Failed rainy seasons raise concerns over famine in East Africa


After three consecutive unsuccessful rainy seasons, more than 20 million people in East Africa now face some of the worst food security risks in 35 years. Climate and agriculture experts advise governments and relief agencies to expect a significant need for food aid in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia. Climate change and current La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean halfway around the world have contributed to the persistent dry weather and may bring more into the next rainy season.

The alerts come from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), a program supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). FEWS NET brings together global and regional analyzes of food security (especially agricultural and livestock conditions) to help governments and relief agencies plan and respond to humanitarian crises. Several US agencies support FEWS NET; NASA provides satellite images and climate and weather data.

Tropical countries in the Horn of Africa tend to have two rainy seasons: the gu in March, April and May, and the deyr in October, November and December. 2020 and 2021 deyr the seasons were both noticeably drier than normal, and the 2021 gu also came short. Precipitation levels were the lowest on record in some areas; Shabelle-Juba river basins experienced their lowest rainfall totals since 1981. Kenya and Somalia have declared drought-related emergencies; similar conditions also prevailed in southern and eastern Ethiopia.

“These back-to-back blows are hard for farmers to take,” said Ashutosh Limaye, scientist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and close collaborator with SERVIR Eastern and Southern Africa Hub (a NASA-USAID collaboration). “We are heading into a dry season, and the seasonal outlook does not look favorable either. The challenge is not just soil moisture or precipitation anomalies; it is the resilience of the population to drought.

In its December 2021 report, FEWS NET said: “A poor March-May 2022 season would result in an unprecedented streak (since 1981) of four below-normal rain seasons … Even though the rains in March-April- May are normal, the region will experience persistent long-term rainfall deficits. Many parts of the Horn of Africa are expected to face “crisis” and “emergency” levels of food insecurity.

The top left map shows the precipitation anomalies for 2021 deyr season, or how much precipitation was above or below average for the period October to December. The measurements come from the Climate Hazards Center’s CHIRPS (Infrared Precipitation with Stations) dataset.

The top right map shows anomalies in the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), a satellite product used to assess crop conditions. NDVI measures the health or “greenness” of vegetation based on the amount of red and near infrared light reflected from the leaves. Healthy vegetation reflects more infrared light and less visible light than stressed vegetation. The map compares the NDVI for December 2021 with the long-term average from 2000 to 2013. The data comes from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite and the analysis comes from the USGS FEWS NET data portal .

Successive rainfall deficits in East Africa have had a cumulative effect: less abundant harvests; forage shortages; depleted water supplies; and weakened and exhausted herds of cattle. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has reported that at least 60,000 animals have starved to death and that milk production is 80 percent below average. Cereal production during 2021 deyr was reduced by 50 to 70 percent, while maize and sorghum production declined by 15 to 25 percent in 2020 and 50 percent in 2021.

Current soil moisture forecasts from NASA’s Hydrological Analysis and Forecasting System (NHyFAS) indicate that there may be further reductions in soil moisture in the current months. As the 2021 rainy season draws to a close, weather conditions are hot and dry, and soils, water points and pastures are becoming more dry.

The dire agricultural conditions have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and by violent regional conflicts. East Africans face simultaneously rising commodity prices (locally and globally) and loss of income due to poor harvests and depletion of livestock. And the region still hasn’t fully recovered from losses from a severe drought in 2016-17.

Scientists studying climatic and meteorological teleconnections indicate that human-induced warming in the western Pacific and the ongoing La Niña are the cause of the unrest in East Africa. The cooling of the eastern tropical Pacific and the warming of the western Pacific are disrupting weather patterns around the world. As precipitation increases dramatically around Indonesia, the effect in East Africa is the suppression of precipitation. While La Niña still dominates conditions in the Western Pacific – pictured above in December 2021 – and is expected to persist into the first few months of 2022, food security researchers fear there may be another failure. gu rainy season ahead.

In their report, FEWS NET analysts wrote: “A long streak like this is very rare, the last possibly dating back almost 40 years, in 1983-84. Since 1983, the populations of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia have tripled, dramatically increasing the number of people at risk of drought.

“Climate change, in interaction with the natural climatic conditions of La Niña, has increased the frequency of droughts in this region,” said Chris Funk, director of the Climate Hazards Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “But using the latest generation of climate models, we can now predict – and have predicted – many of the recent poor rainy seasons. “

“The satellites tell us that the October-December 2021 season was similar to the disastrous 2010 season, and our forecast models suggest a high probability of a March-May 2022 season similar to 2011,” he added. “A bad season from March to May 2022 would result in an unprecedented streak of four below-normal rainy seasons, further exacerbating current humanitarian challenges. “

Images from NASA’s Earth Observatory by Joshua Stevens, using data from the Climate Hazards Center, Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS Net) and modified data from Copernicus Sentinel (2021) processed by the European Space Agency courtesy of Josh Willis / NASA / JPL- Caltech. Michael Carlowicz story.


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