Why the thinking and planning around drought is often wrong

By the time droughts make the headlines — like last year’s events in California and Western Canada — it is largely too late to prevent costly impacts. Understanding that the phenomenon is neither local nor synonymous with shortage can help make communities more resilient.

By: /
April 22, 2016
Trees and water marks are seen on previously submerged land at Guri dam in Bolivar state, Venezuela April 11, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Philomathia Chair of Water Policy at McMaster University

April 1, 2016, passed with less fanfare in California than a year ago, when the state announced its first mandatory statewide water restrictions after record low snowpack. This year, El Nino conditions brought relatively wetter conditions with snowpack now at 87 percent of normal 

Although 55 percent of California remains in extreme or exceptional drought conditions, other issues now compete on the busy agenda of policymakers and business leaders (even as shortages remain front of mind for many Californians). 

The memory of drought is even more faint in Canada, where the summer of 2015 brought drought and wildfires to British Columbia and the Prairie provinces. How can our memory – and the attention span of policymakers – be so short?

During the waning memories of drought, the words of John Steinbeck, the Nobel Prize-winning Californian, echo loudly. Steinbeck captured the phenomenon of drought amnesia, namely that “it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.”

The tendency of policymakers is to react, rather than take the more difficult political decisions to prepare. Not enough has changed since Steinbeck penned those words more than 60 years ago, despite mounting demands and volatile supplies leaving a shrinking buffer around the world — even in regions viewed as water abundant.   

Recent severe droughts show we need more proactive approaches to drought and shortage, and to build resilience to climate change and extreme events. This requires that we change the way we think of drought in several ways. 

First, drought can no longer be viewed as a local phenomenon. People and communities, particularly the poor, bear the brunt of drought, and therefore we need to pay attention to the cascading impacts of drought through world politics, the economy and the ecosystems that support them. The cumulative effects of drought and climate change in Syria, for example, where failed crops contributed to migration to cities and exacerbated social unrest, provide a vivid reminder of water’s role as a threat multiplier in a globalizing world. 

Canadians are less and less insulated from these ripple effects, which have implications for how we navigate foreign aid and development assistance, as illustrated by the fragile Canadian-backed development gains in Ethiopia, now witnessing one of its worst droughts in 30 years. Building local resilience to drought and other forms of climate variability should be viewed as an important part of development and foreign policy.

Second, drought is not synonymous with shortage. Drought occurs when there is a deficit in precipitation, streamflow, soil moisture or all of the above. Shortage occurs when we lack the policies, incentives and technologies to balance supply and demand in a variable and changing climate. Fresh off record high temperatures in March, even moderate reductions in precipitation can translate into severe droughts as warm conditions deplete soil moisture and boost demands for irrigation.   

Changing how we think about drought is the precursor, of course, to changing how we act on it. Now is the time to plan for the next drought, and to build resilience to climate change. By the time drought is declared, it is often too late. 

The U.S. has taken a promising step with the White House announcing the first National Drought Resilience Action Plan last month, providing sorely needed federal leadership to leverage the many local actions and innovations to promote synergies and limit unintended consequences of well-meaning interventions.  

More and better data are always needed, but we cannot wait for perfect data to act in an era of deep uncertainty. Instead we need to build institutions and incentives to stimulate innovation, and spur decision-makers to plan for and deal with variability, uncertainty and the surprises they bring. 

Australia’s 2008 Water for the Future Program was passed in the throes of the Millennium Drought, a decadal dry period in a ‘land of drought and flooding rains.’ In a AUD$13 billion package of reforms passed that year, a relatively modest AUD$450 million trickle of funding was dedicated to what Rob Vertessy, the director of Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, describes as “environmental intelligence.” The key was investing in a comprehensive national water account, tracking “water stores and flows, water rights and water use and reports on the volume of water traded.” 

It will be critical to strengthen environmental intelligence, drawing on diverse forms of knowledge, including traditional knowledge in indigenous communities. But information without parallel investments in institutions and infrastructure is unlikely to change the perverse incentives driving unsustainable outcomes. 

We also need to work at multiple scales, from the individual to international. Capacity begins at home and in the community, requiring a portfolio of solutions from behaviour change to spurring conservation and growing the right crops in the right places to incentives, market forces and technological innovations, all underpinned by sound governance. 

The “all of the above” strategy – letting 1,000 water reform flowers bloom – requires coordination, but not necessarily centralization. This all requires embracing the underlying values that lead to resilience, considering the uneven capacity and vulnerability of communities. 

Finally, experiences from Australia and the U.S., and many other global leaders like Israel and Spain, show it’s critical to learn from and share lessons with the rest of the world. Even as drought conditions improve in California and Brazil, dry conditions have returned to Australia, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Hawaii and South Africa, and the impacts of climate variability are coming in other forms, such as delayed monsoons and more frequent and severe flooding. 

Learning from the lessons around the world requires us to heed the call from Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor, to see ourselves as Canadians (Ontarians) in the world. This may take a variety of forms, and should include helping to build resilience in places that most need it, whether Canada’s remote, rural and marginalized communities, including many First Nations, or in many of the poorest parts of the world where climate variability and change present an existential threat to sustainable development, peace and political stability.

It’s time for a proactive approach and systemic thinking. This is not a new argument; Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute made the same point in 2010 before the onset of the ongoing California drought – viewed as one of the most severe in the past 1,200 years. Not much, and certainly not enough, has changed.

 A new La Nina is already in the forecast, expected to bring a wave of dry and wet conditions around the world. It’s time to make water resilience an enduring priority for society and dedicate the resources and political leadership to steer us toward a more proactive and adaptive path.