|For the week of September 23, 2002|
Drought: the Insidious Disaster
It doesn't arrive with a clap of thunder, a rush of wind or a torrent of water. Drought is what climatologist Mark Svoboda calls the Rodney Dangerfield of weather disasters. It gets no respect. However, that's not true at the National Drought Mitigation Center located on the campus of the University of Nebraska. Here Svoboda and the rest of a small staff monitor drought and develop programs to mitigate its effects.
One of the products of the center and partnering federal agencies is the "Drought Monitor," a weekly map showing the extent and severity of drought in the country. This year the map has a lot of red and brown splotches, and that's not good. "Normally in any given year you would expect to see 10 to12 percent of the United States in severe drought or worse. This year we have 40 percent, so we have almost quadrupled the normal amount of area that might see severe drought," says Svoboda.
A disaster aid package passed the Senate, but still needs approval by the House and the President. The assistance has bipartisan support but there's reluctance too. Farm Bureau has been pressing the case on behalf of farmers and the rest of rural America. With hurricanes, floods and tornadoes, there is a quicker response and better-coordinated effort by the government in helping people. It doesn't happen with drought.
"Year in and year out it is the number one cause of economic loss, but people don't sit up and pay attention to a drought because you don't see structural damage, and a lot of times you're not going to see fatalities associated with drought in our country," says Svoboda. On the African continent, drought can lead to famine and enormous fatalities. In the U.S. it extracts a huge toll on crop and livestock farms, and affects water resources, forests, wildlife, energy, transportation and tourism. Over time, it affects the entire economy of a region.
Svoboda points out that the U.S. does not have a national drought policy though legislation to remedy that was introduced in Congress. A lot of states also don't have drought plans. The mission of the Drought Mitigation Center is to help people prepare for drought and assess risks, but its resources are limited.
Drought relief and planning are likely to become hotter topics in the future but not because of any global warming doomsday scenarios. Svoboda believes the U.S. is becoming more vulnerable to drought because of population growth, development and pressure on water resources. He doesn't think a drought today has to be as severe as in the past to have a big impact. We aren't necessarily going to see another Dust Bowl because of advances in soil and water conservation, but drought itself hasn't changed. It is still an insidious and underrated disaster that threatens livelihoods and the environment.
Droughts don't get named like hurricanes, but they do get compared
to previous ones. So far, Svoboda would place this one right behind
the worst ones of the '30s and '50s.
Stewart Truelsen is the director of broadcast services for the American Farm Bureau Federation.