Under this section, we have provided definitions of drought and what causes it. Wedescribethe types of Droughts and how Drought has been present in Sri Lanka.
What is Drought?
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, 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 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.
An operational definition for agriculture might compare daily precipitation values to evapotranspiration rates to determine the rate of soil moisture depletion, then express these relationships in terms of drought effects on plant behavior (i.e., growth and yield) at various stages of crop development. A definition such as this one could be used in an operational assessment of drought severity and impacts by tracking meteorological variables, soil moisture, and crop conditions during the growing season, continually reevaluating the potential impact of these conditions on final yield.
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 provides a greater understanding of its characteristics and the probability of recurrence at various levels of severity. Information of this type is extremely beneficial in the development of response and mitigation strategies and preparedness plans.
Types of Drought
Research in the early 1980s uncovered more than 150 published definitions of drought. The definitions reflect differences in regions, needs, and disciplinary approaches.
Wilhite and Glantz1 categorized the definitions in terms of four basic approaches to measuring drought: meteorological, hydrological, agricultural, and socioeconomic. The first three approaches deal with ways to measure drought as a physical phenomenon. The last deals with drought in terms of supply and demand, tracking the effects of water shortfall as it ripples through socioeconomic systems.
1. Meteorological Drought
Sequence of drought occurrence and impacts for commonly accepted drought types. All droughts originate from a deficiency of precipitation or meteorological drought but other types of drought and impacts cascade from this deficiency. (Source: National Drought Mitigation Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, U.S.A.) Meteorological drought is defined usually on the basis of the degree of dryness (in comparison to some “normal” or average amount) and the duration of the dry period. Definitions of meteorological drought must be considered as region specific since the atmospheric conditions that result in deficiencies of precipitation are highly variable from region to region. For example, some definitions of meteorological drought identify periods of drought on the basis of the number of days with precipitation less than some specified threshold. This measure is only appropriate for regions characterized by a year-round precipitation regime such as a tropical rainforest, humid subtropical climate, or humid mid-latitude climate. Locations such as Manaus, Brazil; New Orleans, Louisiana (U.S.A.); and London, England, are examples. Other climatic regimes are characterized by a seasonal rainfall pattern, such as the central United States, northeast Brazil, West Africa, and northern Australia. Extended periods without rainfall are common in Omaha, Nebraska (U.S.A.); Fortaleza, Ceará (Brazil); and Darwin, Northwest Territory (Australia), and a definition based on the number of days with precipitation less than some specified threshold is unrealistic in these cases. Other definitions may relate actual precipitation departures to average amounts on monthly, seasonal, or annual time scales.
2. Agricultural Drought
Agricultural drought links various characteristics of meteorological (or hydrological) drought to agricultural impacts, focusing on precipitation shortages, differences between actual and potential evapotranspiration, soil water deficits, reduced groundwater or reservoir levels, and so forth. Plant water demand depends on prevailing weather conditions, biological characteristics of the specific plant, its stage of growth, and the physical and biological properties of the soil. A good definition of agricultural drought should be able to account for the variable susceptibility of crops during different stages of crop development, from emergence to maturity. Deficient topsoil moisture at planting may hinder germination, leading to low plant populations per hectare and a reduction of final yield. However, if topsoil moisture is sufficient for early growth requirements, deficiencies in subsoil moisture at this early stage may not affect final yield if subsoil moisture is replenished as the growing season progresses or if rainfall meets plant water needs.
3. Hydrological Drought
Hydrological drought is associated with the effects of periods of precipitation (including snowfall) shortfalls on surface or subsurface water supply (i.e., streamflow, reservoir and lake levels, groundwater). The frequency and severity of hydrological drought is often defined on a watershed or river basin scale. Although all droughts originate with a deficiency of precipitation, hydrologists are more concerned with how this deficiency plays out through the hydrologic system. Hydrological droughts are usually out of phase with or lag the occurrence of meteorological and agricultural droughts. It takes longer for precipitation deficiencies to show up in components of the hydrological system such as soil moisture, streamflow, and groundwater and reservoir levels. As a result, these impacts are out of phase with impacts in other economic sectors. For example, a precipitation deficiency may result in a rapid depletion of soil moisture that is almost immediately discernible to agriculturalists, but the impact of this deficiency on reservoir levels may not affect hydroelectric power production or recreational uses for many months. Also, water in hydrologic storage systems (e.g., reservoirs, rivers) is often used for multiple and competing purposes (e.g., flood control, irrigation, recreation, navigation, hydropower, wildlife habitat), further complicating the sequence and quantification of impacts. Competition for water in these storage systems escalates during drought and conflicts between water users increase significantly.
4. Socioeconomic Drought
Socioeconomic definitions of drought associate the supply and demand of some economic good with elements of meteorological, hydrological, and agricultural drought. It differs from the aforementioned types of drought because its occurrence depends on the time and space processes of supply and demand to identify or classify droughts. The supply of many economic goods, such as water, forage, food grains, fish, and hydroelectric power, depends on weather. Because of the natural variability of climate, water supply is ample in some years but unable to meet human and environmental needs in other years. Socioeconomic drought occurs when the demand for an economic good exceeds supply as a result of a weather-related shortfall in water supply. For example, in Uruguay in 1988–89, drought resulted in significantly reduced hydroelectric power production because power plants were dependent on streamflow rather than storage for power generation. Reducing hydroelectric power production required the government to convert to more expensive (imported) petroleum and implement stringent energy conservation measures to meet the nation’s power needs.
In most instances, the demand for economic goods is increasing as a result of increasing population and per capita consumption. Supply may also increase because of improved production efficiency, technology, or the construction of reservoirs that increase surface water storage capacity. If both supply and demand are increasing, the critical factor is the relative rate of change. Is demand increasing more rapidly than supply? If so, vulnerability and the incidence of drought may increase in the future as supply and demand trends converge.
1Wilhite, D.A.; and M.H. Glantz. 1985. Understanding the Drought Phenomenon: The Role of Definitions. Water International 10(3):111–120.
5. Ecological Drought
A more recent effort focuses on ecological drought, defined as "a prolonged and widespread deficit in naturally available water supplies — including changes in natural and managed hydrology — that create multiple stresses across ecosystems."From The National Drought Mitigation Center