Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation



First Advisor

Kirstin Dow


Drought is one of the costliest hazards faced by the United States, having caused billions of dollars in damage and affected all regions of the country over the past two decades. There have been many efforts to strengthen society’s technical and managerial capacity to respond to drought, mitigate risks, and adopt proactive planning and management strategies. Advances entail the adoption of drought plans, improvements to data collection and monitoring systems, and development of networks to disseminate information and foster communications. Despite recent progress, response remains reactive and crisis-oriented. Management is often uncoordinated across the multiple sectors and fragmented jurisdictions affected by and responsible for making drought decisions. While drought adaptation efforts frequently focus on the technical and managerial aspects of drought planning and response, there are frequent acknowledgements of the need for additional research to improve understanding of how the broader system of institutional frameworks, social networks, and stakeholder values and beliefs affect society’s capacity to cope with and manage drought. Furthermore, most drought research to date has focused on the western states, overlooking other regions of the country that are also vulnerable to drought and that operate within unique configurations of water rights and related institutional arrangements. As different regions, sectors, and communities perceive and experience drought in diverse ways, expanding understanding of the diverse processes and mechanisms through which different groups manage drought risks can help to inform ongoing efforts to adapt and build resilience to drought. This study investigates the institutional factors that interact to enable and constrain the implementation and coordination of drought planning and management activities. The case study focuses on drought responses and adaptations in North Carolina and South Carolina, two states in the water-rich southeastern region of the United States, during a period in which two record-breaking droughts occurred (1998-2002, 2007-2008). Data collection took place in 2007-2008, through interviews with decision makers (n=87) working at local-, state-, and basin levels of management, observation of drought and water management meetings (n=69), and review of stakeholder documents. The analysis examines three overarching questions: 1) what types of changes in the institutional framework are necessary to support different drought adaptation strategies, 2) how do institutional interactions affect the implementation and coordination of efforts across the state and local levels, and 3) what types of institutional changes are necessary to facilitate cross-scalar management and coordination? Findings demonstrate that significant shifts in drought management have occurred across the Carolinas. These shifts include the increasing formalization of drought response and the development of new organizational arrangements and processes that facilitate cross-scalar interactions and cooperation. However, the study reveals that these changes were implemented only when combinations of specific institutional changes also occurred. These changes were necessary to support the adoption and operationalization of new strategies to respond to and manage drought. Findings also reveal many of the institutional barriers that constrain the implementation of stand-alone drought plans and suggest that drought response and planning is more effective when integrated into other water planning and management processes. Overall, the study highlights the need for more careful attention to the complexities of the institutional environment of drought and water resources management and how that environment influences what adaptations are considered legitimate and feasible by different groups and decision making levels. The technical and more formal dimensions of planning require the support of informal institutions such as social practices and behavioral norms to develop the potential for adaptations and resilience-building efforts to extend beyond a crisis period. A more concerted focus on institutional issues and interactions is recommended as efforts to align national, state, and local capacities to prepare for and manage drought continue.

Included in

Geography Commons