PUBLISHED: 11 January 2024

Drought in 21st Century Alberta

Arrow indicating droughts in Alberta 2001 - 2023

One of Canada’s Costliest Natural Disasters

Drought once again affected Alberta in the early 21st century. Starting in 1999, and lasting until 2004 the drought during this period was felt across North America.

The 2001-2002 drought was devastating to Alberta.   Net farm income was zero in Alberta in 2002, and the drought cost the Canadian economy $5.8 billion, making it one of Canada’s most costly natural disasters.   Farmers abandoned their farms and 41,000 jobs were lost across the country [1], [2]

Recent Droughts

Alberta experienced droughts in 2009, 2010, 2015, 2021 and 2023 [3], [4]. In 2009, the drought most affected central Alberta in “Palliser’s Triangle” region. The region experienced the smallest amount of precipitation in the past fifty years and ten counties declared states of emergency [5].  

In 2010, northern Alberta was hit hard by drought. Ten municipalities including the counties of Grand Prairie, Saddle Hills and Birch Hills, as well as the Municipal Districts of Big Lakes, Northern Sunrise, Spirit River, Fairview, Clear Hills, Smoky River and Greenview, all declared agricultural disaster zones [6].  

In 2010, the Government of Alberta responded with the “Agriculture Drought Risk Management Plan for Alberta,” a risk management framework for managing drought’s impacts on agricultural areas of the province [7].   This was replaced in 2016 (following the 2015 drought) with “Alberta’s Agriculture Drought and Excess Moisture Risk Management Plan” [8].

2021’s drought was considered the worst in 60 years [9] and is considered to have exceeded the extent of the “Dirty Thirties” drought [10].

Current Situation

As of early 2024, Alberta is currently experiencing drought in much of the province.   A low snowpack in winter 2022/23 and low precipitation in 2023 resulted in water shortages in many areas and the declaration of agricultural disasters in many areas.   The 2023 emergence of an El Niño [11] has heightened the risk of ongoing or deteriorating drought conditions in Western Canada during 2024 [12].  

Alberta water shortage management is currently in Stage 4 (of 5 stages [13]) indicating that multiple water management areas are experiencing water shortages and a significant number of water licence holders are unable to divert water.   Stage 5 is the declaration of an emergency under the Alberta Water Act and occurs when human health and safety are considered at significant risk.

In an undated letter to Alberta municipalities, probably written in December 2023, Minister Schulz of Alberta Environment and Protected Areas notes that the Government of Alberta had completed an early draft of a “2024 Drought Emergency Plan”.   The Minister goes on to request that all Alberta municipalities develop water shortage plans [14].

Map of Canada showing drought conditions as of 2023-12-31. Conditions are particularly bad in Western Canada.
Figure 1. Canadian Drought Monitor conditions as of end-2023

The Canadian Drought Monitor [15], as of December 31, 2023, indicated that most of Alberta (and much of Canada) was “Abnormally dry” (i.e. 1-in-3 event) at best.   As shown in Figure 1, South-eastern Alberta was classified as in “Exceptional drought” (i.e. 1-in-50 or worse).


[1] Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 2016, Lessons learned from the Canadian drought years 2001 and 2002.  Accessed 2024-01-11.

[2] CBC News. 2009, “Parched prairies: latest drought a sign of things to come.” CBC News. Retrieved from  Accessed 2024-01-11.

[3] Szeto, K., Zhang, Z et al, 2016, The 2015 Extreme Drought In Western Canada.  Accessed 2024-01-11.

[4] Salkeld, S., 2022, Expert states 2021 drought was legendary.  Accessed 2024-01-11.

[5] CBC News. 2009, “Parched prairies: latest drought a sign of things to come.” CBC News. Retrieved from  Accessed 2024-01-11.

[6] Rebecca Dika. 2010, “Peace region suffers third year of drought – for August 30, 2010.” Alberta Farmer Express.  Accessed 2024-01-11.

[7] Government of Alberta, 2010, Alberta’s agriculture drought risk management plan.  Accessed 2024-01-11.

[8] Government of Alberta, 2016, Alberta’s Agriculture Drought and Excess Moisture Risk Management Plan.  Accessed 2024-01-11.

[9] Logie, G., 2023, Mapping Drought from Space – Part 1.  Accessed 2024-01-11.

[10] CBC, 2022, Severity and sweep of Prairie droughts could spiral as climate changes.  Accessed 2024-01-11.

[11] Environment Canada, 2016, El Niño.  Accessed 2024-01-11.

[12] CBC, 2023, With El Niño expected to stretch into the winter, all eyes are on 2024.  Accessed 2024-01-11.

[13] Government of Alberta, 2023, Water shortage management stages.  Accessed 2024-01-11.

[14] Government of Alberta, 2023,  Accessed 2024-01-11.

[15] Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 2023, Current drought conditions.  Accessed 2024-01-11.