Edited Version April 14, 1999
EIIP Classroom Online Presentation

"The National Drought Mitigation Center"

Donald Wilhite, PhD
National Drought Mitigation Center
and the
International Drought Information Center

The original unedited transcript of the March 3, 1999 online Virtual Classroom presentation is available on the EIIP Virtual Forum (http://www.emforum.org). The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. Typos were corrected, date/time/names attributed by the software to each were deleted but content of discussions, questions, and responses are as stated by each participant. Answers from the presenter to questions by the audience are grouped beneath the appropriate question to facilitate meaning.


Avagene Moore: Welcome to the EIIP Virtual Classroom!

Before introducing our speaker today, I remind you that URLs (show up in blue) used in the session are live links. If you click on them, the link will come up in your browser window. In this way, you can interact with the session and see what the speaker is referring to in his discussion.

The background for today's session is at <http://www.emforum.org/vclass/990414>. Please try this if you like. If you lose the chat screen, look at the bars at the bottom of your computer screen and click on the one with the coffee cup.

After the formal interview today, we will open the floor to Q&A. I will give instructions at that time.


Today, our guest speaker is Dr. Don Wilhite. Dr. Wilhite is professor of agricultural climatology in the School of Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is Director of the National Drought Mitigation Center and the International Drought Information Center. Dr. Wilhite also serves as advisor to the National Drought Policy Commission, formed in 1999 after passage of the National Drought Policy Act in 1998 by the U.S. Congress.

He has also served as technical advisor to the Western Drought Coordination Council, formed in 1997 under the auspices of the Western Governors' Association. He specializes in studies of the impact of climate on society and societal response to climatic events.

Dr. Wilhite has worked with governments and international organizations on drought planning and policy issues for more than 15 years. Dr. Wilhite and his staff have recently organized and conducted a series of training workshops on drought contingency planning in the United States, Mexico, and Brazil.

I was privileged to meet and hear Don in a presentation for the Dialogue II meeting in December. I made it a point to tell him about the Virtual Forum and am very pleased that he is here today. I believe all of you will enjoy learning more about drought mitigation. Don, welcome and thanks for your participation today.



Avagene Moore: Don, please give us a brief overview or history of the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) <http://enso.unl.edu/ndmc>. (This URL is basic to remaining discussion and other URLs that will be used.)

Don Wilhite: The National Drought Mitigation Center was formed in 1995. It builds on the goals and objectives of the International Drought Information Center that was formed at the University of Nebraska in 1988. Both centers are under my direction.


Avagene Moore: What is the purpose of the NDMC?

Don Wilhite: The NDMC helps people and institutions develop and implement measures to reduce societal vulnerability to drought. The NDMC stresses preparation and risk management rather than crisis management. Our clientele represent local, state, tribal, and federal governments, regional organizations, the private sector, as well as international organizations, non-governmental organizations, and foreign governments.


Avagene Moore: Can you share with us some of the products of the NDMC?

Don Wilhite: Our products come in various forms. Our web site represents what we refer to as an "electronic textbook" of information on all aspects of drought. It is an attempt to provide an information clearinghouse to our users, in essence, one stop shopping for those interested in drought.

Some of the important products that are available on our web site include: The "Standardized Precipitation Index" maps which provide an overview of precipitation conditions across the U.S. at multiple time scales. This series of maps is updated monthly and produced for various multiple time scales to help users understand water status over various time dimensions.

These maps have been very helpful to state agencies and others since they were first introduced in February 1996, just as the severe drought in the southwest U.S. was emerging. These maps are archived on our web site for those who might want to look at historical patterns of drought in recent years.


Don Wilhite: The "Drought Watch" section is an attempt to link users to all available information on current climate and water status conditions in the U.S. and around the world. Drought is a slow onset phenomenon so it is essential that we track all components of the hydrologic system and do a comprehensive, integrated analysis of status on a routine basis.


