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The Use of Social Surveys to Measure Drought and the Impact of Drought


Although the term drought is widely used, defining it is conceptually and technically difficult and there is no generally accepted definition. This article uses data from an Australian social survey of people living in agricultural areas to test the validity of using general social surveys to ask respondents whether they are living in an area that is drought affected. Strong evidence is found that the survey based self-report measure of drought is both internally consistent and correlated with the standard Australian meteorological (rainfall deficit) measures of drought and thus provides a valid measure of whether individuals are experiencing the drought. The relationship between self-report drought and the standard meteorological measure of drought and financial hardship and changes in financial position is estimated. While a negative association between drought and financial position is found for both measures, the relationship is stronger for the self-report than the meteorological definition. The self-report measure is more closely linked to the economic, social and community impacts of low rainfall and provides greater flexibility in the geographic area over which drought is measured—thus survey data about drought allows respondents to define the area in way which is meteorologically, topographically or agriculturally meaningful.

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  1. 1.

    For example, in the US drought indices in use include the Palmer Drought Severity Index, the Standardized Precipitation Index, the Crop Moisture Index, the Surface Water Supply Index, and the United States Drought Monitor (USDM) (Heim 2002).

  2. 2.

    The Australian Water Availability Project (AWAP) is in the process of developing more sophisticated drought measures for Australia. This project, which is collaboration between the Bureau of Rural Sciences, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the BOM, uses a water balance equation to estimate the water available for use by the local population. The resulting estimate of soil moisture and water takes into account factors such as stream flow, reservoir levels, ground water levels, flows between various soil strata and even the photosynthesis of plants in the area (Raupach et al. 2007). However, existing estimates do not take into account the allocations of irrigated water and hence it is not clear that it provides a superior basis for estimating drought.

  3. 3.

    The sample was randomly selected from people living in Statistical Local Areas (SLAs) in which at least 10 % of the population were employed in agriculture or a related service at the time of the 2001 Census, the most recently available census at the time the sample was selected.

  4. 4.

    Droughts are a recurrent and frequent feature of Australia’s climate (PC 2009). There have been three particularly severe and prolonged dry periods in Australia since 1900 and the period 2002–2007 is among these.

  5. 5.

    In order to ensure a good spread of sample across rainfall areas, the sample was stratified into four equal groups, according to rainfall deficiency in the 3 years before April 2007: severe drought (0–5th percentile); drought (6–10th percentile); below average rainfall (11–49th percentile); and above average rainfall (50–100th percentile). Rainfall over the preceding 36-months is used because this is the longest reference period that the BOM will provide historical rainfall deficiency data. A priori, the 36-month period was preferred for because rainfall deficiency over a longer period will lead to the economic and social stress in households that are significantly dependent on the local agricultural economy. The rainfall data is for Statistical Local Areas.

  6. 6.

    As a further robustness test we ran ICCs for the four category self-report drought variable (currently in drought, drought in last year drought in last 3 years and not in drought within the last 3 years. This yielded an ICC of 0.460. When the number of respondents in postcodes were restricted to 5 (ICC = 0.491), 10 (ICC = 0.510) and 20 respondents (ICC = 0.526).

  7. 7.

    The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) estimated that in 2008–2009 the gross value of production from irrigation represented 29 % of the total gross value of agricultural production (ABS 2010).

  8. 8.

    Respondents were asked, ‘In the last 12 months, did any of the following happen to your family because of a shortage of money? Could not pay electricity or the telephone bills on time; could not pay the mortgage or rent on time; pawned or sold something; went without meals; asked for financial help from friends or family; asked for help from welfare/community organisations’. The experience of one or more of these events was considered to be indicative of financial hardship.

  9. 9.

    Respondents were asked whether they thought their household’s financial position had become worse, stayed the same or improved during the last 3 years.


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The authors are especially grateful to helpful comments from Paul Frijters and two anonymous referees. The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and may not reflect those of the Australian Institute of Family Studies or the Australian Government.

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Correspondence to Boyd Hunter.

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Hunter, B., Gray, M. & Edwards, B. The Use of Social Surveys to Measure Drought and the Impact of Drought. Soc Indic Res 113, 419–432 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-012-0102-0

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  • Measuring drought
  • Social surveys
  • Subjective indicators
  • Socioeconomic impact