Group working land in Ethiopia

Drought Conditions in Eastern Africa – An Update

Workers digging an artificial pond. The pond is one of many initiatives supported by UNDP to bring water and temporary work to the drought-affected region of Borena in the Oromia region of Ethiopia. Photo: UNDP Ethiopia

Vincent Chordi, REF Conflict and Governance Key Expert, Sahan Africa, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Drought is a recurrent natural climatic event in Eastern Africa (Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia) that occurs in all geographical zones although its characteristics vary significantly from one region to another. It should be noted that aridity (low rainfall) is a persistent condition in some geographic areas, which can experience periods of more extreme aridity, or drought.

In different arid and semi-arid parts of the region, droughts recurrently impact and undermine the livelihoods of farmers, agro-pastoralists and pastoralists and act as a contributing factor to their increased vulnerability. The most important consequences are limited crop production and pastoral resource regeneration, difficult access to potable water and over-exploitation of limited hydraulic resources, decreased income, loss of livestock, assets and resources.

These extreme events are pushing rural households to reconfigure their food and income sources including livestock in order to survive and preserve their livelihoods. For some communities, their vulnerability increases due to the repeated drought related shocks, which put tremendous pressure on traditional coping capacities eroding their livelihoods in the short term and sometimes the long term. For some, their livelihoods are undermined up to the point of destitution and complete loss of assets.

Summary of drought events recorded for 1900–2013 in EM-DAT database.

CountriesDrought YearsEvents People affected
Djibouti1980, 1983, 1988, 1996, 1999, 2005, 2007, 2008, 201091 188 008
Eritrea1993, 1999, 200835 600 000
Ethiopia1965, 1969, 1973, 1983, 1987, 1989, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2003, 2005, 2008, 2009, 20121566 941 879
Kenya1965, 1971, 1979, 1983, 1991, 1994, 1996, 1999, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2010, 20121347 200 000
Somalia1964, 1969, 1973, 1980, 1983, 1987, 1988, 1999, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2010, 20121313 183 500
Uganda1967, 1979, 1987, 1998, 1999, 2002, 2005, 2008, 2010,94 975 000

The last recorded severe drought affected the entire region between 2011 and mid-2012. Recorded as “the worst in 60 years”, the drought caused a severe food crisis across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, which threatened the livelihood of 9.5 million people. In 2011, the rains failed in Kenya and Ethiopia, and for the previous two years in Somalia. In many areas, the precipitation rate was less than 30% of the average recorded since 1995. The lack of rain led to crop failure as well as exacerbating a poor harvest and widespread loss of livestock which decreased milk production. As a result, cereal prices rose to record levels while livestock prices and wages fell, reducing purchasing power across the region.

Current situation

The information below comes from different reports by FEWS, WFP, FAO, UNHCR, OCHA and EWCM. According to the seasonal monitor, produced by the FEWS NET USGS, a severe drought, related to La Niña and warm West Pacific sea surface temperatures, significantly impacted rainfall performance during the 2016 October to December season across the Horn of Africa. As this is the dry season for most areas in the region, the hotter-than-normal land surface temperatures across the Eastern Region of Africa, which are forecast to continue, are exacerbating drought conditions in many areas.

Since early January, the majority of the region has remained dry and much hotter-than-normal, intensifying the ongoing drought conditions, following the poor October to December 2016 season. The worst drought-affected regions are across much of Somalia, eastern Kenya, and southern and south-eastern Ethiopia. Some of these areas have had drought conditions persisting through 2016 into early this year. Along the coastal regions of Kenya and southern Somalia, the current land surface temperatures are also extremely high and well above the recent 10-year average temperatures.

The drought conditions have had adverse impacts on rangeland resources (pasture and water resources) among the pastoral and agro-pastoral communities in the Region. These conditions are expected to worsen in the coming months with the forecast for continued higher than normal temperatures until the onset of the rainy seasons across Southern Ethiopia, parts of Kenya and Somalia in early April, which is expected to be below average.

The Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) estimating the current health and density of vegetation compared to average indicates that vegetation conditions are significantly below-average across Somalia and much of Kenya and southern Ethiopia. The pasture conditions are very poor in many areas leading to below-average livestock body conditions and forcing households either to keep their livestock in dry-season grazing areas or to migrate atypically in search of pasture. The ongoing rapid depletion of rangeland resources is likely to result in increased tensions among pastoralists over dry season grazing lands, along with competition for scarce water resources.

Livestock deaths are reported in parts of drought-affected Ethiopia, Somalia and northern and coastal Kenya. Recent assessments have revealed high rates of cattle deaths in Bale and Guji zones (Oromia region), across Somali region and in south Omo zone in Ethiopia (SNNP region), Marsabit in Kenya, and Gedo in Somalia. Puntland and Somaliland also report huge losses of livestock, resulting in pastoral dropouts and displacement. Due to poor body conditions, prices of livestock have declined. In addition, herders are desperate to sell to get some money to feed their families before their animals die. By doing so, they are flooding the markets and further decreasing the price.

At the same time, traditional exports of live animals have drastically reduced due to the crisis in Yemen since mid 2015. Although not officially confirmed, it appears that a temporary suspension of import of live animals from the region has been decided by Saudi Arabia since mid-December 2016 due to the resurgence of the Rift Valley Fever.

The drought had a major negative impact on water resources, both on rivers, ponds and wells drastically reducing the availability of water for human and livestock consumption. In January 2017, most monitored water points by the USGS in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia were at “Alert” or “Near-Dry” levels.