Don Wilhite: "Drought in the U.S." is a more recent product that was derived to give decision makers and policy makers an up to date snapshot of the impacts of drought for those areas recovering from drought or those currently experiencing drought conditions. It is derived from electronic news stories from many sources and has been very popular with users.


Don Wilhite: "Western Climate and Water Status" is a product developed by members of the NDMC staff in collaboration with the Monitoring, Assessment, and Prediction Working Group of the Western Drought Coordination Council. This report is produced quarterly and is intended to provide early warning of emerging drought conditions in the months ahead. It is distributed to western governors, members of Congress, and other decision makers. It will be used as a model if the U.S. begins a national assessment of climate and water status in the near future.


Don Wilhite: "How to Reduce Drought Risk" is a document that was also developed by members of the NDMC staff working collaboratively with the Western Drought Coordination Council. This product was produced by the Preparedness and Mitigation Working Group of the Council and is an attempt to provide institutions with a methodology to assess vulnerability to drought and develop mitigative actions and programs to reduce the risks of future drought events.

The tasks associated with this methodology can be used as part of a drought planning methodology that I developed about 1990 and continue to revise periodically to incorporate new concepts and technologies. Guide can be downloaded from the site.


Don Wilhite: "Status of US Drought Planning" illustrates the current pattern of drought planning by states. At present, 30 states have prepared drought plans. Most of these plans are more response oriented. This means that these state plans are mainly focused on improving coordination and response actions during drought events.

Our goal is to get states to revise current plans or develop plans that emphasize mitigation as a primary tenet. Several states (New Mexico, Nebraska, and Utah) are pursuing plans that emphasize mitigation.



Avagene Moore: Don, tell us a little more about the educational workshops conducted by the NDMC? Where and when?

Don Wilhite: The NDMC has been conducting regional training workshop to teach people how to do drought planning. We conducted two workshops in 1997 and two in 1998. The audience for these workshops is planners and others that represent all levels of government. We also conducted a joint U.S./Mexico workshop in 1998 that emphasized the U.S./Mexico border state region.

We will be conducting another workshop in May for the State of Hawaii. They hope to use this workshop as a beginning point in the development of a drought plan. They experienced one of their worst droughts of record during 1997-98. We also conducted two workshops in Brazil in December 1998 and will likely be conducting another workshop in South Africa later this year.


Avagene Moore: What other types of NDMC activities can you share with us?

Don Wilhite: The NDMC staff interact regularly with scientists and policy makers in the U.S. and internationally on a wide range of topics. We have served as the technical headquarters for the Western Drought Coordination Council since it was formed by the Western Governors' Association in 1997.

I spend a considerable amount of time advising policy makers in the U.S. and internationally on drought-related policy issues. We are currently working on projects involving Sub-Saharan Africa, Brazil, Hungary, Mexico, Australia, and Europe. A new project is developing with China on drought and flood mitigation. And, we are serving advisors with the newly formed National Drought Policy Commission in the U.S. This commission is charged with making recommendations to Congress and the President on national drought policy needs.


Avagene Moore: What is the biggest challenge of the drought hazard?

Don Wilhite: The biggest challenge of the drought hazard is to build awareness of the complexity and magnitude of impacts associated with drought. Impacts in the U.S. and globally are increasing. FEMA estimates that the annual losses associated with drought in the U.S. are between $6-8 billion.

Drought differs from other natural hazards in many ways, including its slow-onset nature and the fact that impacts are largely non-structural. Therefore, drought does not have the "visual" appeal of floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes on the evening news.


Avagene Moore: Why is planning for drought so important?

Don Wilhite: Planning for drought is important because of the large and increasingly complex impacts associated with the phenomenon. It is also important because the traditional "crisis management" approach does little to reduce the risks associated with drought and may, in fact, increase vulnerability because victims are not motivated to change resource management techniques. Drought relief generally increases reliance on government and other donors.


Avagene Moore: How can the NDMC assist with drought planning?

Don Wilhite: The NDMC can assist with drought planning in several ways. First, our web site is a valuable resource for those interested in preparing a drought plan. Second, the NDMC can provide guidance in the planning process through direct involvement with entities that decide to develop a plan.

