Drought and water scarcity: Discourses and competing water demands in the context of climate change in arid sonora, mexico

Katherine Curl, Carolina Neri, Christopher Scott

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Scopus citations


Drought and water scarcity are frequently used interchangeably in public discourses about water and water management. This is in part because defining drought precisely can be difficult. Droughts are a meteorological phenomenon where water availability is below an ‘average’, calculated using data on historic trends. However, specific definitions vary widely by sector and region and droughts tend to develop slowly under complex meteorological, hydrological and temporal scales that can be very location specific. The imprecision of drought definitions can lead to confusion and inaction on the part of water managers and policy-makers and can also lead to a misuse of the term ‘drought’ to describe situations of water scarcity (Scott et al., 2013). Long episodes of reduced precipitation and more frequent extreme climatic events are contributing to increasing uncertainty and vulnerability to water supply, including in the north-west of Mexico (IPCC, 2012). Climate change projections for reduced precipitation and severe drought in this ‘already waterscarce region’ are expected to cause ‘troublesome consequences’ (Wilder et al., 2012). Along with the increasing likelihood of droughts due to climate change, many water-scarce regions are experiencing increasing pressure due to rapid population growth, which, in turn, has led to rapid growth in the demand for water in those regions. Water scarcity is the imbalance between water demand and water availability, where there is an actual or perceived insufficient amount of water to meet existing or projected future social and economic needs. It can result from or be exacerbated by drought and can also increase the impacts of drought. Arid regions, in particular, face chronic water scarcity, especially as many of these regions have experienced rapid population growth in recent decades. Unlike drought, however, water scarcity can also result from the misuse, or overuse, of existing water resources. The dominant water management paradigm around much of the world in the twentieth century was one that emphasized large-scale hydraulic technologies to meet economic and population growth (Bakker, 2010). While many have argued that this paradigm has begun to shift in some regions of the world (Gleick, 2000; van der Brugge et al., 2005), there are still many countries where the drive for rapid economic growth has bolstered this paradigm and led to uncritical hydraulic development policies. This situation is found in many places, but this chapter focuses on the case of Sonora in north-west Mexico, an arid region where rapid population growth and development are putting pressure on existing water resources. The authors argue that the dominant water management paradigm in Sonora is maladaptive because it does not adequately deal with the compounding pressures of climate change, urbanization and population growth. Donella Meadows (1999) ranks broad concepts of leverage points for systems change by relative effectiveness while Allan and Karshenas (1996) describe three general development types: conventional, precautionary and regenerative (see Ch. 1). The most adaptive strategies, those that adjust most in response to climatic stimuli and their effects (Smit and Pilofosova, 2001), are those that take a high leverage and regenerative approach. Strategies employing a precautionary approach are adaptive to varying degrees, but in the long term lead to system stability. Strategies that take a conventional approach, as in the case of Sonora, are maladaptive in that they improve living standards in the short term, but negatively impact living standards and the environment in the long term by depleting natural resources (Allan and Karshenas, 1996). In the following sections we review the concepts of drought and water scarcity and the social and political construction of these concepts. We then move on to our case study of the north-west Mexican state of Sonora in which we use a political ecology framework to examine how drought and water scarcity are currently managed, the political and institutional context in which they operate and how the discourse on drought and water scarcity serves to perpetuate a maladapted hydraulic paradigm. For their methodology, the authors used process documentation (Lemos et al., 2002) and case study empirical analysis of drought in Sonora (Scott and Pineda Pablos, 2011).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationAdaptation to Climate Change through Water Resources Management
Subtitle of host publicationCapacity, Equity and Sustainability
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9781136200397
ISBN (Print)9780415635936
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


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