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Drought can cause significant human health outcomes that can challenge public health departments, emergency managers, and healthcare providers. Drought can lead to decreased water quantity and quality, increased incidence of illness or disease, increased mortality rates, and adverse mental health outcomes as livelihoods are challenged.

Public Health and Drought Conditions

This map shows the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's 2018 Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) designations alongside current drought conditions from the U.S. Drought Monitor. The SVI uses 15 U.S. census variables at tract level (e.g., poverty, lack of vehicle access, crowded housing) to help local officials identify communities that may need support in preparing for or recovering from hazards, like drought. Learn more.

This map shows current National Weather Service Heat Advisories, Excessive Heat Watches, and Excessive Heat Warnings alongside drought conditions from the U.S. Drought Monitor. View all current warnings on Weather.gov.

Social Vulnerability Index (SVI)

The color with the hex code #225ea8 identifies:
High SVI areas in drought

U.S. Drought Monitor

The color with the hex code #ffff00 identifies:
D0
The color with the hex code #ffcc99 identifies:
D1
The color with the hex code #ff6600 identifies:
D2
The color with the hex code #ff0000 identifies:
D3
The color with the hex code #660000 identifies:
D4

Heat Warnings

The color with the hex code #b64e6d identifies:
Areas under Heat Advisories
The color with the hex code #6e3a9a identifies:
Areas under Excessive Heat Warnings
The color with the hex code #36185e identifies:
Areas under Excessive Heat Watches

U.S. Drought Monitor

The color with the hex code #ffff00 identifies:
D0
The color with the hex code #ffcc99 identifies:
D1
The color with the hex code #ff6600 identifies:
D2
The color with the hex code #ff0000 identifies:
D3
The color with the hex code #660000 identifies:
D4
Updates Biennially  -  01/21/21
Updates Weekly  -  01/21/21
5.95
%
of counties in Moderate to Exceptional (D1-D4) Drought also have high Social Vulnerability risk
0
National Weather Service heat warnings
44
counties with active wildfires
39
heat-based deaths since January 1, 2020
Key Issues

Water Quality and Quantity

Drought can reduce the water supply that serves not only households and businesses, but also at-risk populations. Droughts can also lead to compromised water quality due to factors like increased salinity, increased algal production, less dilution, and reduced oxygen levels in the water system.

Air Quality

During drought, there is an increased risk for wildfires and dust storms. Particulate matter from these events can irritate bronchial passages and lungs and exacerbate chronic heart and lung conditions.

Increased Incidence of Illness and Disease

Drought often results in drier conditions, which can increase the risk of disease. For example, drier conditions can increase reproduction of a fungus found in soils and lead to the disease coccidioidomycosis, or Valley fever.

Mental Health Impacts

Drought and its economic consequences can lead to increased mental health impacts, including mood disorders, substance abuse, domestic violence, and suicide.

Drought Impacts on Public Health

Drought’s slow rise can result in both short- and long-term health consequences. 

Human health implications of drought include:

  • Compromised quantity and quality of drinking water
  • Effects on air quality
  • Diminished living conditions related to energy, air quality, and sanitation and hygiene
  • Compromised food and nutrition
  • Increased incidence of illness and disease, including anxiety, depression, or other adverse mental health outcomes
  • Increased recreational risks.

Drought can affect the health of communities in different ways, depending on factors such as 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 elements, such as the presence of local social networks. Better understanding the linkages between drought events, related impacts, and consequences for human health can help public health agencies and emergency managers prepare for drought-associated health impacts and save lives.

Several resources are available to assess the public health needs in a community related to drought events. During California’s significant drought from 2012–2016, Mariposa and Tulare Counties, in cooperation with CDC, completed the first Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response (CASPER) reports on drought. The purpose of the CASPER reports was to assess the perceptions of the drought and of water use, learn how households coped with dry wells, identify ways households are conserving water, determine where and how households are seeking assistance, establish whether the drought caused any mental health effects or exacerbations of chronic diseases, and assess disaster communication issues. CASPER drought studies have also been completed in Oregon. Learn more

In 2019, NIDIS helped to convene a National Drought and Public Health Summit to bring together a diverse set of local, state, federal, tribal, nonprofit, and academic stakeholders for a discussion around the linkages between droughts and human health. Participants discussed ways to properly prepare our nation’s public health agencies and organizations for the health hazards associated with drought, and identified how various partners and stakeholders can incorporate public health impacts into drought and climate tools. Regionally-focused drought and health workshops, along with a report iterating action items to further understand the relationship between drought and public health, were among the next steps agreed upon following the Summit. 

Drought Early Warning for the Public Health Sector 

Drought can have far-reaching impacts on public health, including decreased water quality and quantity, increased incidence of illness and disease, increased mortality rates, and adverse mental health outcomes as livelihoods are challenged. Drought early warning is essential to ensure health professionals and emergency managers are prepared to help communities mitigate the impacts of a drought event. The resources below are organized by the key components of a drought early warning system: (1) drought observation and monitoring; (2) drought planning and preparedness; (3) prediction and forecasting of drought; (4) communication and outreach to the public and affected sectors; and (5) interdisciplinary and applied research on topics of concern to drought-affected sectors.

Related Content

Data & Maps | Public Health

View datasets and maps that show drought-related impacts on public health.

Data & Maps | Fire

Drought can increase the risk of wildfire, which can negatively impact air quality. View datasets and maps on current and predicted outlooks for fire risk, potential, and occurrence.