This guidance can come in many forms. In some cases we have developed contracts with entities to facilitate the planning process. Through our training programs, we can disseminate a wide range of information to those interested in drought planning. One of the outcomes of these training workshops is continued interaction with individuals and government entities well beyond the workshop.


Avagene Moore: What drought mitigation suggestions does your organization provide?

Don Wilhite: We have a wide range of advice that we offer to clients to help them deal more effectively with droughts. A primary goal is to get governments to develop drought plans that emphasis three important components: monitoring and early warning; vulnerability and impact assessment; and mitigation and response. We can help entities implement these activities.

We have also collected information on specific mitigation actions employed by states and others in the U.S. and elsewhere in lessening the impacts of drought. This information is available on our web site. We also provide copies of drought plans to institutions interested in developing plans. Many state drought plans can be downloaded from our web site. These can serve as models for other states.


Avagene Moore: What are the most likely states and/or other parts of the world to suffer drought due to the La Nina event?

Don Wilhite: In the U.S., we are actually more concerned with La Nina and the development of drought conditions than we are with El Nino. One of the principal regions that usually experience drought in association with La Nina is the Southwest and southern Great Plains states. This region suffered severe drought in 1996 as a result of a La Nina event.

Impacts in Texas alone were of the order of $5 billion. Drought occurred over much of this region again in 1998 as the 1997-98 El Nino event was waning. It looks like the current La Nina will result in drought conditions in the Southwest again in 1999. This region has been anticipating another year of drought and has been trying to prepare for its occurrence.

Avagene Moore: Thank you, Don. Very good information about the NDMC.

Before opening up for questions, I would like to add that the NDMC web site has an exceptional list of links for further information. I looked at several of them. There is one that I was sobered by --- it is the Drought & Flood Prayer Section. I suggest our audience look at that and notice the unique way the prayers are conveyed. Go to <http://www.ozemail.com.au/~sjhop/prayer.htm>.

Please see <http://www.ozemail.com.au/~sjhop/pe-intro.htm> for a prayer experience complete with candles that takes about 2 minutes. The photographs are from the DisasterRelief.org --- very nicely done --- covers Kosovo and all types of disasters around the world. I will give you a moment to look at that if you wish to do so now or you can copy the URL and look at it later.

If you have a question of Don, please submit a question mark (?) to indicate you wish to speak. Compose your question or comment while waiting; please submit to the chat screen as soon as you are recognized. First question, please.

Audience Questions


Amy Sebring: Can you give us just a couple of key elements for drought mitigation?

Don Wilhite: There are several key elements. In general, these fall into the following categories: Demand reduction, supply augmentation, legislative actions and policies, and monitoring and early warning. There are many example under each of these categories.


Amy Sebring: What is the overall goal of the National Drought Policy Act the Commission, and do you think there will be a national assessment?

Don Wilhite: The commission is currently being formed under the leadership of the US Department of Agriculture. The staff of the commission are currently working on getting this activity up and running. There will be a national assessment of programs, laws, and policies. This will be occurring at the federal, state, local, and tribal levels of government.


Avagene Moore: Don, does the NDMC work primarily at the national level? Do you get involved with local governments?

Don Wilhite: We work most closely with state and federal governments. We have interacted some with local governments both during workshops and more directly.


Amy Sebring: In the U.S., are you finding a fragmentation of authorities/responsibilities between agencies a challenge?

Don Wilhite: Yes. This is a major challenge because drought is about a shortage of water and there are many, many agencies at the state and federal level with responsibility for water management. This same problem exists worldwide.


Avagene Moore: As predictions are made for certain regions, what are the prime mechanisms or agencies for getting the word out to the states or regions affected?

Don Wilhite: Our web site is help but we also work through the Western Governors' Association and other government organizations. The quarterly report referred to earlier is an attempt to identify emerging drought areas. This report goes to all western governors. One hope is that this product will become national in scope as the national drought commission offers its recommendations.


