How climate change impacts droughts and our health

Droughts can severely impact our lives and are becoming more frequent and worse due to climate change (credit: Alohaflaminggo on Shutterstock)
Droughts can severely impact our lives and are becoming more frequent and worse due to climate change (credit: Alohaflaminggo on Shutterstock)

climate change is progressing, extreme weather events are occurring more frequently. As I explained in Chapter 3 of my book “A Guide to a Healthier Planet”, extreme weather events include heat waves, tornadoes, wildfires, floods, and droughts. Not every country is affected by these events in the same way, meaning that some places will experience tornadoes more frequently while other places will be facing droughts more often and longer.
Drought is different from most of the other extreme weather events as it can last a lot longer: often a decade or more. This can be caused by natural processes such as interactions between the ocean and atmosphere, heat waves, and El Niño. El Niño happens when deep water that normally rises to the surface in the Pacific Ocean remains deep. This means fewer nutrients and less cold water reach the surface, resulting in warmer, nutrient-poorer water.
Apart from natural causes of droughts, other causes involve human behavior, such as fires and global warming caused by carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Global warming impacts droughts through increasing temperatures that cause more water from the ground to evaporate, and through reducing soil moisture, the amount of flowing water, and the water level in water storage areas such as streams and lakes. They can be categorized based on intensity:
  • Meteorological drought: a lack of precipitation such as rain and snow and depends on how much water in a certain area evaporates
  • Agricultural drought: a lack of water in the soil, causing low soil moisture and a lack of water for plants
  • Hydrological drought: a period of unusually low surface or underground water levels and a reduced water flow below and above the ground. This drought usually follows meteorological and agricultural drought
  • Socioeconomic drought: the inability to meet human needs because of water shortage
Different types of drought have different severity, with meteorological drought having the least impact (credit: image by Infinity Eight Productions; published with permission)
Different types of drought have different severity, with meteorological drought having the least impact (credit: image by Infinity Eight Productions; published with permission)

As these types of drought differ in intensity, the impact differs as well. For example, while meteorological droughts affect terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, they usually don’t lead to a lack of drinking water for us. And this type of drought usually has a small impact on energy production. On the other end of the scale, socioeconomic droughts can for example lead to illness and conflicts, and in the worst case to death. Also, the impact differs between countries, across areas within countries, and within the population, especially when an area is unprepared for drought.
This is how droughts can impact our health:

1. Water-related effects

The first way droughts impact our health is through water-related effects. Even though less water is involved in a drought, the risk of diseases being spread by water is higher. This is because drought impacts not only water availability but also water quality. How water quality is affected by droughts is a complex mechanism that depends on climate and environmental conditions and watershed characteristics. A watershed is an area that drains rainwater or melted snow to streams, lakes, or wetlands.

A watershed (credit: VectorMine on Shutterstock)
A watershed (credit: VectorMine on Shutterstock)

For example, when less water flows during drought, water stays in the same place for longer. This allows pollutants such as chemicals, metals, and other solid particles to gather in this stagnant water. And the number of harmful microorganisms have the opportunity to grow. This makes it more likely that we are affected by diseases. Unfortunately, climate change is expected to worsen these effects because harmful organisms are more likely to spread in warmer and saltier water (further reading: How does Climate Change Impacts Plants in Urban Environment).
The number of nutrients decreases and water can become less clear during drought, too. This is because fewer nutrients can be transported to other areas, soil erodes more easily due to evaporating water, and internal processes such as nutrient cycling can be affected. Nutrient cycling involves exchanging nutrients between living organisms, the environment, and non-living components to support the life and growth of organisms. This can lead to reduced nutrients and oxygen in water, making plants and animals struggle to survive, and can make water unsafe to drink.
While water availability and quality are reduced during droughts, the need for water can increase, for instance, to water plants. This is critical as it makes us more likely and maybe even force us to use unsafe water. This can in turn make us more likely to become ill. This is especially the case for poor populations with limited access to water and sanitation.
Water scarcity forces us to use possibly unsafe water (credit: boonchoke on Shutterstock)
Water scarcity forces us to use possibly unsafe water (credit: boonchoke on Shutterstock)

2. Food-related effects

The second way droughts impact our health is through food-related effects. These effects are closely related to decreased food security and nutrition — in the worst case even starvation — during a drought. Especially low- and middle-income countries are affected because they have fewer opportunities to make up for food scarcity, for example because of poor transportation networks and limited access to other markets.
Climate change is expected to increase food insecurity and malnutrition through droughts, which is critical as already about 1 in 3 people worldwide don’t have access to adequate food. This is because droughts cause fewer crops to grow, limit the availability of livestock, and affect fisheries. This means that both the quantity and quality of food in drought-affected areas change. Also, food prices will change because of limited availability, which will affect the quantity and quality of food people can afford.
Dying cow due to drought and lack of food (credit: Garreth Brown on Shutterstock)
Dying cow due to drought and lack of food (credit: Garreth Brown on Shutterstock)

The consequences of limited quantity and quality of food — and the resulting under-nutrition — are far-reaching. For example, children who survive under-nutrition often suffer from long-term cognitive damage, physical underdevelopment, and a higher risk of infections, such as malaria. Also, pregnant women who are under-nourished have a higher risk of bearing early and giving birth to babies with low birth weight. And in all of us, undernutrition can lead to mental health issues, including more stress, anxiety, and depression. In extreme cases, these mental health issues can trigger suicide.

