Long-run Health Repercussions of Drought Shocks: Evidence from South African Homelands


  • The article benefited greatly from discussions with Douglas Almond, Patricia Anderson, Eric Edmonds and Erzo Luttmer and seminar participants at Columbia University, the Minneapolis and St. Louis Federal Reserve Banks, Washington University in St. Louis, the April 2012 BREAD pre-conference, the junior faculty lunch seminar at Dartmouth College and the NBER Summer Institute 2013. Support for this research was provided by the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (Grant R03HD069060-01). All views expressed are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policy of the federal government. An earlier version of this article was circulated under the title ‘Mitigating long-run health effects of drought: Evidence from South Africa’, Bread Working Paper No. 407, December 2013. Replication data and programs are available online.


I present new evidence from Africa that droughts are an important component of long-run variation in health human capital. Using Census data, I estimate effects of early childhood drought exposure on later-life disabilities among South Africans confined to homelands during apartheid. By exploiting 40 years of quasi-random variation in local droughts experienced by different cohorts in different districts, I find that drought exposure in infancy raises later-life disability rates by 3.5–5.2%, with effects concentrated in physical and mental disabilities, and largest for males. My findings are relevant for low-income settings where avoiding droughts through migration is costly.