“When is a drought a drought?”

Kelman, Ilan | April 21, 2015 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Drought takes hold near Christchurch, New Zealand | Photo: by Ilan Kelman

Droughts are complicated, often more human-caused than precipitation-caused (Wilhite and Glantz, 1985). Nonetheless, precipitation and water certainly have a role to play, by definition.

In discussions of the ongoing California drought, much of the emphasis is on industrial and agricultural water use. A few commentators have the knee-jerk reaction that it must be climate change only. It might eventually be proven that climate change contributed, even contributed significantly.

But it is useful to see powerful statements and frightening imagery about how overusing water in a desert does, unsurprisingly, lead to drought. A good summary comes from Andrew Revkin.

Meanwhile, Taiwan reports water rationing due to a drought. The article begins with the environment “The shortage is due to reduced rainfall” connects to human use “leaving water levels in reservoirs far below capacity” and then accepts many vulnerability factors in that “a leaky delivery system, silt build-up in reservoirs and wastage are also being blamed”.

We could speculate about climate change’s role. Do we need to? There seems to be so many vulnerability factors present–although we do not know the relative proportions–that invoking the hazard driver of climate change to blame the drought would not label the root causes of it.

It is not good to see these droughts happening nor their effects on society and the environment. It is good to see how prominently vulnerability factors are mentioned for these two droughts.

As with this blog’s title, back to another ancient article from “Nature” about “Taking the naturalness out of natural disasters” (O’Keefe et al., 1977). We revisited the ethos that no disasters are “natural” in an article last year (Gaillard et al. 2014) highlighting that we need to blame humanity, not climate change, for disasters.

Today’s droughts confirm that view.

Ilan Kelman is a reader in Risk, Resilience and Global Health at University College London.

Note: This blog’s title comes from Glantz and Katz (1977).


Gaillard, JC, M.H. Glantz, I. Kelman, B. Wisner, Z. Delica-Willison, and M. Keim. 2014. “Taking the ‘naturalness’ out of natural disaster (again)”. Natural Hazards Observer, vol. 38, no. 3, pp. 1,14-16.

Glantz, M.H. and R.W. Katz. 1977. When is a drought a drought? Nature, 267, 192-193.

O’Keefe, P., K. Westgate, and B. Wisner. 1976. Taking the naturalness out of natural disasters. Nature, 260, 566-567.

Wilhite, D.A. and M.H. Glantz. 1985. Understanding the Drought Phenomenon: The Role of Definitions. Water International, 10(3), 111-120

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  • jane


    See link above for suggestions from 2012 -BBC website- for tackling mounting water shortages in East and South East England.

    Population forecasts are mentioned in some detail; surprising but welcome,especially for the BBC.

    Relatives of mine live in East Anglia : they have had no rain for many weeks now,so the dry season has started earlier than expected.

    A massive house building programme is underway in the area and there is no end in sight.

    Urban sprawl now means that many towns in the area are now virtually joined by large estates,and as the population in London and the South East continues to rise,the pressure on water supplies will increase.

    No one in government will consider the need for a population policy in the foreseeable future.