While some parts of our country are experiencing life-threatening hurricanes, and others are suffering wide-scale wildfires, it can be difficult to remember that normal seasonal weather patterns persist across most of our land. Winter changes to spring, spring changes to summer, summer changes back into winter, and winter gives spring and summer a miss and goes straight on into autumn….. (Monty Python reference). Unless you are in the agriculture industry, your interest in the daily and seasonal weather is likely limited to your wardrobe selection, your outdoor activities, and which sport is currently in season.
Dry seasons impact the entire food chain
For those that are producers, sustained weather patterns take a different meaning. Abnormally dry seasons impact the entire food chain: crop production suffers, lower water levels affect fish breeding, and herbivorous game populations decline. Even plant-base commodities such as paper, beer, wine, and honey can become more scarce due to supply-chain logistics in a drought. In extreme cases, a prolonged drought in select parts of the world can literally dry up our water reserves and lead to a widespread famine across the land.
Categories of a drought
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines four interrelated categories of a drought: meteorological (dealing with lack of precipitation), hydrological (dealing with low surface water levels), agricultural (dealing with crop hydration and irrigation), and socioeconomic (dealing with drought-affected commodities, which includes most food items). This article will primarily address the latter, as this is what primarily impacts us as consumers.
Overall, our country’s agricultural production is fairly localized and optimized to the regional climate: the Midwest and northeast are known for dairy and feed grains; the southeast is known for textiles, fruits, and legumes; central U.S. is known for cereal grains; and most of the wild west maintains its legendary livestock production. A shortage in one area, such as one that is a corn producer, inevitably leads to future difficulties for the dairy and livestock producers elsewhere in the country. A drought in our cotton-producing regions means socks become scarce or expensive. An agricultural drought in one part of the country can be realized as a socioeconomic drought across the land. Across the globe, one country’s drought can lead to increased imports that affect the supply in the producers’ native land.
How droughts can affect us?
As consumers, droughts can affect us in two different ways. First, a drought in our local area can cause water restrictions that affect our daily routines (drinking, cooking, and bathing). The soil becomes dry, hard, and dusty. Plants die, animals become thinner, and the insect population seems to thrive on all the dead material to feast upon. Second, droughts across the country, even across the globe, can reduce the quantity and variety of what we find on the store shelves. One country’s inability to produce sufficient quantities of wood pulp may be later felt as a toilet paper shortage in the U.S.
How can we prepare for this scenario?
With this complex web of dependencies, how can we prepare for this scenario? Let us start by decomposing the lowest tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs: air, water, food, sleep, shelter, and clothing, roughly in that order for purposes of survival.
- Air is mostly unaffected, aside from the potential for increased particulates; this can be mitigated by household air filtration devices.
- Water is somewhat crucial, as humans can only survive a matter of days without it. Standard medical advice is to consume between ¾ and 1 gallon of water per day, with adjustments for the environment and physical activity levels. If you plan on such activities as brushing teeth, washing hands, bathing, and laundering clothes, add another 1-2 gallons to this budget. Watering pets or irrigating plants adds another volume to this quantity. With these figures, a family of 4 can comfortably get by for a week with a 55-gallon drum of water and a little discipline. Daily water requirements can be reduced through environmental protection (staying cooler), re-use/recycling, and rationing. For those on well water, the supply is good as long as the aquifer is healthy; for everybody else, you are in a community competition for a limited supply. Residential clean water storage solutions range from the hundreds to thousands of gallons, although the neighbors might start questioning you as you approach the top end of this spectrum. You can store enough water to sustain a family for a certain duration, but you’ll also need a plan to replenish the supply during a non-rainy day. If you have a nearby lake or river, then your supply is a matter of refilling and transportation. If you do not have this luxury, then you’ll have to get more creative. Rainwater and dew can be collected and purified for consumption, underground stills can collect semi-potable moisture from the ground; green vegetation can be harvested for its water with household materials. These techniques won’t get you gallons per day, but they will slow down the depletion of your collected water supply.
- As the food and supply chains work through their sequences, various food items could become limited. Your options to self-supply may be limited by your location and type of residence, but everybody can do something to reduce dependence upon large-scale suppliers—even New York apartment residents can grow tomatoes in a plastic bag by a window. Those with some land can expand to a small garden, even if it’s enough for 3 salads each season. Composting can be a multiplier: decomposing your own produce scraps can yield some of the most nutritionally-dense soil for your homemade crops to thrive in. Hunters and fishers can produce some of their own meat while also staying in touch with nature. If you excel at producing one food source, and have an acquaintance that excels at another, then you might have just discovered a potential barter or co-op arrangement. The goal is to each do our part to reduce dependence on commercial sources, so that the limited supply can cover the most people’s needs as possible.
- Sleep is not considered here, but shelter is. Having a roof over your head is hopefully something you secure prior to a widespread drought, when lumber and other basic construction materials may be in a shortage. However, keeping your home climate-controlled and powered may be something worth preparing for: in extreme cases, residential utilities may be impacted by rising costs or diverting services to essential consumers elsewhere. Every preparer should have a plan to either live free of electricity for a time, or at least be able to provide their own electricity. Combustion fuels such as diesel, gasoline, and kerosene generally have a higher energy density per volume than fuels such as propane and natural gas, and are likely to be more efficiently bulk-stored for sustained usage. In colder climates requiring heating, wood furnaces offer a low-technology method to warm a home when electric or gas heating is impractical. Solar, wind, and hydroelectric power are also great alternatives to traditional electricity supply if you happen to live in the right region—just ensure you have a robust energy storage solution in place in the event of downtime.
- Clothing, by and large, depends heavily upon the cotton industry. When cotton is not produced, then pants and shirts are harder to come by. Have a collection of season-appropriate clothes to tap into should your normal replenishment become unsustainable due to textile crop shortages.
Now that you have a deeper appreciation for our collective dependence on natural water sources, you should be able to monitor for signs of impending crises that could affect the nation. You have the tools to remain independent and survive, even thrive, in such an environment. Now, since you should always have a water bottle handy, go refill it!