Amy Sebring: Is remote sensing becoming an increasingly valuable tool in this area? Is it being used internationally?

Don Wilhite: Yes. Remote sensing is being used in the US and internationally to monitor early signs of vegetation stress. It is also being used to monitor soil moisture, a key indicator of agricultural drought.


Avagene Moore: How are you tied into the international drought picture? I notice that the International Drought Information Center is mentioned on your site.

Don Wilhite: Yes. The International Drought Center was formed here in 1988. We are involved with quite a few countries directly and also via email in addressing their drought related questions. We also have several specific projects with foreign governments to assist in drought planning --- for example Brazil, Hungary, China.


Alex McCord: One of our major drought-related concerns in Arizona is the threat of wildland fire. Are there remote sensing products that can be used in arid and semi-arid regions like ours that are applicable to the wildland fire threat assessment problem?

Don Wilhite: Alex, yes. Remote sensing products are available on our web site to determine fire potential, both for forests and wildland fires. These products are not developed by the NDMC but rather by federal agencies and other groups. These products are very helpful to forest and grassland managers. We try to link to as many sites as possible.

Amy Sebring: See also <http://www.fs.fed.us/land/wfas/welcome.htm>, Alex.


Avagene Moore: I was not aware we had a NDMC, Don, until I met you. Is there much publicity about the need for drought awareness and mitigation? What form?

Don Wilhite: Yes, there is increasing awareness of the need for drought planning as a means to reduce impacts. I have been in this business for a long time and have noticed a substantial increase in recognition in this area.


Amy Sebring: Are you linking up with the idea of "sustainable development" both nationally and internationally? For example, there will be a National Town Meeting on this next month, I believe.

Avagene Moore: May 5, I believe, Amy.

Don Wilhite: Yes, I have been working in this area for some time. I organized a symposium on sustainability of the North American Great Plains in 1995. This was a joint U.S./Canada project. Improved management of drought and other natural hazards is a key element of sustainable development.


Avagene Moore: Are proceedings of the symposium you mentioned available online or elsewhere?

Don Wilhite: Yes. We have proceedings available on request.


Alex McCord: We would like to provide some drought information on our Website here at the Arizona Division of Emergency Management. We'd like to provide a link to your site. Can we do that?

Don Wilhite: We encourage agencies to link to our site and also use information from the site in the development of products.

Amy Sebring: Well, I think we will have to get a link up on EIIP, ASAP also.


Amy Sebring: I was also going to ask same as Avagene, and was the International Joint Commission involved in that symposium by any chance?

Don Wilhite: No, they were not. But we worked with Environment Canada and the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Winnipeg.


Isabel McCurdy: What is the best avenue to request the symposium information?

Don Wilhite: I would suggest that you e-mail me or a member of my staff. We are all listed on the web site. Just request a copy of the Symposium Proceedings on Planning for a Sustainable Future.

Avagene Moore: National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) <http://enso.unl.edu/ndmc>

Don Wilhite: This document was also on the web site of the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Winnipeg.

Final Question:

Avagene Moore: Don, do you have other similar symposiums planned?

Don Wilhite: Not at the moment. We cooperated with the President's Commission on Sustainable Development on this meeting. They have now moved to more of an implementation phase. The meetings that we are planning now relate more to drought management.

Avagene Moore: That is all the time we have today. Don, thanks so much for your time and the excellent information shared with us. Audience, we appreciate you also. Thanks for being here.

Don Wilhite: Thanks. It was fun.

Avagene Moore: I hoped you would say that, Don!

Coming up next week in the Virtual Forum:

• Next Tuesday, April 20, 1: 00 PM EDT: We will be celebrating National Volunteer Week, April 18-24, a time for service and recognition across America. ...

• On Wednesday, April 21, 12: 00 Noon EDT, the city of Lubbock Texas will be featured in a panel to discuss their recent Y2K exercise.

We will formally close today's Virtual Classroom. If you return to the Virtual Forum for a few moments, we will express our one-on-one appreciation to Don for a job well done.