What is a drought and how does it happen?

The arid landscape of Turkana in Northern Kenya. These lands haven't seen proper rain since 2017 and so are becoming more and more inhospitable.   Photo: Gavin Douglas / Concern Worldwide
The arid landscape of Turkana in Northern Kenya. These lands haven't seen proper rain since 2017.

Defining a drought can be tricky. The word ‘drought’ has various meanings depending on the context– from socioeconomic to agricultural to meteorological – and the effects of a drought are often not immediately visible unlike, say, floods, making it difficult to identify.

A general definition of a drought is ‘a prolonged period of abnormally low rainfall, leading to a shortage of water’ [Oxford Dictionary]. They can happen over a long period and can be devastating to both the economy and human life.

How do they happen?

During a drought, there is so little rain that an entire region can start to dry out. When little or no rain occurs, plants and crops can die because the soil is too dry for them to grow. When rainfall is less than normal for several weeks, months, or even years, water levels start to fall dramatically. If dry weather continues and water-supply problems develop, the dry period can become a drought.

Ng’ikario Ekiru with her mother-in-law Nakode and three of her children, Aukot, Ekuam and Apua. Photo: Gavin Douglas / Concern Worldwide.
Ng’ikario Ekiru with her mother-in-law Nakode and three of her children. Photo: Gavin Douglas

However, a shortage of rainfall does not necessarily mean a drought will occur. Sometimes, if a shortage of rainfall happens in cooler conditions, water evaporation from the soil slows down and plants have an easier time retaining moisture in the soil rather than returning it to the air (via transpiration). However, in warmer conditions, evapotranspiration (the total amount of water returned to the air by either evaporation or transpiration) increases, and dry conditions can develop faster and more easily. Environmental factors like climate change, ocean temperatures, changes in the jet stream, and changes in the local landscape all make a difference when it comes to droughts.

Why are they so devastating?

Droughts are particularly dangerous for people living in areas without enough food or water, or who are income or nutrition-dependent on what they grow. If crops fail and livestock die, there is not enough food to go around and malnutrition and drought-related diseases rapidly increase. Moreover, when a region is very poor and does not have enough food or water, arguments can happen over who should be able to access the goods, which can even escalate into larger scale conflict, with researchers linking the intensification of the Syrian conflict to a drought caused by climate change [NY Times].

From 1970 to 2012, drought caused almost 680 000 deaths [World Meteorological Organization].

These lands haven't seen proper rain since 2017 and so are becoming more and more inhospitable. Photo: Gavin Douglas
These lands in Kenya haven't seen proper rain since 2017. Photo: Gavin Douglas

What is happening in Kenya?

Climate change continues to seriously affect the poor in rural areas, with Kenya regularly experiencing devastating droughts. These persistent droughts have dried up water resources in over half of its counties, and an estimated three million people lack access to clean water. They have destroyed livelihoods, triggered local conflicts over limited resources and reduced the ability of communities to cope. Families are on the move, which poses protection risks for women and children. More than 1.2 million children need educational assistance. Kenya is also experiencing multiple disease outbreaks including cholera, diarrhoea and measles [Relief Web].

What can we do about it?

Concern is working hard to combat suffering and build resilience in Kenya. We are doing this by establishing programmes which will strengthen resilience, improve nutrition, respond to emergencies and provide access to quality education. For example, our Urban Early Warning Early Action programme in Nairobi has resulted in the government undertaking regular food and nutrition surveillance. This means that we can detect slow-onset emergencies, such as widespread malnutrition, early and the appropriate action can be taken.

Find out more about Kenya.

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