Skip to main content

Droughts in the Prairies have a human face. Bert and Bonnie had broken the Prairie sod and devoted everything over the decades to building the family farm near Trochu, Alta. Now the drought forced them to sell, for next to nothing. The depressed economy didn't help. Crops had failed and, at a time when many farmers were selling off stock, prices were rock bottom. Family members sought work off the farm, but the downturn meant there were precious few opportunities. They had to sell the farm, in a market where prices were a pittance.

The 2009 Prairie drought is affecting families today, but Bert and Bonnie were my grandparents who abandoned their farm in the 1930s. Back then, the effects of recurring droughts, in a time of depression, were ecological, economic and social. The exposed soils were eroded by wind, and fertility was lost. Crops failed, and the most effective grazing was by locusts. Incomes evaporated as quickly as the moisture, and meagre savings, were exhausted. The social costs were huge, as many families sold or simply walked off their farms.

Fortunately, adaptations have since been made in farming practices and in government programs to reduce the vulnerability of Prairie land, farms and communities to droughts. Changes in tillage and cropping practices have promoted moisture retention and reduced exposure to erosion. Farmers have adopted risk-management strategies, and governments have sponsored crop insurance and various "safety net" programs to assist producers through occasional droughts.

Of course, there have always been variations from year to year in precipitation and other conditions that affect moisture availability. Moisture variability is an inherent natural feature of the Prairie environment, as the University of Regina's Dave Sauchyn has documented. A "drought" is declared for an area when a moisture deficit exceeds a given threshold. Droughts of various severity and extent have occurred across the Prairies with considerable frequency since the "dust bowl" 1930s.

Given that droughts represent a recurring reality, why does each new occurrence seem to be treated as a surprise? Is it simply human nature's propensity to hope for the best, for "next year country"? Is it that production systems are designed to perform well for "good" years but are not so resilient in drier years? Is there a reliance on safety net and ad hoc support programs - the economists' moral hazard?

Many factors play roles. There is strong scientific opinion that the frequency and severity of droughts are increasing. The Prairie droughts of 1979 cost $3.4-billion, and droughts in the 1980s cost more than $10-billion. The droughts of the 1990s, from a meteorological perspective, were more serious that those of the 1930s, and the droughts from 2001 to 2004 were severe and widespread. If current production systems, insurance and government programs are insufficient to sustain profitable agriculture in a variable climate at the moment, what's the prospect under future climate change?

Climate science indicates that the escalating increases in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases not only elevate global temperatures but also increase the frequency and severity of some climatic extremes, including Prairie droughts. A recent federal government report that presented scientific projections for the Prairies indicated increasing moisture deficits, as much as 50 per cent in areas defined as "arid" and as much as a doubling in the frequency of droughts.

Concerns about the effects of climate change - in agriculture as well as in health, water, forestry, the Arctic, etc. - have prompted people to explore response options. "Mitigation" responses aim to reduce greenhouse emissions and thereby reduce the change in the climate. "Adaptation" responses involve adjusting our practices and policies so we are not so vulnerable to changes in climate. In Prairie agriculture, even in the absence of climate change, there's a need to enhance the resilience of farms and communities to variable moisture conditions. The prospect of climate change makes the development of more effective strategies to adapt to recurring droughts even more pressing.

Governments need to review the structure and viability of insurance and support programs and water management policies under a changing climate. Development of crop varieties and irrigation technology needs to recognize the likelihood of increased droughts. Farmers need to review their production practices so their land use and crop choices, tillage methods, water use and financial risk-management strategies are adapted to the evolving climate.

Barry Smit is Canada Research Chair in Global Environmental Change at the University of Guelph and co-editor of Farming in a Changing Climate.

Interact with The Globe