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A drought is a period of time when there is not enough water to support agricultural, urban or environmental water needs. A drought usually refers to an extended period of below-normal rainfall, but can also be caused by drying bores or lakes, or anything that reduces the amount of liquid water available. Although what is considered "normal" varies from one region to another, drought is a recurring feature of nearly all the world's climatic regions. The effects of drought vary greatly, depending on agricultural, urban and environmental water needs.


Fields outside Benambra, Victoria suffering from drought conditions
Fields outside Benambra, Victoria suffering from drought conditions

Conceptually, there are four main types of drought:

  • 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 drought is brought about when there is insufficient moisture for crop or range production. This condition can arise, even in times of average precipitation, owing to soil conditions or agricultural techniques.
  • Physiological drought is a condition afflicting plants that have been exposed to too much salt, preventing them from absorbing water from soil. It is not related to climatological drought.
  • Hydrological drought is brought about when the water reserves available in sources such as aquifers, lakes, and reservoirs falls below the statistical average. This condition can arise, even in times of average (or above average) precipitation, when increased usage of water diminishes the reserves.

Decision makers at all levels need to decide ahead of time on an operational definition of drought that is relevant for their circumstances, and what actions they will take when they are in a drought. Decision-makers include homeowners, farmers and ranchers, urban water suppliers, and policy makers. Each has different options and constraints.


Periods of drought can have significant environmental, economic and social consequences. The most common consequences are:

  • Wildfires
  • Ground drag and Desertification.
  • Loss of agricultural production
  • Disease
  • Thirst
  • Famine due to lack of water for irrigation
  • Social unrest
  • Migration or relocation of those impacted
  • War for water and foods.

The effect varies according to vulnerability. For example, subsistence farmers are more likely to migrate during drought because they don't have alternative food sources. Areas with populations that depend on subsistence farming as a major food source are more vulnerable to drought-triggered famine. Drought is rarely if ever the sole cause of famine; socio-political factors such as extreme widespread poverty play a major role.

Drought can also reduce water quality, because lower water flows reduce dilution of pollutants and increase contamination of remaining water sources.

See also: Aqueduct and trasvasement.

  Famous droughts

  18th and 19th centuries, Cape Verde

Three droughts were responsible for over 100,000 starvation deaths. These droughts spurred the migration of much of the population to locations such as New England, to participate in the whaling industry.

  1900, India

250,000 to 3.25 million died from drought, starvation and disease.

  1921-22, Soviet Union

In the Ukraine and Volga regions, 250,000 to 5 million perished from starvation due to drought. In contrast, the Holodomor famine of 1932-33 in the same region was due to policies implemented under Stalin.

  1928-30, northwest China

Famine resulted in over 3 million deaths.

  1936, Sichuan Province, China

This was the worst drought in the modern history of the area. 34 million farmers were displaced and 5 million people starved.

  1930-37, United States and Canada

Three waves of drought during this time are collectively referred to as "the Dust Bowl". Because of several factors including the coincidence of the dustbowl and the Great Depression, this drought had a severe impact on the U.S. and Canada, resulting in entire districts of the American and Canadian Great Plains being depopulated as people were forced to leave. These migrants became the "Okies" whose experience was recorded in literature and song of the period.

  1941, Sichuan Province, China

This was less severe than the 1936 drought, and resulted in the deaths of only 2.5 million. However, because of the war with Japan at the time, the drought may be indirectly linked to many other deaths.

  Current significant droughts


Main article: Drought in Australia

Much of Australia has typically low rainfall and drought is defined as rainfall in the lowest ten percent of records. In the past five to ten years there have been major rainfall deficiencies across large parts of Australia. Many regions have placed heavy restrictions on water usage and some towns have been forced to import water.


In August 2006, Chongqing Municipal and part of Sichuan Province experienced the most severe drought in recorded climate history of People's Republic of China. On Aug 15, 2006, the Meteorology Bureau of Chongqing recorded a temperature of 44.5°C (112.1° F), the highest since China began weather recording in 1891.[1]

The city area of Chongqing Municipal was the worst hit. 21 million people and 20 million mu (13,000 km²) of agricultural land were affected. Two thirds of all rivers in Chongqing and 275 reservoirs dried up. Two thirds of all the districts, a total of 7.95 million people and 7.35 million cattle faced water shortage. 92 incidences of forest fires devoured 80 million mu (53,000 km²) of forestation in August. The increase in usage of air-conditioning placed great strain on electricity supply. During the worst period, there was a shortage in electricity supply of 1.2 million kilowatt. To ensure electricity supply to residential areas, the government rationed supply to industrial areas. Direct economic loss in Chongqing Municipal alone was estimated to be 6.375 billion yuan, among which 5.128 billion was from the agricultural sector.[2]

There is still no evidence showing any correlations of the drought with the building of Three Gorges Dam.

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