Drought and Health

Drought is a natural phenomenon in which rainfall is lower than average for an extended period of time. The  result is inadequate water supply. Drought can lead to public health problems.

parched soil around a shrinking pond


Cycles of drought have affected North America for the last 10,000 years. Significant drought events have affected the United States throughout its history. Droughts can last from a single season to many decades. It can affect from a few hundred to millions of square miles.

Drought can affect areas or communities differently depending on several additional variables. These variables include

  • the structure and capacity of existing water systems,
  • local governance of water use,
  • economic development,
  • the at-risk populations living within the affected area, and
  • other societal factors, such as the presence of local social networks.

For Example: Severe drought conditions can negatively affect air quality. During drought, there is an increased risk for wildfires and dust storms. Particulate matter suspended in the air from these events can irritate the bronchial passages and lungs. This can make chronic respiratory illnesses worse and increase the risk for respiratory infections like bronchitis and pneumonia.

Public Health Implications

The possible public health implications of drought include

  • compromised quantity and quality of drinking water;
  • increased recreational risks;
  • effects on air quality;
  • diminished living conditions related to energy, air quality, and sanitation and hygiene;
  • compromised food and nutrition; and
  • increased incidence of illness and disease.

The health implications of drought are numerous and far reaching. People sometimes experience health effects in the short-term. Effects are directly observable and measurable. However, the slow rise or chronic nature of drought can result in longer term, indirect health implications. These health effects are not always easy to anticipate or monitor.

Page last reviewed: August 22, 2017