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Human Dimensions of Drought

Perceptions of and Responses to Drought Risk by Farmers, Ranchers, and Service Providers.

“A natural disaster… in slow motion.”

Drought is a part of the natural climate cycle and will continue to occur in Hawaiʻi. To prepare optimally, agricultural decision makers need to consider drought impacts on both natural and human systems. However, information about drought risk perceptions, experiences, and responses are not quantified easily. In this study we used qualitative research methods to assess the human dimensions of drought impacts among farmers, ranchers, and service providers in the agricultural sector in Hawaiʻi. The specific aims were to: (1) Describe mental models of drought risk, with a focus on identifying specific socio-cultural impacts; and (2) Identify links between drought mental models and planning and management activities.

Flume for watering taro, crossing a dry creek bed on Maui. (Source: Melissa Finucane)


Twenty-five farmers, ranchers, and service providers across the Hawaiian Islands were interviewed from May 19 through July 13, 2009. We explored understandings of drought risk and values and traditions relevant to coping with drought. We also solicited reactions to a photograph of a drought-stricken landscape in Hawaiʻi and a screen shot from the Drought Monitor showing a map and numeric information about current conditions for the State. Audio recordings of the interviews were transcribed and analyzed using qualitative theme analysis.


Participants described drought as a “natural disaster in slow motion” and defined it predominantly in terms of a cyclical lack of rainfall. Articulating the social and cultural impacts was difficult for many. Nonetheless, significant adverse impacts were reported: increased burdens of responsibility, reduced cash flows, belt-tightening, restricted educational opportunities, interpersonal conflict, loss of cultural traditions, and physical and mental health problems.

Participants tended to characterize themselves and others in terms of their time working in the agricultural sector (newer vs. older) or in terms of their approach to understanding and responding to drought (analytic vs. holistic). These distinctions were linked with variation in the nature, amount, and timing of information and resources used in drought planning and management activities.

Only a few participants (typically those with a more “analytic” approach) reported using information and resources available from sources such as the Drought Monitor. Most participants tended to collapse the five levels of drought intensity portrayed by the Drought Monitor into three main categories: (1) no drought or dry; (2) drought; (3) extreme drought.

Participants emphasized practical experience and local knowledge as key sources of information, but also highlighted the difficulty in making decisions based on experience when current conditions no longer seem to reflect the past. Participants noted that more people should be helped to develop drought plans. Qualitative information delivered in “natural” modes of expression (e.g., narratives) might complement technical information about drought conditions and planning and management strategies.


This study demonstrates methods that can be used successfully to recruit participants for an in-depth exploration of perceptions, experiences, and responses to drought. The study suggests that members of the agricultural sector in Hawaiʻi need to be better prepared for drought in coming decades. Recommendations for drought policy include: helping farmers and ranchers enhance their economic, social, and cultural well-being; supporting the development of tools for multi-pronged drought planning and comprehensive impacts assessment; supporting the development and delivery of finer resolution climate information; enhancing access to support services; and encouraging research on risk-communication strategies.

Header image: Severe drought in the Ka‘u region, Big Island, Hawai‘i. (Source: Victoria Keener)

Human Dimensions of Drought in Hawai`i
Managing Climate Risk in the Pacific
The Challenges of Drought on the Pacific Islands
Presentation: The Challenges of Drought on the Pacific Islands







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