What is Drought?

The Republican River in Nebraska is completely dry in 2005.
The Republican River in Hitchcock County, Nebraska, is completely dry on July 25, 2005. Photo courtesy of Melissa Melvin, SNR/NDMC.

Drought is an insidious hazard of nature. It is often referred to as a "creeping phenomenon" and its impacts vary from region to region. Drought can therefore be difficult for people to understand. It is equally difficult to define, because what may be considered a drought in, say, Bali (six days without rain) would certainly not be considered a drought in Libya (annual rainfall less than 180 mm). In the most general sense, drought originates from a deficiency of precipitation over an extended period of time--usually a season or more--resulting in a water shortage for some activity, group, or environmental sector. Its impacts result from the interplay between the natural event (less precipitation than expected) and the demand people place on water supply, and human activities can exacerbate the impacts of drought. Because drought cannot be viewed solely as a physical phenomenon, it is usually defined both conceptually and operationally.

Conceptual Definitions

Conceptual definitions, formulated in general terms, help people understand the concept of drought. For example:

Drought is a protracted period of deficient precipitation resulting in extensive damage to crops, resulting in loss of yield.

Conceptual definitions may also be important in establishing drought policy. For example, Australian drought policy incorporates an understanding of normal climate variability into its definition of drought. The country provides financial assistance to farmers only under "exceptional drought circumstances," when drought conditions are beyond those that could be considered part of normal risk management. Declarations of exceptional drought are based on science-driven assessments. Previously, when drought was less well defined from a policy standpoint and less well understood by farmers, some farmers in the semiarid Australian climate claimed drought assistance every few years.

Operational Definitions

Operational definitions help define the onset, severity, and end of droughts. No single operational definition of drought works in all circumstances, and this is a big part of why policy makers, resource planners, and others have more trouble recognizing and planning for drought than they do for other natural disasters. In fact, most drought planners now rely on mathematic indices to decide when to start implementing water conservation or drought response measures.

To determine the beginning of drought, operational definitions specify the degree of departure from the average of precipitation or some other climatic variable over some time period. This is usually done by comparing the current situation to the historical average, often based on a 30-year period of record. The threshold identified as the beginning of a drought (e.g., 75% of average precipitation over a specified time period) is usually established somewhat arbitrarily, rather than on the basis of its precise relationship to specific impacts.

Operational definitions can also be used to analyze drought frequency, severity, and duration for a given historical period. Such definitions, however, require weather data on hourly, daily, monthly, or other time scales and, possibly, impact data (e.g., crop yield), depending on the nature of the definition being applied. Developing a climatology of drought for a region helps planners and citizens know what to expect, drought-wise. This is very helpful in planning.


Here is a detailed comparison of leading drought indices. It does not include discussion of the U.S. Drought Monitor, a composite index that is widely cited by media and agricultural officials. (Updated 7/19/2012)


Adapted with permission from the National Drought Mitigation Center's website.