“Drought diagnosis: what the medical sciences can teach us”

Have you seen our latest paper? Just published in Earth’s Future – a journal with a high impact factor of 7.495 – in their own words: “Earth’s Future is a transdisciplinary, Gold Open Access journal examining the state of the planet and its inhabitants, sustainable and resilient societies, the science of the Anthropocene, and predictions of our common future through research articles, reviews and commentaries.”

The aim of the paper is to encourage drought researchers and drought managers to think outside of their respective boxes when planning drought risk reduction strategies. There are too many examples from around the world of drought mismanagement due to focus on engineering solutions where more holistic solutions are needed. And also too many examples where the focus is on responding to drought when it is happens rather than preparing for drought.

It is common to read of studies “diagnosing” drought, a term borrowed from medical sciences. Investigation of what the diagnostic process involves in the medical sciences suggested that the same process could be followed in drought research. Importantly, this maintains a focus on alleviating symptoms, or drought impacts, of the patient, or drought-affected area.

Droughts are becoming more common around the world, are occurring in new areas, lasting longer, and are affecting more people. When drought hits, we often experience water shortages, which can affect agriculture leading to food shortages. Additional drought impacts on health, lifestyle and ecosystems include drying rivers and lakes, dust storms, water use restrictions, a lack of snow, dying forests and wildfires. In extreme cases, droughts cause famine, disease and migration. The fact that such drought impacts regularly make the news shows how ineffectively we currently manage drought.

Considering drought as a health disorder, we can follow the process used in medicine to diagnose that disorder and prescribe treatment. We suggest that using this approach would enable us to identify where and how a location is vulnerable to drought and work on treatments. We could improve the health of a location before drought hits, thus reducing drought impacts.

In the paper we discuss four recent drought cases: the city of Cape Town, state of California, Northeast region of Brazil, and the Horn of Africa. These case studies have deliberately contrasting scales, socioeconomics, water resources, drought impacts and drought management strategies. We identified documented practices and policies and reflected on them in terms of drought misdiagnosis or incomplete diagnosis that have aggravated socioeconomic and environmental drought impacts. We describe how the current drought solutions, commonly construction of infrastructure to augment water supply, will be insufficient to avoid drought impacts, especially for the most vulnerable people and ecosystems. Applying our approach reveals that solutions should instead consider reducing vulnerability generally through equitable distribution of resources, conflict resolution, and in some cases reducing water use through adjustment of lifestyles and economic activities.

Using an analogy with medical science can be helpful towards comprehensively diagnosing droughts for a variety of contexts and assessing the effectiveness of proposed solutions. This approach can help drought managers to be more proactive in enabling drought-affected regions to become more drought resilient in the future.  

You can find the full paper at the link below or by clicking on the preview here:

Drought Diagnosis: What the Medical Sciences Can Teach Us – Earth’s Future

The paper was a collaboration between all members of the 3DDD team, and a guest author, Noemi Vergopolan of Princeton University, brought in due to her experience of drought in the USA.

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