FAO/GIEWS Special Alert No. 345: East Africa, 23 April 2019

Severe dryness at the start of 2019 first rainy season and unfavourable weather forecasts raise food security concerns


• Severe dryness prevailed in March 2019 and in the first half of April in large parts of Eastern Africa, as the Tropical Cyclone “Idai” redirected precipitations away from the subregion.

• Weather forecasts previously pointed to average to above-average March-May rains, but subsequent updates predicted dry conditions in April and a mixed performance of rains in May depending on the locality.

• The current dry weather conditions are severely affecting pastoral areas, compounding the impact of the poor 2018 October-December rains and raising major food security concerns.

• The severe dry conditions impacted planting and germination of crops in several areas, and crop production is expected at well below-average levels.

• Major areas of concern are northern and eastern Kenya, Somalia, southeastern Ethiopia, Uganda and northeastern United Republic of Tanzania.

• Recurrent climatic shocks have undermined household resilience. Urgent support to agricultural livelihoods is critically needed.

The poor October-December 2018 rains and the harsh dry season of January/February 2019 were followed by severe dryness at the start of the 2019 March-May season in several areas of East Africa. The suppressed rainfall between early March and mid-April was largely caused by the Tropical Cyclone “Idai”, which formed in early March in the Mozambique Channel and redirected precipitations away from East Africa.

The severe dryness has resulted in the delay and disruption of planting operations and has severely impacted crop germination. In pastoral areas, the dry conditions caused the deterioration of already poor rangeland conditions and widespread water shortages, with a significant worsening of animal body condition. The worst affected areas are most of Somalia and southeastern Ethiopia, which did not receive any significant precipitation so far, and northern and eastern Kenya, where some scattered showers were received only in late March. In most Uganda and in some northeastern areas of the United Republic of Tanzania, cumulative rainfall between early March and mid-April was up to 85 percent below average.

Earlier weather forecasts pointed to average to above-average March-May rains, but subsequent updates predicted dry conditions in April in most of the subregion. If dryness, as forecasted, continues for the rest of the month, the already poor vegetation conditions will further deteriorate in the cropping areas affected by the early-season dryness, and substantial yield reductions are likely. In pastoral areas of southeastern Ethiopia, central and northern Somalia, and northern and eastern Kenya, the persistence of dry weather conditions in April, normally the peak of the rainy season, is expected to cause a further deterioration of animal body conditions and sharp decline in milk production.

Rainfall forecasts for May point to persisting dry conditions in most of Somalia and in northern and eastern Kenya, while average to above-average rains are expected in eastern Ethiopia, southern and northwestern Somalia, southern Kenya and parts of Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania. In crop producing areas of Uganda, southern Somalia, eastern Ethiopia, southeastern Kenya and northeastern United Republic of Tanzania, where harvests are gathered in June/July, these late season rains are likely to be insufficient for crop recovery, and below-average harvests are expected. Substantial crop production shortfalls are expected in Uganda, the main cereal exporter in the subregion, in Somalia and in marginal agricultural areas of southeastern Kenya, which already obtained a reduced 2018 second season harvest in early 2019. By contrast, the forecast above-average rains in May could lift crop prospects in key growing areas in southwestern Kenya, where the “long-rains” extend up to August. In pastoral areas of southeastern Ethiopia, the expected above-average rains in May should ease the accumulated moisture deficits but are not expected to fully regenerate pastoral resources before the onset of the dry season in June.

Persisting water and pasture shortages are expected to force herders to recur to distress sales of livestock and to cull offspring to save milk producing females. As a result, herd sizes, which have been gradually increasing in 2018 after the massive losses caused by the 2016/17 drought, are likely to decline again, with negative consequences for pastoralist livelihoods that will likely lead to further pastoral destitution and displacement.

Prices of maize remained at low levels throughout the first quarter of 2019, due to abundant availabilities from the above-average 2018 main season harvests. Subsequently, they surged in early April in several markets of Kenya and Uganda, driven by concerns over the impact of the dry conditions on the performance of current crops, and they are now up to 35 percent higher than 12 months earlier.

In the areas most affected by the 2016/17 drought and by the current dry conditions in Somalia, Kenya and in the Somali region of eastern Ethiopia, the number of people facing severe food insecurity substantially declined in 2018 following the abundant March-May rainy season and, in early 2019, the number was estimated at 4.34 million. This is substantially lower than the estimate of 7.40 million in mid-2017, at the height of the impact of the 2016/17 drought. However, in recent years, several failed rainy seasons, starting with the El Niño-induced drought in 2015, have significantly eroded the resilience capacity of a large number of households and there is a high risk of a worsening of the food security situation, if rainfall deficits, as forecasted, continue in April and May. A close monitoring of weather and market conditions is warranted and a timely and effective support to the agricultural sector is required.