3. Virus-related effects

The third way droughts impact our health is through virus-related effects. How droughts cause these effects is complex, as several changes can happen at the same time. For example, the number of viruses that are spread by mosquitoes can increase when storage containers are filled with limited available water.
Mosquito larvae; containers to collect water can become a breeding ground for mosquitoes (credit: CEW on Shutterstock)
Mosquito larvae; containers to collect water can become a breeding ground for mosquitoes (credit: CEW on Shutterstock)

At the same time, the number of breeding grounds can decrease because droughts reduce the number of breeding grounds for mosquitoes in natural environments. Also, other animals that carry viruses are affected by droughts, such as ticks. Ticks thrive in wet environments, which means that their numbers decrease during droughts.

4. Air-related effects

The fourth way droughts impact our health is through air-related effects. Air-related effects are caused by droughts because they impact air quality by increasing the concentration of air pollutants. For example because of more and more severe wildfires and dust. Inhaling these pollutants can block our airways, cause inflammation, and make blood more likely to form clots. This can lead to problems with our heart and blood vessels. In the worst case, it can even lead to death. These risks are especially high in cities that also suffer from other pollution sources, such as particles from vehicles that burn fuel. (Further reading on the impact of dust on our health: How Earthquake Debris Affects The Environment and Our Health)
In this video, you can see a huge dust cloud in Parkes (United Kingdom). This cloud was caused by a strong low air pressure area, which picked up a lot of dust from the very dry ground:

Apart from inorganic particles, air pollutants can also include organic matter, such as harmful microorganisms, allergens, and fungi spores. They can irritate the lungs after inhaling them, and increase the chance of diseases, allergies, and infections. Such diseases are more likely to spread during droughts as they can more easily be carried by the wind.

How we can take action

So, climate change makes meteorological, agricultural, and hydrological drought worse by less rainfall and snow, and by higher temperatures that cause more water to evaporate. This affects us as this can turn into a socioeconomic drought, meaning that we don’t have enough water to meet our needs. But there are practical ideas of what you and I can do to prevent droughts and reduce the negative impact of droughts:
  • Installing a rain barrel to capture rainwater
  • Removing pollutants from water, for example by using plants and microorganisms (further reading: Chapter 11 of A Guide to a Healthier Planet: “Pollution Solutions: Removing Pollutants from Soil and Water”)
  • Reusing wastewater (further reading: 10 Technologies That Allow Us To Reuse Our Daily Wastewater)
  • Reducing water use, for example by washing at the sink or having shorter showers
  • Harvesting water when drinking water runs out (further reading: 2 Methods That Can Save Us When Freshwater Runs Out)
  • Educating yourself in resilient and sustainable agriculture
  • Voting for a political party that takes climate change seriously and puts solutions into practice
Which one of these can you implement in your daily life? And do you have further ideas of what you and I could do? Thank you in advance for putting them into practice and sharing them in a comment to this question to inspire all of us.
Did you enjoy this article? Then I’m sure you’ll love my book “A Guide to A Healthier Planet” as well. Have a peek inside the book at:


About the author

Dr. Erlijn van Genuchten is a an internationally recognized environmental sustainability expert. She is a science communicator, helping scientists in the fields of nature and sustainability increase the outreach of their results and allowing us all to put scientific insights into practice and contribute to a sustainable future. Erlijn has inspired thousands of people around the world — for example — by supporting the United Nations with her expertise, her book “A Guide to A Healthier Planet” published by Springer Nature, her YouTube channel Xplore Nature, and her posts on social media.


  • Mia Jackson

    3 w

    If one day you woke up and discovered you were on a deserted island, what would you do ? If it were me, I would take my phone and play the game test lover, this game is so fun.

    • Munene Mugambi

      3 w

      I've learnt quite much on drought types and I have to insist that it is damn important that we can solve climate change as this would lead to manageable drought and also assist in our healthy living.

      • Rukia Ahmed Abdi

        4 w

        Amazing piece.Thankyou for sharing

        • Rashid Kamau

          4 w

          Thanks for sharing this great piece.

          • Louis Yuen

            4 w

            This article does an excellent job of explaining the various types of droughts. I've gained new insights from it! Thank you, Dr. Erlijn!

            • johnte ndeto

              4 w

              insightful piece 👌

              • Munene Mugambi

                3 w

                @johnte_ndeto certainly. Would like to see us work towards achieving a drought free world via; climate change mitigation and sustainability agenda achievement.

              • Jane Wangui

                4 w

                This is quite informing...the issue of climate change and possible hazards that are likely to come up is well explained.there's actually alot that we can learn from this.

                • Munene Mugambi

                  3 w

                  @jane_wangui indeed, but the most important thing is taking the lessons from this article and other such articles to prevent future catastrophic events from occuring and to make better decisions for ourselves and our planet.

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