Climatological hazards: droughts

Definition and characteristics

Drought is an insidious phenomenon. Unlike rapid onset disasters, it tightens its grip over time, gradually destroying an area. In severe cases, drought can last for many years and have a devastating effect on agriculture and water supplies.

Drought is defined as a deficiency of rainfall over an extended period – a season, a year or several years – relative to the statistical multi-year average for the region. Lack of rainfall leads to inadequate water supply for plants, animals and human beings. A drought may result in other disasters: food insecurity, famine, malnutrition, epidemics and displacement of populations.

Rural communities can sometimes cope with one or two successive rain failures and crop or livestock losses: the situation becomes an emergency when people have exhausted all their purchasing resources, food stocks, assets and normal coping mechanisms.

Subsequent disasters caused by droughts


Desertification is the process by which productive or habitable land becomes gradually more arid and less capable of sustaining vegetation, eventually turning into desert. It is often a cause of long-term disasters.

Crop failure, food shortages, malnutrition and famine

Food shortages result from an abnormal reduction in crop yield, such that it is insufficient to meet the nutritional or economic needs of the community.

Drought-induced food shortages mean many people, in particular pregnant and lactating women, infants and children, lack a sufficient balance of nutrients for health and well-being.

Famine is a catastrophic food shortage affecting large numbers of people, brought on by climatic, environmental or socio-economic factors. Famine may lead to widespread death, disease and displacement.


In turn, poor nutrition lowers people's resistance to disease and increases the risk of outbreaks of preventable diseases. Water shortages, which force people to use unsafe water, favour the spread of water-borne diseases.

Population displacement

Food-security problems may prompt people to move to other areas. For example, rural populations may migrate to the outskirts of towns in search of better conditions. Or else, large settlements of displaced people may form, increasing the likelihood of outbreaks of disease.

Complex emergencies/conflicts

Mass migration from drought-affected areas can provoke tensions in host communities by creating competition for scarce natural resources, such as land or water.

Red Cross Red Crescent response

In general, the Red Cross Red Crescent response to drought and food insecurity prioritizes the provision of food, safe water and basic sanitation, basic health services, along with food-security surveillance and nutritional monitoring.

In parallel, programmes are implemented to preserve and restore livelihoods. Such assistance may take the following forms:

  • distribution of seeds, tools and fertilizer;
  • destocking or restocking of livestock;
  • distribution of livestock fodder;
  • support to pastoralists in transporting livestock to alternative grazing areas during severe dry spells;
  • income-generating schemes that enable people to diversify their sources of income on a small scale;
  • training and education in relevant skills, for example in carpentry or bicycle repair, to enable people to earn an income;
  • vegetable-gardening, poultry and fish-pond projects;
  • small-scale irrigation schemes.

It is also important to ensure that populations have access to safe water and basic sanitation in times of drought, as wells and other groundwater supplies dry up or become polluted.

The International Federation is committed to reducing vulnerability to drought by enhancing the availability of and access to food and by increasing communities’ resilience so that they are better able to deal with food insecurity.

Since 1919, the International Federation has responded to over 200 cases of drought, famine and food insecurity.

Find out more

Documents available:

Related useful links:

Related Red Cross / Red Crescent operations:

  • Southern Africa food crisis and HIV/AIDS (2006)
  • East Africa food crisis (2005)
  • Sahel food crisis (2004)