Lessons learned from the Canadian drought years 2001 and 2002

Synthesis report


Drought is one of the world's most significant natural hazards. Droughts have major impacts on the economy, environment, health, and society. The droughts of 2001 and 2002 in Canada were no exception, covering massive areas, long-lasting, and bringing conditions unseen for at least a hundred years in some regions.

In general, droughts in Canada affect only one or two regions, are relatively short-lived (one or two seasons), and only impact a smaller number of sectors of the economy. In contrast, the drought years of 2001 and 2002 in Canada brought devastating impacts to many sectors of our economy, posed considerable adaptation challenges, and made history. The years 2001 and 2002 may have brought the first coast-to-coast droughts on record, and were rare as they struck areas that are less accustomed to dealing with droughts. These areas included parts of Eastern Canada and the northern agricultural prairies. The droughts were concentrated, however, in the West, with Saskatchewan and Alberta the hardest hit provinces.

Repercussions were far-reaching:

  • Agricultural production dropped an estimated $3.6 billion for the 2001 and 2002 drought years, with the largest loss in 2002 at more than $2 billion.
  • The Gross Domestic Product fell some $5.8 billion for 2001 and 2002, again with the larger loss in 2002 at more than $3.6 billion.
  • Employment losses exceeded 41,000 jobs, including nearly 24,000 jobs in 2002.
  • Net farm income was negative or zero for several provinces for the first time in 25 years. A negative net farm income occurred in Prince Edward Island for 2001, in Saskatchewan for 2002, and a zero net farm income was reported for Alberta in 2002.
  • Crop production losses were devastating for a wide variety of crops across Canada, particularly in 2001.
  • Livestock production was especially difficult due to the widespread scarcity of feed and water. Some livestock inventories decreased, especially in Alberta.
  • Water supplies that were previously reliable were negatively affected, and several failed to meet the requirements. Water supplies considered included surface water such as streams, wetlands, dugouts, reservoirs and groundwater. Numerous adaptation measures were severely challenged.
  • Multi-sector effects were associated with the 2001 and 2002 droughts, unlike many previous droughts that affected single to relatively few sectors. Impacts were felt in areas as wide-ranging as agricultural production and processing, water supplies, recreation, tourism, health, hydro-electric production, transportation, and forestry.
  • Long-lasting impacts included soil and other damage by wind erosion, deterioration of grasslands, and herd reductions. Some of these systems can take decades and longer to recover.
  • Several government response and safety net programs partially offset negative socioeconomic impacts of the 2001 and 2002 drought years. Crop insurance payments were very high in 2001 and 2002, especially in Saskatchewan and Alberta. Saskatchewan saw a large increase in payments from $331 million in 2001, to $1.1 billion the following year. In Alberta, crop insurance payments jumped from $274 million in 2001, to $790 million in 2002.

While the 2001 and 2002 droughts would have likely been much worse without the lessons learned from previous droughts, recommendations stood out in a number of areas:

  • Several adaptation measures were suggested and used, however many were costly and disruptive. Many adaptations proved insufficient to deal with such an intense, large-area, and persistent drought, underlining Canada's vulnerability to such events.
  • Wind erosion and dust storms posed serious problems, particularly in Alberta and Saskatchewan in the spring of both 2001 and 2002. Blowing dust was associated with traffic accidents on the Prairies, and linked to some fatalities. Routine monitoring of wind erosion and dust storms - required to determine the effectiveness of adaptation measures - is now non-existent, contributing to increased risks.
  • Drought causal factors are not well understood. The large-area atmospheric and oceanic patterns suspected to cause previous major droughts were distinctly different than those associated with these recent droughts. This suggests that a better understanding of the causal factors is needed to reduce our vulnerability by providing early warning.
  • The risk of drought is greater than previously thought. Indicators of this increased likelihood include the recent knowledge of great decadal droughts before 1900, the increasing societal demands for water and food production, preliminary understanding of drought causal factors, and climate change. Evidence indicates that droughts may become worse as a result of climate change, requiring a far greater adaptive capacity in all areas.
  • Drought monitoring and assessment of causes, impacts, adaptation and vulnerability research requires additional coordination, resources and expertise. A national drought adaptation network (DAN) should be implemented to advance these urgent requirements.

Contact information

To request a copy of this report, please contact us at aafc.droughtwatch-guetterlasecheresse.aac@agr.gc.ca.