Two seasons of late and erratic rains lead to drought in Ethiopia

  • By Roop Singh, RCCC; Amanuel Abraha, ENDA; and Farm Africa
  • 23/10/2015

Unusually wet (green) and dry (brown) areas in Ethiopia during the first 9 months of 2015.

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Many Ethiopians rely on consistent and dependable rainfall for growing crops, feeding their animals, and maintaining their livelihoods. This year, the rains were delayed or depressed for two consecutive seasons in some parts of Ethiopia.

The BRACED projects led by Farm Africa and Christian Aid are operating in some of the woredas and regions that have been highly impacted by the rainfall deficits.

In these regions, people employed various coping mechanisms to support their livelihoods including increasing their travel to other areas with drought-hardy camels in search of pasture, selling firewood, and working more on commercial farms. Some were effective, while other adaptation strategies like planting crops in the Afar Region largely failed due to reduced availability of water for irrigation, and have negative implications for building long-term adaptive capacity for the community.

THE HAZARD: DROUGHT

Ethiopia is a geographically diverse country ranging from semiarid plains, to vast highlands, raised plateaus and lowlands. This means that the climate and rainy seasons can vary widely depending on location.

According to the Ethiopian National Meteorology Agency (NMA), central and northeastern Ethiopia experienced very poor first season (Belg, February – April) rainfall in 2015. During the main rainy season, Kiremt (June – September), of 2015, the total seasonal rainfall was significantly lower than normal. It’s likely that the poor rains during Kiremt were in part, due to prevailing El Niño conditions.

Temperature is another important factor. During the first seven months of the year, temperatures have been consistently higher than normal in Ethiopia, part of a trend of hotter temperatures in Africa.

Minutes of the Afar Pastoral Agriculture Taskforce meeting of July 29 reported that “in the last three months, Afar region has been experiencing high air surface temperature, dusty wind storm, dryness and high evapo-transpiration which resulted in poor soil moisture.” This has negatively affected regeneration of pasture, browse and recharging of water sources like rivers and ponds.

Satellite and rain gauge measurements show that in total, the first seven months of 2015 have been unusually dry in the north-central part of the country. This reduction in total rainfall has consequences for the availability of plants, grasses and browse for livestock.

Pasture, rangeland resources and water availability have seen continuous depletion at a time of year when they would normally be increasing, leading to poor livestock body condition and very low livestock production and productivity.

In addition, the erratic rains have contributed to lower crop yields, death of some livestock and greater food insecurity. According to UNOCHA, 24th August 2015, a total of 4.5 million people in Ethiopia are projected to require assistance this year.

Of course, food insecurity and other impacts are complex, and the late and erratic rains were only one factor amongst many that contributed to the increased need for assistance. In some areas, the rains were not very unusual, and instead other factors like market access, and high vulnerability to even slightly lower or erratic rainfall contributed to the need for assistance.

TIMING MATTERS

Unusual total rainfall only tells part of the story. It masks the day-to-day, or week-to-week, changes in rainfall that can have consequences for growing crops, and replenishing water supply. Farmers in the north central part of the country produce crops during the Belg season (February – April), usually waiting until the first rain to sow their seeds.

Many farmers who planted their seeds early in the season did not see enough rain during the subsequent two months for their crops to grow. Others waited too long for the rains to consistently show up, and planted too late, leading to failed harvests. The southern Afar region, a pastoral area, remained drier than normal during three consecutive months leading to severely reduced pasture and livestock production.

The second major rainy season, Kiremt, provides rain for growing crops in western Ethiopia, and for pasture in the central and eastern parts of the country. During June the rains were late and depressed in the northwest, while some patches in the southwest experienced wetter than normal conditions.

In July, the rains were expected to start for the north central part of the country. They did not arrive, and instead it was dry for weeks on end. In fact, initial estimates suggest this was the driest July in roughly the past 30 years!

While some cropping regions in the west did start to the rainfall they needed, the pastoral Afar Region and Sitti Zone were among those most severely impacted by the lack of rain.

Fortunately, in August, the rains finally reached a larger swath of the country. While this rain was welcomed, it sometimes came in the form of storms that brought unusually large amounts of rain in a short period of a time. Other areas, including the very southern part of Afar and neighboring areas, remained dry for yet another month.

The story of the rains is incredibly complex, and the relationship that people have to them varies from place to place further complicating the picture. Simply declaring there is drought in Ethiopia clouds the fact that while some people are suffering, Ethiopia has grown tremendously in the past couple decades to increase resilience to natural hazards, and as such a majority of people are doing okay.

In the next part of this series we will delve further into how people in Ethiopia are faring during the drought, and what resilience initiatives are working to reduce impacts.

This is part 1 of a series, for the Reality of Resilience project, looking at the 2015 drought in Ethiopia. Stay tuned for part 2 next week detailing how people are coping, and BRACED projects are responding.

The findings and conclusions detailed in this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, the IFRC or its National Societies. The blog and any links it may contain are offered to stimulate discussion and thinking on the humanitarian impacts of climate change and variability.”

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Braced or its partners.

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