Public Health Impact of Drought: California Case Study

The devastating health impacts of California's drought include worsening of chronic disease, acute stress, and exacerbated psychological illness and distress.

Landscape with dust in the air obscuring the sun during California drought

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Looking back on the summer of 2014 I remember dead lawns, the constant worry of taking too long in the shower, the restrictions on building pools, and how my favorite lakeside campground was closed because the lake was too shallow. The terrible California drought lasted roughly four years, destroying livelihoods built on crop yields and displacing people who lived in the rural Mojave. Drought mapping from Mother Jones and the United States Drought Monitor shows just how bad the situation in California was.

Gif showing the spread of California's drought

Barreau, et al. examined the population health ramifications caused by drought in two California counties. The authors used a rapid assessment method to evaluate household water access and acute stressors such as property damage and household finances.


Barreau’s results in 2015 paint a picture of the devastating health impact of drought. When drought conditions negatively affected household finances, there was a large impact on health, with people facing nearly nine times higher odds of adverse health outcomes including worsening of chronic disease, acute stress, and exacerbated psychological illness and distress. When drought conditions were destructive of household property, there were 3.93 times the odds of negative health outcomes for people. Households that did not have running water experienced 1.38 times the odds of their health being negatively affected.

The data ascertained from this study should inform disaster preparedness policy for Southern California and other drought prone areas of the world. In addition to increasing water imports to drought affected areas, increasing medical personnel presence at local clinics may help to curb negative drought-related health outcomes.

Feature image: David Prasad, _IGP5877_Skaggs-Bridge_Fresno-Co. Near Biola, California, on a dry, windy afternoon at the height of the mega-drought of 2011-15, used under CC BY-SA 2.0. Gif from Mother Jones.