New book addresses consequences of drought in arid regions

October 28, 2013

RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- Mention of natural disasters usually brings to mind vivid images of shattered concrete and piles of rubbish strewn across the landscape -- the result of violent hurricanes, massive earthquakes, or rampaging tornadoes. From an economic standpoint, however, the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history ravaged the Midwest in the late eighties with considerably less theatrics. The source of this disaster? Water scarcity. Drought during this period affected crop production, ecosystems, environmental policy, and the lives of scores of Americans.

A new book titled "Drought in Arid and Semi-Arid Regions: A Multidisciplinary and Cross-Country Perspective" (Springer, 2013) provides a multidisciplinary and cross country perspective on ecological, economic, hydrological, agronomical, and policy-related issues arising from water scarcity and drought. Lead editor Kurt Schwabe is an associate professor of environmental economics and policy at the University of California, Riverside and the associate director of the Water Science and Policy Center (WSPC).

"There's a significant amount of meteorological and climate research suggesting that the frequency and intensity of drought is going to increase worldwide," Schwabe said. "We can either wait for a drought, and experiment with costly and lengthy ways to mitigate its effects, or we can learn from the collective successes and failures of countries that have tried to manage it."

"Drought in Arid and Semi-Arid Regions" provides an interdisciplinary guide for addressing and adapting to drought in the future. The idea for the book arose in a 2010 UC Riverside Drought Symposium put on by the WSPC, in which researchers from around the world discussed issues related to aridity.

"Many of the countries represented at the symposium were in the middle of a severe drought or were just finishing up having experienced one," Schwabe said. "This, coupled with the expectation that drought will become increasingly persistent, heralded the necessity for a book that would lead the way in integrating information about drought from a multitude of perspectives and experiences."

According to Schwabe, the best water management policy comes from being more informed about consequences.

"You can't address drought well without feedback from different perspectives," he said. "That's why a book like this helps. In it, we have explored issues from the perspectives of agronomists, hydrologists, ecologists, policy makers, economists, and water managers. Future policymakers will have this rich array of information to help them make the best decisions."

The book touches upon important issues in agronomy -- the study of crop management -- and discusses how improving the drought tolerance of crop varieties and managing soil systems can alleviate drought-induced rises in food prices and availabilities. A section on ecology investigates the effects of drought on ecosystems and habitat. The section on hydrology highlights trends in water supply changes over time and how drought exacerbates those trends, stresses the linkages between surface and groundwater supplies, and emphasizes the fact that drought affects both the quantity and quality of available water supplies.

From an economic and policy-related perspective, the book illustrates how the costs from drought can be reduced significantly with flexible policy instruments, including water trading and water banking, yet cautions that in most developed countries the water-supply augmentation strategies of the past are unlikely to be feasible; rather, more attention needs to be focused on water conservation, recycling, and water pricing.

Not only will the book benefit scientists and policy makers who want to make effective decisions about water management, it also will appeal, Schwabe believes, to anyone interested in the environment.

"This book will help readers understand the importance of research, and in particular multidisciplinary research, being conducted on drought-related topics," he said. "Further, it will keep readers informed on the serious consequences of this overlooked phenomenon."

Schwabe is concerned that people do not think of drought as a natural disaster like a tornado or hurricane.

"Indeed, the 1988-1989 drought in the Midwest is far less well-known than its dustbowl predecessor made famous in the John Steinbeck novel 'The Grapes of Wrath,'" he said. "Unfortunately, we don't have a Steinbeck today to write about drought."

According to him, as drought becomes increasingly persistent, arid and semi-arid regions in California and around the world will need to take a closer look at how they mitigate and adapt to the consequences of drought. He hopes to further contribute to the understanding of drought effects and water scarcity by way of a new book co-edited by Ariel Dinar, the director of the WSPC. Soon to be published, the book is titled "The Handbook of Water Economics."

At UCR, Schwabe specializes in water economics, wildlife and fisheries management, the economics of pollution control, salinity and drainage management, and nonmarket valuation. Currently, he is working with local water agencies to help better understand the effectiveness of various water conservation measures and water pricing structures on water use.

The other editors of "Drought in Arid and Semi-Arid Regions" are Jose Albiac, Jeffery D. Connor, Rashid M. Hassan, and Liliana Meza Gonzalez.
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The University of California, Riverside (http://www.ucr.edu) is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus will open a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion. A broadcast studio with fiber cable to the AT&T Hollywood hub is available for live or taped interviews. UCR also has ISDN for radio interviews. To learn more, call (951) UCR-NEWS.

By Sarah Santiago

University of California - Riverside

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