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Kenya’s March-to-May Season: An Examination of April 2019 Predictions, May 2019 Outcomes, and the Implications of a Poor Start to the Season

This post was written by Laura Harrison and Juliet Way-Henthorne, Climate Hazards Center, University of California, Santa Barbara.

The Climate Hazards Center (CHC) and affiliates use a variety of tools and data sets, including Earth observations, to make advance predictions of rainfall and other factors that influence the livelihoods and overall food security of the world’s most vulnerable people. The 2019 year has, thus far, shown remarkably dire conditions in East Africa, particularly through the months of March and April, and while heavy May rains throughout some of the region have pulled numbers closer to annual averages, at what point are these heavy rains too little and too late? Which groups can, to an extent, recover? And, perhaps most importantly, which groups will be most affected, and how can they be helped?

The CHC makes early warning forecasts to present possible rainfall and drought-related outcomes in regions that are prone to climate extremes. These forecasts evolve to preliminary data, and finally, actual results are measured. While these forecasts are valuable in making predictions and providing early warning of potentially poor harvests, the nature of climate extremes remains unpredictable, thus highlighting the value of spotlighting comparisons between forecasts and outcomes.

April 2019 Expected Outcomes:

  • Well-below average rainfall during the 2019 Gu/long rains season throughout the Greater Horn of Africa leads to the second consecutive below-average season in the region. This is especially significant considering the effects of the 2016/17 drought, and will likely result in large-scale crop loss, increased food prices, and poor livestock conditions, thus negatively impacting overall food security.
  • Population in Crisis (Integrated Phase Classification, Phase 3) is expected to rise through late 2019, with peak needs expected from July to October in northern and south-central Somalia, pastoral Kenya, and southeastern Ethiopia.
  • Rainfall during the first 6 weeks of the March-June Gu season fell below fifty percent of average across the Greater Horn of Africa. It is among the driest three recorded seasons in southern and eastern Kenya, southern Somalia, and central-northern Uganda. Despite increased rainfall in some regions, cumulative rainfall is expected to fall below average.
  • Agricultural areas are expected to have mixed production rates: 1) Kenya’s marginal agricultural areas will likely produce smaller maize harvests, while high potential areas will likely experience near-average production due to a longer rainfall season; 2) below-average rain-fed production is expected in southern Somalia, Ethiopia’s eastern SNNPR, Oromia, and Amhara regions; and 3) rainfall in the Ethiopian highlands will likely increase Somalia’s river water levels and support irrigated production.
Figure 1. Rainfall anomaly for March 1 through April 25, 2019 (observed plus forecast), as a percentage of 1981-2010 mean (Source: FEWS NET, USGS, UCSB CHC).

Updated Results as of May 2019:

Poor rainfall during most of the March through May long rains season has indeed left many regions, particularly those that depend on heavy April rains (like bimodal eastern Horn areas), feeling the negative impacts of drought. Kenya, for example, reported worsening drought conditions in its semi-arid and dry regions on May 21, 2019  (National Drought Early Warning Bulletin, May 2019). Such conditions result in poor agriculture, livestock, and water conditions, as was predicted in April 2019. In terms of crop production, Arid and Semi-Arid Land (ASAL) counties experienced adverse effects on farming activities, as the poor rainfall performance from March to May led to the shortage of water and pasture. Moreover, by the end of April, three ASAL sub-counties were in the extreme vegetation deficit class, eight counties recorded severe vegetation deficit, while twelve counties were in the moderate vegetation deficit category.  By the end of April, the number of counties in the alarm drought stage doubled from five in March. An additional eleven counties are at the alert drought level as of the publication of Kenya’s National Drought Early Warning Bulletin. Counties classified in the alarm drought phase include Wajir, Mandera, Garissa, Marsabit, Turkana, West Pokot, Tana River, Samburu, Kilifi, and Baringo.

Reports from the field state that planting was significantly delayed in areas of western Kenya that experienced poor March and April rains. Farmers that planted in March have had to replant.  Typically, a long rainfall season (with rains continuing from March-October at varying degrees of intensity), provides agriculturists with opportunities for replanting, enabling them to complete a full crop cycle. However, poor rainfall during the first part of the season can potentially result in delayed harvests and crop losses. And while areas like western Kenya may experience more rainfall, regions with shorter rainfall seasons are at risk of facing greater food insecurity. Moreover, while waterholes may fill and grasses may grow with the increase in May rains, the impact of the exceptionally poor rainfall season will likely continue to be felt.

Figure 2. As of May, rainfall-based estimates of water depth in water holes used by pastoralists show lower-than-normal depth.
Figure 3. Figures show the difference from average rainfall and Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) for three points in time for the 2019 season.  Left: CHIRPS rainfall anomaly (mm) for March 1st to April 30th. Middle: Anticipated rainfall anomaly for March 1st to June 5th. This CHC Early Estimate uses preliminary CHIRPS data for May 1st-20th and an unbiased version of the GEFS forecast for May 21st-June 5th. Right: NDVI anomaly for May 11th-20th. (Source: UCSB CHC [left, middle] and earlywarning.usgs.gov [right]).

As shown above, May rains helped to improve average rainfall, but this analysis alone does not convey the severe effects that a poor rain season can have on lives and livelihoods. While overall rainfall has increased, the poor rains of March and April have irreparably damaged agriculturists’ crops to the point of incurring likely crop failures in areas like the aforementioned ASAL counties. And while late rains are more beneficial than a rainless season, these conditions are, overall, very poor. When combined with the previous short rains season failing through October to December, food prices continue to rise, crops continue to fail, and food insecurity grows. The Climate Hazards Center continues to monitor the situation, providing as up-to-date information as possible, thus allowing regional decision-makers to base actions on well-developed information with the hope of aiding in the food security of as many people as possible. The CHC also continues to provide early warning information to support the FEWS NET with regard to agroclimatology conditions in East Africa and other food-insecure regions.

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