can be done to combat Mother Nature.

"It'd be like saying, 'we know tornadoes occur here in Lincoln. There's really not much we can do about tornadoes,'" Hayes said. "That's not true. There are a lot of things we can do to deal with tornadoes. And I think there are a lot of things we can do to prepare ourselves to deal with future droughts." He said this is where the Drought Center comes into the picture, to teach people that each region is affected differently based on climate and water resources, and that people must work together.

"It's a multi-tiered approach," Hayes said. "You've got to work with kids, but you also have to work with the public, and you have to work with the officials making the decisions. You can't just focus on one group of people and not the others. I think you have to reach each of those groups to better educate them about climate-related issues in general."

Goals: Planning Cooperation
The center focuses on planned cooperation between people in crisis management. Good planning requires gathering and sharing drought information through the center's monitoring technology, Hayes said. By monitoring data, officials and residents can act to improve a situation.

"You also have to have an idea of what decisions you can make so you have to plan ahead," he said. "Monitor the conditions and then hopefully continue to adjust, or do a post-assessment of how you've responded to drought situations so when future droughts come along, you do a better job." Hayes said with these decisions may come regulations for water use and distribution, but first, people need to understand drought's impacts on human life. Hayes said the center provides information about how drought may affect farmers and urban residents differently, helping them to understand their vulnerability and find ways to reduce their impact. Communicating good strategies to communities can aid in planning for future droughts.

"We're involved in a project right now called the Engaging Preparedness Communities Project," Hayes said. "We're actually trying to get drought managers, or those people that make decisions about drought, together with other people who are making decisions about drought so that they can share their lessons learned." Still, each education and discussion session should be uniquely tailored
to each region in the world and the community members involved, said Hayes.

Drought- Definition, Impact
"Drought in the United States is a big economic issue. In terms of losses to drought, it's equal to or on par with big hurricane events. Big drought events cost about the same amount of money as a big hurricane event in the United States," he said.

Dr. Michael Hayes

Dr. Michael Hayes

"In other countries, when you talk about drought, you're talking about livelihoods of people and food security and the potential for famine. So droughts look different in the United States than they do in these other countries," Hayes said. In addition to each geographical area experiencing unique hardship, Hayes said each person will have varying perspectives of drought impacting their livelihood based on two questions: "Where does your water come from?" and "How do you use your water?" The answers to those questions will provide each individual's definition of drought."So a farmer who uses irrigation, for example, their definition of drought's going to be completely different than a farmer who's dependent on rainfall," Hayes said.

Partnering Through Technology
The center's most notable service is called the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly tool that monitors America's lands, in partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Desert Research Institute, as well as a nationwide observer network of more than 250 state, federal, and academic participants. In addition to the Drought Monitor, the center and its federal partners use satellite remote sensing systems to record a clearer mapping of drought locations and hazard reports in each state, producing the Vegetation Drought Response Index (VegDRI) maps as a web-based decision-making tool.

"If you go back and look at the U.S. Drought Monitor map over the last 10 years, you'll see that drought has occurred in a lot of places," Hayes said. "California, for example, just experienced a very severe drought and they're now out of that. Texas and the southeastern part of the U.S. have also had droughts in the last several years." Still, Hayes said, remote sensing can examine details down to the level of Earth's vegetation.

"The value of that information is it's generally at a higher spatial and temporal resolution than a lot of the climate data," Hayes said. "So what you're doing is you're supplementing a lot of the climate data that's collected by other agencies, whether here in the United States or around the world." In addition to drought mapping, Hayes said the center started a comprehensive database in 2005 to measure environmental, economic and social hardships experienced by populations. The center does this through a service called the Drought Impact Reporter.

Inadequate resources- human, technical infrastructure, and financial- are probably the biggest obstacle to successful drought planning, Hayes said. "In a lot of countries internationally, sharing of data and information is not easily done or done at all," he added. In visiting foreign countries, Hayes said communication and education focuses on government officials and residents.

"One of the first conversations we'll have is 'where's your data, and can you share that data with other people?' That seems to be the first obstacle, the major obstacle to actually moving things forward." Hayes said when staff of the center interacts with residents in other countries to show them how to deal with drought, societal values may need to change, including government investment in new technology and support staff.

"We can work socially and get people to understand the value of water, and how to make better decisions related to the value of water," he said.

Lingering Domestic Problems
Still, while some states in the U.S. stay on top of drought preparation and communication, some get left behind. According to Hayes, not all states react equally to drought, nor do they use the latest technology to better plan for the future. He said those states that do not update their
knowledge may have no cushion for potential economic trickle-down effects, especially for businesses and agricultural industries like cattle feeding. Better-prepared states like Nebraska may still suffer, even at a personal level, he said.

"During the big drought that Nebraska and the High Plains had from 2000-2006, one of the big impacts happened for livestock producers," Hayes said. "For a livestock producer, if they don't have enough feed for their livestock, they're either going to have to find it somewhere, or, they're going to have to curtail the size of their herd.

"For some of the livestock producers, that was a very difficult decision to make. 'Do I go and spend extra money to haul in feed for my cattle, or do I reduce the size of my herd?' And so that was a very emotional decision that they had to make. You can reduce your herd fairly quickly, but it's not an easy thing to pick up the size of the herd rapidly. The impact to that then lingers on for multiple years." To ease this loss, Hayes said the NDMC also works with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to provide drought severity data the IRS then uses to defer some taxes producers would otherwise pay from selling their livestock. While strategic planning partly preserves the livelihood of people affected Hayes said. "I think the drought events are always going to occur."


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