Hurricanes announce themselves on forecasters' radar screens before slamming into an unlucky coast all on live television. Tornadoes strike with little warning, but no one can doubt what's going on the moment a black funnel cloud touches down. If we're lucky, a tsunami offers a brief tip-off the unnatural sight of the ocean retreating from the beach before it cuts a swath of destruction and death.
But a drought is different. It begins with a few dry weeks strung end to end, cloudless skies and hot weather. Lawns brown as if toasted, and river and lake levels drop like puddles evaporating after the rain. Farmers worry over wilting crops as soil turns to useless dust. But for most of us, life goes on normally, the dry days in the background until the moment we wake up and realize we're living through a natural catastrophe. Weather experts like to call drought the "creeping disaster." Though it destroys no property and yields no direct death toll, drought can cost billions of dollars, its effects lasting for months and even years. The writer Alex Prud'homme author of a great new book on water called The Ripple Effect compares drought to a "python, which slowly and inexorably squeezes its prey to death."
This summer, the python has gripped much of the South, from the burned fringes of Arizona singed by record-breaking wildfires to usually swampy Georgia. Ground zero is Texas, which is suffering through the worst one-year drought on record, with the state receiving just 6 in. (15 cm) of rain since January. At the end of July, a record 12% of the continental U.S. was in a state of "exceptional drought" the most severe ranking given by the National Drought Mitigation Center. More than 2 million acres (800,000 hectares) of farmland in Texas have been abandoned, streets are cracking as trees desperately draw the remaining moisture from the ground, and ranchers whose pasturelands have gone dry are selling off cattle by the thousands. "This historic drought has depleted water resources, leaving our state's farmers and ranches in a state of dire need," said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples last week. "The damage to our economy is already measured in billions of dollars and continues to mount."
The South has suffered crippling droughts in the past, from the long dry stretch in 2007 that almost led to water wars among Georgia, Florida and Alabama to the multiyear Texas drought of the 1950s, which helped reshape the state's mostly agricultural economy. But this time could be different and worse. The driest regions are also the ones that have grown fastest in recent years Texas added more than 4.2 million residents from 2000 to 2010, expanding more quickly than any other state in the U.S., with Arizona and Georgia close behind. That means millions more Americans are living in rapidly growing cities like San Antonio, Austin and Phoenix that can be dry even in the wettest years.
And there's evidence when it comes to rainfall, at least that the good years may be behind us. The Southwest in particular has a history over the past two millennia of megadroughts that lasted for decades. Deeper into the geologic past, dust bowls endured for centuries. Just as worrying, climate change is expected to further dry out much of the region, potentially multiplying the impacts of population growth and the usual dry spells. What the South is facing may be not just a drought but the first signs of a permanent dry, one to which we'll need to adapt.
The good news is that we're not completely helpless before drought, no matter how severe. Farmers will suffer because of this year's dry spell but much less so than their grandfathers and fathers did in the 1930s and '50s, thanks to better weather forecasting and drought insurance. Efficient drip-irrigation farming methods make the water that is available stretch further, and similar conservation methods could work in cities, where Americans waste an estimated 7 billion gallons (26.5 billion liters) of drinking water a year through leaky pipes alone. An improbable model for this kind of environmental prudence is in Las Vegas, where strict conservation has helped water consumption drop even as population has ballooned, owing in part to tough city rules that discourage satiating thirsty lawns and promote water reuse. In parched West Texas, a new treatment plant will actually clean sewage and recycle it back into the regular water system. For additional remedy, we can work to reduce greenhouse gases and blunt the worst effects of climate change.
We don't have to look into the future to see how a society's response can lessen, or worsen, the impact of a drought. Nine thousand miles (almost 15,000 km) east of Texas, the Horn of Africa which includes Somalia and Ethiopia is experiencing its worst drought in 60 years. The resulting famine has killed some 30,000 children over the past 90 days in Somalia alone. It's not just the lack of rain that's made Somalia's drought a mass killer. Somalia is a desperately poor country with little infrastructure, where pastoral livestock herders who provide nearly half the country's GDP have no social safety net. Worse, the country has been riven by a conflict between the federal government and al-Shabab, an Islamic insurgent group in the South. (Somalia also has one of the world's highest fertility rates though, sadly, 1 in 10 infants will die within the first year of life.) With al-Shabab in control of Mogadishu, the capital, until recently, it was impossible for international aid groups to help those starving. Drought triggered the disaster, but poverty, conflict and population growth turned it into a humanitarian catastrophe.
Addressing the social crises that exacerbate drought and adapting to the dry conditions that are unavoidable will help, but there might be limits to what we can do in the face of the creeping disaster after all, we still can't make it rain. Churches in the South and politicians like Texas Governor Rick Perry have offered prayers for rain over the course of the drought. So far those pleas haven't been answered, but those in prayer would do well to remember the old saying: God helps those who help themselves.