I had first heard about the claim that more people drown in deserts than die of thirst in school maybe 30 years ago. The explanation is that sudden rains can create dangerous flooding in normally dry valleys (e.g. wadis).

In the Internet, the claim is widespread. See for example on a website of the U.S. Geological Survey here:

Rain does fall occasionally in deserts, and desert storms are often violent. A record 44 millimeters of rain once fell within 3 hours in the Sahara. Large Saharan storms may deliver up to 1 millimeter per minute. Normally dry stream channels, called arroyos or wadis, can quickly fill after heavy rains, and flash floods make these channels dangerous. More people drown in deserts than die of thirst.

However, is this really true? Can this claim be substantiated with credible numbers?

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    Might be different for different deserts. A desert with good infrastructure and alert systems in place likely has greatly reduced deaths caused by flooding.
    – user11643
    Nov 1, 2018 at 19:02
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    How can you be confident that the numbers on deaths from thirst in the Sahara Desert are even accurate within a factor of 10? Feb 26, 2020 at 22:26
  • Observation: People take thirst more seriously than flooding. I hike in desert areas, some of which are serious flooding hazards if it rains. I've talked with other hikers that wouldn't dream of going out there without plenty of water but are pretty casual about considering the weather before entering slot canyons. Mar 9, 2020 at 5:01

1 Answer 1


Another source claims that:

It is believed that, in 525 B.C., 50,000 soldiers of a Persian Army perished in the Thar Desert in the face of a giant sandstorm, and their compelling remains were discovered by archaeologists only a few years ago in the Middle Eastern deserts.

Even counting drowning in sand, the lost army of Persian King Cambyses II has not been found yet.

For example, in 2006, nearly 130 people perished in the Rajasthan, India region in flash floods induced by torrential rains in the Thar Desert. As recently as September of 2015, 18 people died in desert flash floods near the Utah-Arizona border in the United States.

And on April 26, 2018, 10 hikers drowned in the Negev desert.

As for heat deaths in the desert:

In 2017, over 40 people 'die of thirst' in Sahara Desert, and according to Google's free summary of this article:

In Arizona, the annual number of deaths attributed to heat exposure more than tripled, from 76 deaths in 2014 to 235 in 2017, according to figures obtained from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heat-related deaths in Nevada rose almost fivefold during the same period, from 29 to 139.

So it appears that enough water and sunscreen is more important than a raft while in a desert.

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    I don't know what conclusion to draw from the answer. It seems to me that one needs to compare death rates for the same desert--not deaths by drowning in one desert to deaths by thirst in another. Even deserts that have similar climates may have different usage patterns, different populations, etc. Feb 26, 2020 at 13:41
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    This is about deserts in general, so i picked the most drowny deserts and recent deadly desert news i could find. In Antarctica I think you're more likely to drown than to die of thirst. Feb 26, 2020 at 13:43
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    I re-read the question, and my criticism is unfounded. The question is asking for global totals, not for comparison of death rates. Sorry, my mistake. Feb 26, 2020 at 13:58

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