The Early Warning Crop Monitor (EWCM) a consensus based, multi-agency effort from FEWS NET, JRC, WFP, Agricultural Research Council of South Africa, and the University of Maryland classified the end of season cropping conditions as “Failure” in eastern Ethiopia, southern and central Somalia, and coastal Kenya. Crop conditions were classified as “Poor” in northern Somalia, central Ethiopia, and the rest of Kenya. Cropping conditions were also “Poor” for the secondary seasons in Uganda. Widespread crop failures have affected farming communities in most of Somalia and north-eastern Kenya, where moisture conditions were insufficient for planting and early crop growth. In Kenya, the extremely poor short rains are expected to lead to near total maize crop failure in south-eastern and coastal marginal agricultural areas. Leguminous crops were also affected, and the harvest is estimated to be up to 60 percent below average. In Somalia, the sorghum harvest for the 2016 Deyr cropping season is expected to range from less than 40 percent of normal to failure. Prices of sorghum, maize and wheat are not uniform in the region with prices remaining within seasonal average in some parts but increasing atypically in others such as South and Central Somalia (Source: Fews NET).

Humanitarian needs

In much of Somalia, south-eastern Ethiopia, and parts of north-eastern Kenya, well below-average cereal production, coupled with deteriorating livestock productivity in pastoral areas and limited access to water, has significantly increased the number of people in crisis. According to the UN, 12.8 million people in Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and Somalia face crisis and emergency food insecurity levels and are in need of humanitarian assistance. Following various assessments in January 2017, the number of food insecure people in Kenya has doubled to 2.7 million compared to August 2016. Some 5.6 million people in Ethiopia and 1.6 million people in Uganda require food assistance this year. Nearly 3 million Somalis are expected to face crisis and emergency levels by June 2017, more than double compared to mid 2016.

Some analysts estimate that the 2016 Short Rains season in parts of East Africa (October to December) witnessed severely low levels of rainfall, largely comparable to those at the start of the 2011 drought.

Current forecasts indicate that the rest of the region is expected to experience unseasonal light to moderately heavy rains in the coming weeks, particularly in Kenya, parts of southern Somalia and southern Ethiopia. This could help provide some minor relief and reduce the current hotter-than-normal and dry conditions. However, concerns for a worsening crisis in the coming months are linked to the very low rainfall forecasts during the next rainy season (March to May), which will affect further the agro-pastoralist and pastoralist communities in the already badly impacted areas. In addition, capacity for communities to cope is at its lowest as it is the third consecutive year of low rainfall in different parts of the region.

Given the crisis, movements of communities and/or families affected by the drought in search of grazing land, water and food have taken place within the region. Internal and cross-border movements have already occurred putting pressure on national/local capacities and relief operations. Meanwhile, violence and protection issues continue to trigger movements of refugees/asylum seekers to drought-affected areas in countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. In Uganda, now hosting more than a million refugees, 24,000 people arrived from South Sudan during January 2017. The multiplicity of crisis as well as the limited financial resources available leaves the humanitarian response effort stretched. In addition, the limited humanitarian access to some critical areas hampers the relief effort

As capacities to monitor and analyse the situation appears better today than in 2010/2012 and more systematic coordination mechanisms exist, planning and implementation of responses by Governments, development and humanitarian actors as well as donors is being facilitated. Some of the Governments in the region, such as Ethiopia and Kenya, have increased their leadership through the setting up of dedicated service providers, the implementation of various programmes (e.g. Safety Net Programme) and the allocation of substantial funds and resources in coordination with relief actors and donors to ensure a timely and effective response. The response to the current situation is on-going. If situation worsens should the next rains fail, a scaled up response will have to be put in motion. In order to do so, additional resources and capacities will certainly have to be allocated.

Mitigation and Protection measures

While looking at the climatic processes causing droughts, many actors have and are focusing on the physical and economic vulnerabilities of affected population groups. By doing so, their main focus is directed towards the setting up of early warning systems and the design of emergency and recovery responses adapted to the impacts of the drought on population groups in different areas. Therefore, the potential mitigation and protection measures only received limited attention.

Whereas supporting the development of these early warning systems and the design of more effective response mechanisms, the different actors involved should also invest in vulnerability assessment to understand better who and what is vulnerable to drought and what are the underlying causes. Although there is no agreed definition of vulnerability and consensus on how to measure it, vulnerability can be looked at as a condition linked to social, economic, political and environmental factors which increases the susceptibility of a population group living in a specific ecosystem to be impacted by a drought.

Historical knowledge of the droughts and their impacts on different population groups according to their social, economic / livelihoods and political realities as well as their environment should therefore be given specific attention. Such type of exercise will permit to assess the “Risk Profile” of various communities in different areas but may also allow the identification of good practices which could be used in the design of mitigation and protection measures

This knowledge will support the development of drought mitigation and protection measures tailored to the specificity of the different population groups and geographical areas. Given the profile of the population affected (farmers, agro-pastoralists and pastoralists) in the region and the ecosystems where they live and depend upon, it is clear that the design of integrated and adapted management of ecosystems and water resources should be looked at in priority.

As early warning, response and recovery capacities continue to be strengthened under the leadership of concerned governments, the development of protection and mitigation policies and programmes should, without any doubt, be given more attention to reduce the impacts of future droughts.

Image source: UNDP Ethiopia

2 thoughts on “Drought Conditions in Eastern Africa – An Update

  1. Hi there! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a group of volunteers and starting a new project in a community in the same niche.
    Your blog provided us beneficial information to work on. You have done a marvellous

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