HESS Opinions: Drought impacts as failed prospects

Germano G. Ribeiro Neto*, Sarra Kchouk, Lieke A. Melsen, Louise Cavalcante, David W. Walker, Art Dewulf, Alexandre C. Costa, Eduardo S.P.R. Martins, Pieter R. Van Oel

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Human actions induce and modify droughts. However, scientific gaps remain with respect to how hydrological processes, anthropogenic dynamics, and individuals' perceptions of impacts are intrinsically entangled in drought occurrence and evolution. This adds complexity to drought assessment studies that cannot be addressed by the natural and environmental sciences alone. Furthermore, it poses a challenge with respect to developing ways to evaluate human behaviour and its pattern of co-evolution with the hydrological cycle-mainly related to water use and landscape modifications. During fieldwork in Brazil, we observed how drought impacts were experienced by people who were exposed to a multi-year drought. Evaluating our data, it appeared that prospect theory, a behavioural economic theory that is usually applied to explain decision-making processes under uncertainty, has explanatory power regarding what we observed in the field. Therefore, we propose an interdisciplinary approach to improve the understanding of drought impact emergence using this theory. When employing prospect theory in this context, drought impacts are considered failed welfare expectations ("prospects") due to water shortage. A shifting baseline after prolonged exposure to drought can therefore mitigate experienced drought impacts. We demonstrate that this theory can also contribute to explaining socio-hydrological phenomena, such as reservoir effects. This new approach can help bridge natural science and social science perspectives, resulting in integrated drought management that considers the local context.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4217-4225
Number of pages9
JournalHydrology and Earth System Sciences
Issue number22
Publication statusPublished - 28 Nov 2023


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