Researchers to Study Health Impacts of Drought

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation awards UCR team $284,680 to investigate the impact of water-delivery policies on health of California’s poorest regions

kurt schwabe

Kurt Schwabe is leading a team of researchers who will examine the impact of drought on public health and how water policy might assuage or exacerbate such impacts, should they exist. UCR File

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Drought and extreme temperatures continue to challenge policymakers in California and globally who grapple with managing limited water resources. Missing from these discussions, however, is the potential impact of drought on public health and how water policy might assuage or exacerbate such impacts, should they exist.

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside School of Public Policy have been awarded $284,680 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Evidence for Action Program to determine whether drought and adverse weather conditions cause health problems, and whether water policy affects the link between extreme temperatures and health. The research will focus on California, but is relevant to many regions of the United States and the world that also suffer from drought, aridity, and water scarcity.

“When drought strikes, water policy often dictates where and to what degree water supply deliveries are curtailed. Water policymakers seek and regularly receive evidence that is relevant to diverse sectors including agriculture, the environment and municipal needs, but rarely health,” explained Kurt Schwabe, professor of environmental economics and policy and principal investigator on the project. “One reason for this neglect is that policymakers have not had evidence for action about the connections among drought and extreme temperature, water policy and health.”

Studies investigating the impacts of adverse weather events are sparse and have focused primarily on populations in developing countries, he added. Should those impacts exist in California, that information should be made available to California policymakers.

Co-principal investigators on the project are Bruce Link, distinguished professor of public policy and sociology, and Mindy Marks, formerly a UCR professor of public policy and economics who now is a professor of economics at Northeastern University. Also part of the research team is M. Kate Choi, a UCR alumna and adjunct professor at the Keck Graduate Institute at The Claremont Colleges. Schwabe is known globally for his research on economic issues associated with water use, agricultural production, urban water conservation, ecosystem services, and environmental regulation.

The two-year project, “Overlooked Health Implications of Water Policy during Drought and Extreme Temperature Events,” will focus on the possible impact of drought-influenced water-delivery on the health of residents in California’s poorest regions. The research is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Evidence for Action Program (grant #73736). The grant program supports “rigorously designed research that yields convincing findings regarding the population health, well-being, and equity impacts of specific policies, programs or partnerships,’ according to the program’s Call for Proposals.

Schwabe said the team will use 20 years of health data gathered by the California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development and California Health Interview Surveys, as well as county-level water-policy measures and drought indices, to develop a unique data set that will allow a rigorous assessment of health impacts of restricted water deliveries. Among the health measures to be studied are: self-rated health, emotional distress, binge drinking, infant birth weight and mortality, and the possible disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities.

The health consequences of natural and manmade disasters have been extensively studied for decades, Schwabe said. “Evidence documents that when these calamities strike, population health suffers. We will study drought as a ‘slow’ disaster that, while less dramatic in its onset, might have equally potent effects on population health. It represents a critically important but understudied form of disaster.”

One of the most widely publicized economic impacts of California’s drought and extreme temperature for 2015 is that agriculture experienced losses that led to a statewide economic loss of approximately $2.7 billion and approximately 10,000 seasonal jobs, the policy researcher noted.

“These statewide economic estimates may inadequately capture the overall impacts of adverse weather events by overlooking the related health effects that likely fall upon very vulnerable communities within the poorest regions of California,” he said. “The impacts of drought and extreme temperature on these communities, often disproportionately immigrant and Hispanic, can be severe. The stress, anxiety, and reduced income and job losses that occur within these communities likely result in health effects.”

Knowing the social patterning of health consequences is key not only for directing water policy so as to minimize the harm adverse weather events create, but also for social policies that influence housing, jobs, schools, and the availability of nutritious food to those most deeply affected, Schwabe added.

“Our objective is to open the possibility for a new era of water policy that considers the health consequences of drought and extreme temperatures alongside other impacts in their development of wise and equitable plans for the distribution of scarce water resources and associated investments,” he said.

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