Science summary: The drought in Ethiopia, 2015


Key messages

  • North and central Ethiopia suffered their worst drought in decades in 2015, a year marked by a strong El Niño.

  • The drought affected nearly 10 million Ethiopians.

  • Scientists with World Weather Attribution used multiple methods of attribution science to look at the possible roles that climate change and El Niño played in the drought.

  • They found that El Niño made this rare drought even drier in the kiremt season.

  • No influence of climate change could be found, with the spread of possible trends ranging from drought being 40% less to four times more probable


The worst drought in decades gripped north and central Ethiopia in 2015, affecting nearly 10 million people. The dry conditions left hundreds of thousands of farmers with failed crops and weakened or dead livestock. The resulting food scarcity meant more than eight million people in the parched country needed emergency food aid, according to the United Nations (UN).1 The magnitude of the devastation to Ethiopia led the UN’s Allahoury Diallo to declare that the “drought is not just a food crisis – it is, above all, a livelihood crisis.”

Signs of trouble began to surface early in the year. Farmers waited for the belg rains that generally occur between February and May in the central and eastern parts of the country (Figures 1, 2 and 3). About 10% of the Ethiopian population is completely dependent on this season to provide rainfall for crops and pastures. But in 2015, after a false start, the belg rains came a month late in northern and central Ethiopia.

What also arrived was a particularly strong El Niño, associated with the warming of equatorial waters in the Pacific Ocean. The effects of El Niño play out in different ways across the planet. In Ethiopia, El Niño can lead to drier conditions, mainly in the north-western part of the country, affecting the rainy season known as kiremt that occurs in June–September. In a normal year, the kiremt rains account for 50–80% of annual rainfall.

But in 2015, the kiremt season was delayed and the rains were erratic and below average. From February to August 2015, the northern-central and some eastern parts of the country received only 500 mm of rainfall, a deficit of 167 mm from the long-term average (Climate Hazards Group Infrared Precipitation with Stations, CHIRPS). Only half to three quarters of the rainfall expected was received from February to September.5

In a world warmed by human-induced climate change, droughts are expected to become more common and more severe in some parts of the world. Is this region one of these?