The Effects of Drought

A sign on a farm trailer hangs over dry, cracked mud at the edge of a farm near Buttonwillow, California.

David McNew / Getty Images

Drought can have serious health, social, economic, and political impacts with far-reaching consequences.

Water is one of the most essential commodities for human survival, second only to breathable air. When there is a drought—which by definition means having too little water to meet current demands—conditions can become difficult or dangerous very quickly.

Hunger and Famine

Drought conditions often provide too little water to support food crops, through either natural precipitation or irrigation using reserve water supplies. The same problem affects grass and grain used to feed livestock and poultry. When drought undermines or destroys food sources, people go hungry. When the drought is severe and continues over a long period, famine may occur. Many of us remember the 1984 famine in Ethiopia, which was the result of a deadly combination of a severe drought and a dangerously ineffective government. Hundreds of thousands died as a result.

Not Enough Drinking Water

All living things must have water to survive. People can live for weeks without food, but only a few days without water. In places like California, drought is experienced mainly as an inconvenience, perhaps with some economic losses, but in very poor countries the consequences are much more direct. When desperate for water to drink, people will turn to untreated sources that can make them sick.


Drought often creates a lack of clean water for drinking, public sanitation and personal hygiene, which can lead to a wide range of life-threatening diseases. The problem of water access is critical: every year, millions are sickened or die due to lack of clean water access and sanitation, and droughts only make the problem worse.


The low moisture and precipitation that often characterize droughts can quickly create hazardous conditions in forests and across rangelands, setting the stage for wildfires that may cause injuries or deaths as well as extensive damage to property and already shrinking food supplies. In addition, even plants generally adapted to dry conditions will drop needles and leaves during a drought, contributing to a layer of dead vegetation on the ground. This dry duff then becomes a dangerous fuel for damaging wildfires.


Wild plants and animals suffer from droughts, even if they have some adaptations to dry conditions. In grasslands, sustained lack of rain decreases forage production, affecting herbivores, grain-eating birds, and indirectly, predators and scavengers. Droughts will lead to increased mortality and reduced reproduction, which is especially problematic for populations of at-risk species whose numbers are already very low. Wildlife needing wetlands for breeding (for example, ducks and geese) experience drought as a decline in available nesting sites.

Social Conflict and War

When a precious commodity like water is in short supply due to drought, and the lack of water creates a corresponding lack of food, people will compete—and eventually fight and kill—to secure enough water to survive. Some believe that the current Syrian civil war ultimately started after 1.5 million rural Syrians fled the drought-stricken rural areas for the cities, triggering unrest.

Electricity Generation

Many areas in the world rely on hydroelectric projects for electricity. Drought will reduce the amount of water stored in reservoirs behind dams, reducing the amount of power produced. This problem can be very challenging for the numerous small communities relying on small-scale hydro, where a small electric turbine is installed on a local creek.

Migration or Relocation

Faced with the other impacts of drought, many people will flee a drought-stricken area in search of a new home with a better supply of water, enough food, and without the disease and conflict that were present in the place they are leaving.