Droughts are rarely seen as a positive development. Historically equated with divine punishment, they can be fatal to local economies and human lives alike.
But they can also provide a crucial test for water management systems, which - when they function effectively - may allow regions to shake off severe droughts that would have otherwise led to widespread loss of life.
“Droughts provide an opportunity for action as well as learning lessons. There is often a sense of community, a greater political will and a heightened awareness of conservation issues,” said Roberto Lenton, from the University of Nebraska’s Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute in the US.
“We have been experiencing, over the last couple of years, some major droughts around the world that have reinforced the growing recognition that we are going to be facing more climate extremes - droughts and floods - and we need to learn how to deal with them more effectively.”
Statistics on natural catastrophic events collected by insurers Munich Re show that the “number of major weather-related natural catastrophes has almost tripled since 1980.” They report “an increase in the length, frequency or intensity of warm-weather periods” and predict that droughts are “likely to become more frequent”.
In a globalized food market, droughts - even those in the developed world - can quickly impact the world’s poorest, as in the 2007-2008 food price crisis, which was aggravated in part by drought in Australia.
So what have we learned from current and recent water shortages?
Water storage and risk management
The current drought in northeastern Brazil is the most severe water shortage the area has seen in last 100 years. Last year, it caused the deaths of five million cattle.
The federal government has responded with some relief actions, including trucking in water, providing agricultural schemes for farmers, and investing in water infrastructure like dams and reservoirs.
“Whenever you have droughts, over the last 100 years, you see a rapid rise in water stocks and reservoirs,” said Francisco de Assis de Souza Filho, director of the Brazil office of the Columbia Water Center, who added that politicians are often short-sighted when it comes to risk management because they “are only focused on the four years of their mandate”.
Droughts - in Brazil and many other parts of the world - can be a key spur for politicians to invest in dams, water management and resilience, even if prevention strategies would have be more cost-effective.
“Brazil needs to change from reactive drought crisis management to proactive drought risk management. We have a good institutional approach to water research management, but we don’t have a focus on drought management,” said de Souza Filho.
Michael Hayes, director of the US-based National Drought Mitigation Center, says investment in mitigation, planning, monitoring and early warning pays-off when drought strikes.
“If our only focus is on crisis management, we don’t take any steps to reduce our risk to future events.”
As destructive as droughts can be, they can provide the catalyst for better preventive action:
“Droughts provide windows of opportunity to engage the stakeholders,” said Hayes.
Motivating farmers and decision makers is key to making change happen.
“Political will is the foundation of drought management policy,” said Thierry Facon, senior regional management officer for the Asia and Pacific region at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Like Brazil, the US state of Nebraska also suffered a severe drought in 2012, though with a rather different outcome. Nebraska is the country’s biggest producer of red meat, number two for ethanol production, and fourth nationally for the value of its crops.
Crop failure would have been a national disaster with global consequences.
But the last major drought in the state, in the 1950s, had spurred massive investment in irrigation, and the state’s irrigated land now covers a similar surface area to irrigated farms in entire countries, like Turkey, Egypt and Spain.
By tapping into the groundwater held in the High Plains aquifer, US farmers were able to see through the drought. In fact, production of irrigated corn - thanks to the increased sunshine and longer growing season - actually increased by 5.6 percent.
But while groundwater can provide a useful water supply during drought, the global norm is for unsustainable use of groundwater, prompted by inadequate systems of water management.
In Gujarat, India, the only way to stop farmers from using too much groundwater has been to ration electricity supplies to farmers in an attempt to limit overuse of pumps.
Recent droughts have shown the strength of technological developments in a variety of sectors, from soil moisture sensors that help boost the efficiency of irrigation to satellite imaging used to track global weather patterns.
“Through these kinds of [satellite] systems, we get a better understanding and learn how to predict, so there are ways to actually know when a drought is coming up,” Mats Eriksson, director of climate change and water at the Stockholm International Water Institute, told IRIN.
As a slow-onset hazard, droughts have often caught governments unawares - though as the 2011 drought in Somalia showed, awareness does not always lead to effective preventive action.
“I think the problem is more communicating this kind of knowledge in a tailor-made format, down to a more local context where people can actually utilize and benefit and plan based on these predictions,” said Eriksson.
Studying past droughts has helped scientists refine their predictive models, and it has helped build technology that can offer greater resilience.
“Technologies have played a great role in mitigating these shortages of water. Science and technology is going to play an increasing role in the future,” said Dilip Kulkarni, head of the Agri-food Division at India’s Jain Irrigation Systems, Ltd.
He stresses that in the developing world, water technologies can be extremely beneficial in helping farmers survive water scarcity - as long as the methods have been adapted to the smallholder farms that predominate in places like sub-Saharan Africa and India.
Biotechnology has helped provide drought-resistant plants, while adapted farming practices, like avoiding tillage in dry areas, helped farmers in Nebraska avoid a repeat of the ‘dustbowl years’ in the 1930s.
“Droughts spur technological innovation,” said Lenton. But greater water efficiency does not necessarily mean lower water use, something that is frequently forgotten in discussions about the wonders of drought-resistant technologies.
In 1877, around half a million people died because of drought in northeastern Brazil, according to de Souza Filho. Economic development and technology have since helped reduce the human cost of drought in Brazil and many parts of the world, though as the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa showed, widespread loss of human life still occurs.
While well-resourced farmers in formal, well-governed water systems, like those in Nebraska, may have learned to survive even severe droughts, poverty continues to leave others exposed.
And the lessons learned in such formal water systems may not even be applicable in tropical informal governance areas, warns Facon.
Communities used to living in arid lands have, of course, knowledge about dealing with drought that has been passed down through generations - for example, mixing pastoral and agrarian ways of life to cope with times of water scarcity.
“In many parts of the world, drought is part of the natural environment. That means that people have developed means and methods to overcome drought,” said Eriksson.
But climate change poses new challenges, particularly with weather extremes that traditional systems, based on historic weather patterns, may not be adequate for.
“Maybe the old traditional systems don’t work anymore, so you have to find ways of maybe supporting them [the systems] if they’re good enough. Or in other cases, the kind of livelihood system that you relied on doesn’t really work anymore - and you have to add other things,” said Eriksson
Climate change maybe creating new lessons to learn.