Ethiopia: Drought intensifies during corn and sorghum harvest

Production Estimates and Crop Assessment Division

Foreign Agricultural Service

Below-average rainfall during the main meher growing season from June-October* and lower rain during February-May have created extremely dry conditions at harvest. Corn and sorghum account for more than 40 percent of the country’s total cereal production and they are the main staple foods for a large portion of the population, especially for the lowland pastoralists who are most vulnerable to famine during drought years. Due to poor meher harvest conditions, both the Government of Ethiopia and the United Nations have appealed for international food aid, with the peak number of people requiring food assistance occurring slightly before the secondary belg harvest next June.

Click here to see Map "Ethiopia Drought covers major corn growing areas"

Below Average Rainfall from June-September, 2002

Below Average Rainfall for 2002

The harvest for Ethiopia's important meher season began this month which accounts for 90-95 percent of the country’s cereal production. Current harvest prospects are poor due to the late start of the meher rains and below average rainfall for the entire season. In addition, the secondary belg rains (February-May) were below average this year so that corn and sorghum production were below average for both the main meher and secondary belg growing seasons.

The belg rains are also important for replenishing water sources and providing pasture for the lowland pastoral areas, and for the past two years these pastoral areas have received less than average rainfall (refer to PECAD Highlights in 2001 and 2002). Pastoralists are thus suffering from losses of livestock due to poor pasture and limited water resources for the past three years, and low corn and sorghum production this year greatly decreases their food availability.

Click here to see Map "Ethiopia Drought Started with Poor Belg Rains (Mar-May 2002)"

*Average Annual Rainfall

Ethiopia is located in the tropics and variations in altitude have produced a variety of microclimates. Mean annual rainfall ranges from 2000-mm over some pocket areas in the southwest highlands, and less than 250-mm in the lowlands. In general, annual precipitation ranges from 800 to 2200-mm in the highlands (>1500 meters) and varies from less than 200 to 800-mm in the lowlands (<1500 meters). Rainfall also decreases northwards and eastwards from the high rainfall pocket area in the southwest.

Three Rainfall Regimes

Parts of Ethiopia have unimodal and bimodal rainfall patterns which can be generalized into the three rainfall regimes with two, three, or four seasons.

Three Major Rainfall Regimes for Ethiopia

Two Seasons: The western half of Ethiopia has two distinct seasons (wet from June-September and dry from November-February), with the rainfall peak occurring from July to August.

Three Seasons: The central and most of the eastern part of the country have two rainy periods and one dry period. These season are known locally as the main Kiremt rains (June - September), small Belg rains, (February-May), and dry Bega season (October-January).

  • Kirmet rainfall is very important because 90-95 percent of the food is produced during this main meher crop season. Drought during kiremt may lead to food insecurity because this is when most parts of the country receive 60-90 percent of their rainfall.

  • The belg harvest accounts for only 5 to 10 percent of the total annual grain production of the country, but it may provide up to 50 percent of the yearly food supply in the some highland areas, such as Wollo and Shewa regions (all belg regions and the north-central belg region).

Four Seasons: The south and southeastern parts of Ethiopia have two distinct dry periods (December-February and July-August) and two rain seasons (March-June and September-November). The main rain season is referred to as the belg rains because it occurs from March-June (belg map).

Three Seasons in Highlands (two rainy seasons and one dry season)

Big "kiremt" rains

Long and heavy rains from mid-June to mid-September are called the big rain or kiremt, which correspond to the main "meher" growing season. Violent thunderstorms in the highlands are common in late June.

Small "belg" rains

Short and moderate rains from February to May are known as the little rains or belg, and correspond to the Ethiopia’s secondary harvest season for the northern highland areas. These rains are very important to:

Plant short-cycle crops such as wheat, barley, teff, and pulses which are harvested in June or July.

Plant long-cycle cereal crops such as corn, sorghum and millet which are harvested during the meher season.

The belg rains are also the main annual rains for the pastoral and agro-pastoral areas of southern and southeastern Ethiopia. The planting period for the belg rains in the south starts in March and harvesting takes place in June or July. The belg rains are also critical in assuring pasture and water for livestock in the south.

In farming regions where the belg rains do not produce an extra harvest, the rains are still crucial for:

  • Seed-bed preparation for short and long-cycle meher crops.
  • Formation and development of the inflorescence of coffee crop;
  • Maintaining livestock conditions, including plow oxen that are crucial for agriculture and ruminants that are important economic assets.

"Bega" dry season (October-January)

A short period of hot dry weather from October-January, known locally as "bega", occurs between the two rainy seasons. During the Bega, most of the highland Ethiopia is sunny during the day and cold during the night and morning, which includes frost in December and January. Farmers harvest their meher crops during this dry period.

Belg Production Areas in Ethiopia

Click here to see Map of Belg Producing Areas