Better system for measuring droughts

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Better system for measuring droughts

Inje County in Gangwon decided not to hold its annual Smelt Festival this year. After 17 years of celebrating the local delicacy, authorities had to cancel the festival due to a shortage of water. Dams in the area drastically limited the generation of hydroelectric power and underground water had to be pumped up the dam to reserve water for next year. While this year’s rainy season did not have enough precipitation, not many were concerned of a drought because residential water was sufficiently provided with the reserved water in the dams.

The Korea Meteorological Administration’s Drought Decision Index still indicates no unusual signs nationwide. The index is quite unreasonable, but it has been used as the standard for measuring droughts for a long time. And I’ve never seen a paper verifying the credibility of the index or cases that prove its validity. Even using additional indicators supplied by the KMA, such as the Standardized Precipitation Index, Palmer Drought Severity Index and yearly averages, the severe droughts this year and 17 years ago could not have been forecasted.

These indicators have two universal problems. First, a day of severe rain after several years of drought could result in a flood, but the aforementioned drought indicators fail to reflect the fluctuation of precipitation. Second, there is no procedure to determine if the drought period is three months or two years. Just as the case of Inje County shows, it is hard to even realize there is a drought unless there’s a shortage of living water.

For the five millennia of Korean history, droughts have resulted in the greatest damages. But there is no warning for this devastating natural disaster, while warnings for 11 natural phenomena such as heavy rain and severe heat as well as fog, ozone and yellow dust alerts are issued. So we learn of drought even after the smelts suffer.

Will the government maintain such ineffective approaches, using the irrelevant drought decision index and no drought warnings?

The number of dams and reservoirs has increased, but the demand for water has grown far more. The severity of droughts is likely to increase due to climate change. But the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Land seem unwilling to acknowledge the problem. Covering up the damage and inefficiency cannot prevent devastating droughts. The government needs to prepare more aggressive and multidimensional plans for droughts.

by Byun Hee-ryong Professor of environmental and meteorological science at Pukyung University and former director of the Korean Meteorological Society
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