Types, Causes and Effects of Droughts


The entire human, plant and animal life spins around water. Lack of water can bring a region to its knees. Some regions entirely depend on agriculture for survival and when lack of water persists; their futures are literally dried up. But it’s not just farmers that need water to get by; industries, cities, and animals suffer when water shortage persists. The main cause of water shortage is drought. Drought is a natural disaster that can have far reaching impacts. According to the National Climate data Centre, droughts comes in second to hurricanes in regards to causing severe economic impacts. This is why people must learn to insulate themselves from it implications by ensuring prudent use of water when it’s bountiful in supply.

Droughts are generally periods that rainfall is below normal, leading to extended periods of water shortage. Droughts can also be defined as temporary situations when water demands in a hydrological system surpass the income of water from other sources. In most ecosystems, precipitation is the major source of water supply, which is why many droughts occur due to precipitation failure. During the period of extended water shortage, atmospheric, surface and ground water can reduce substantially or dry up altogether. Droughts are able to cause destruction and losses because their end cannot be predicted. They can last for months or years. It’s surprising that most people don’t view droughts as natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires. This is because their destructive impacts are not instant. However, droughts can be disastrous in the long run.

Types of Drought

Different sets of people have different definitions of drought. Meteorologists define drought as a prolonged duration without rain. Crop farmers describe drought as the absence of moisture, which inhibits crop growth. Hydrologists define drought as an extended period of less precipitation and stream flow. These definitions of drought bring us to the main types of droughts, which include:

  1. Meteorological drought

This kind of drought takes places when dry weather patterns outweigh other climatic conditions. It is greatly determined by the overall absence of moisture in the atmosphere, for instance, lack of precipitation coupled with other weather conditions like high temperatures and dry winds. Metrological drought is a warning sign of potential water shortage if conditions remain constant for extended period. This kind of drought can also be short lived, which means it can start and end in a short period.

  1. Agricultural drought

This kind of drought occurs when atmospheric moisture is minimized to the degree that soil moisture is impacted. The reduction of moisture in the soil takes toll on crops and animals. Agricultural drought is the first signal people witness when meteorological drought is happening.

  1. Hydrological drought

This kind of drought manifests when there is evidently low water supply, more so in natural rivers and lakes, reservoirs, streams, and groundwater levels. Hydrological droughts occur after months of metrological droughts. Hydrological droughts stem from less precipitation, overreliance on these water sources for agriculture, energy requirements and other needs. Unlike meteorological droughts, hydrological droughts do not take place at the same time. This reduction in quantity and quality of surface water is a direct effect of meteorological drought.

  1. Socioeconomic drought

This kind of drought is related to demand and supply. Supply of specific goods and services, for example, drinking water, food, and energy are impacted or threatened by shifts in hydrological and meteorological changes. This situation is sometimes compounded by rising population and explosion of demand for those goods and services to the degree that it leads to scramble for the little available water. This kind of drought takes a long time to become severe and equally long time to recover from it.

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Various Causes of Droughts

  1. Lack or insufficient rainfall (or precipitation)

This is the major cause of droughts in most regions. A long-drawn-out period without rainfall can cause an area to dry out. The quantity of water vapor in the atmosphere pretty much impacts the precipitation of an area. When a region has moist and low-pressure systems, there is huge probability that rain, hail, and snow will occur. The exact opposite would happen when the region has high-pressure systems, and less water vapor. Farmers plant crops in anticipation of rains, and so when the rains fail, and irrigation systems are not in place, agricultural drought happens.

  1. Changes in climate

Changes in climate, for instance, global warming can contribute to droughts. Global warming is likely to impact the whole world, especially third world economies. Most governments have tried to play down the fact that the earth’s temperature has significantly increased. But scientists have proven, without doubt, that human activities are the main contributors to the increase in greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere. This increase in greenhouse gasses has resulted in warmer temperatures. Warmer temperatures are recipes for dryness and bushfires. These set of conditions mightily contribute to prolonged droughts.

  1. Human activities

Forests are critical components of the water cycle. They help store water, minimize evaporation, and contribute a great deal of atmospheric moisture in the form of transpiration. This, in essence, implies that deforestation, aimed at uplifting the economic status of a region, will expose vast quantities of water to evaporation. Cutting down trees will also take away the capability of the ground to retain water and allow desertification to occur easily. Deforestation also greatly minimizes watershed potential. Over-farming is another human activity contributing to droughts. Over-farming loosens the soil allowing erosion to take place. Soil erosion compromises the capacity of soil to hold water.

  1. Overexploitation of surface water resources

Specific areas are endowed with surface water resources like rivers and streams whose sources are watersheds and mountains. These surface water resources could dry out if their main sources are interfered with. Irrigation systems and hydroelectric dams are just some of the aspects that contribute to over-exploitation of surface water resources. They also cut off supply of water to downstream communities.

Harmful Effects of Droughts

Economic Effects

Economic effects of droughts usually involve loss of money by governments, enterprises, families or individuals. Below is an outline of the main economic impacts of droughts:

  • Farmers will have to contend with spending huge sums of money for irrigation and watering animals. This involves drilling wells or buying water from far distances.
  • Low yields equal loss of substantial income. Low yields also lead to pay cuts and layoffs to farm workers.
  • Businesses and industries that produce farm equipment may close down since farmers have no money to purchase equipment.
  • Prolonged shortage of rains means drier conditions. This makes an area susceptible to wildfires. Wildfires can destroy property; devastate farms and burn down forests. Governments spend millions to control or put out wildfires annually. All this affects the economy of the region.
  • If water supply plummets, hydropower plants operate below capacity, and this means businesses have to pay more for electricity or incur the cost of using their own generators. Energy firms also lose out since they are unable to satisfy energy demands of the region. The government also loses a big chunk of tax revenue.
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Environmental Effects

  • Droughts lead to decimation of habitats. Water bodies such as rivers, lakes, ponds, lagoons, and creeks dry out, and this leads to death of water animals.
  • Soil moisture is critical to the breakdown of organic matter. Droughts compromise soil quality since there is less to zero organic activity because organisms have died.
  • Droughts magnify the impacts of desertification by wiping out any chance of land recovering.
  • The quality and health of surface water bodies such as rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds are enormously impacted. This endangers living organisms depending on the water for survival.
  • Wildlife walk long distances in search of water. They end up in new dangerous habitats that can lead to their demise.

Social Effects

The social effects of drought are the most potent since they directly impact humans. Many in the third world countries that have experienced drought can attest to their severity.

  • Water maintains our health. Sanitation and clean drinking water are critical to a healthy body. Droughts lead to malnutrition, anemia, and hunger.
  • Droughts trigger migrations. This means the area will lack young and working population, a critical ingredient to the development of any region.
  • Lack of control over when the drought ends can have far-reaching psychological effects like stress, anxiety, and depression. Social interaction reduces and community networks get broken.
Photo by: Marion , josea

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