Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Rainfall Trend in Marsabit

 by Tim Wright

Famine is very serious in parts of Africa, including in Marsabit, where Sauti Moja implements development projects in food security and family health.  This year, we were able to lobby Canadian Food Grains Bank (CFGB) and Emergency Relief and Development Overseas (ERDO) for five-month food assistance to 750 female-headed households who had been beneficiaries of our livestock loans. This is providing needed food for their children and ensuring that these mothers do not have to sell any breeding stock in their small herds in order to buy foodstuffs. We are thankful for such support!

SM distributed food relief to 750 feale-headed households.
SM distributed food relief to 750 female-headed households.
However, I have been concerned about global warming and the anticipated impact on crop and forage production affecting our project areas. Various climate models indicate that these arid and semi-arid areas will be more frequently affected by drought. This concern led me to review 67 years (1950 – 2016) of precipitation data from Kenya Meteorological Organization for Marsabit.  I wanted to determine whether or not there has been a change in risk of famine due to droughts causing crop failure and reduced forage production contributing to livestock deaths.

To put Marsabit drought concern into context, there are dry periods every year, as rainfall is bi-modal; there are the ‘short rains’ of October through December (median = 287 mm) and ‘long rains’ from May to June (median = 375 mm). On average, 86% of the annual precipitation occurs during these two periods. During these dry periods, most livestock, other than camels, do not produce milk. Those households with some source of income and/or livestock for sale are able to purchase foodstuffs; others are usually supported by the extended family. Short hunger periods are ‘normal’ for many pastoralists.

 My data analysis confirms that, in spite of year-to-year fluctuations in precipitation, the reduction in annual precipitation during these 67 years is statistically significant. For the period 1950-1969 (19yr data), median rainfall was 775 mm; for 1970-1989 (18yr data), 704mm; and for 1990-2009 (17yr data), 603 mm – a 22% reduction in precipitation over six decades, and subsequent years have been even worse. This is of considerable practical consequence in relationship to crop and forage production.

Livestock, such as cattle, are highly-susceptible to drought.
Camels can be milked through periods of drought.

When I estimated risk of crop failure due to drought, I found that, in more recent decades as compared to earlier, it quadrupled, increasing from 10% to 43%, during the long rains. This is usually the better season to grow maize which requires more precipitation than beans. There was not a significant change in estimated frequency of crop failure during the short rains, though of course, rainfall then was usually too risky for maize production.

Estimated frequency for a harvest of maize and/or beans

LONG RAINS (median = 375 mm)
SHORT RAINS (median = 287 mm)
No harvest
No harvest
1950 – 1981
1982 - 2016

 Climate scientists predict and locals recognize increased variability in precipitation. Marsabit and similar areas may still have some seasons of high rainfall that are conducive to crop and forage production. However, what is especially serious is back-to-back seasons of low rainfall! The Horn of Africa suffered serious drought in 2011, when hunger was widespread. The current drought began in June 2016, and to date, there has not been significant rainfall, which devastated crop production in the last two growing seasons and provided little forage for livestock. The next rains are expected in the October to December period, so food assistance will be needed until at least until December 2017. 
More frequent drought is reducing harvests.
Some rainy seasons produce good maize crops.


Recognizing this new reality for pastoralists, who live on the front lines of global warming, could lead to despair, but various economic changes will help mitigate this climate change. Improved communications and roads, improved livestock marketing, increased vocational training, and decentralization of government are contributing to new livelihood opportunities. Nevertheless, adaptation is a long process, so these communities will still require support and donors should not be surprised that food assistance will be required from time-to-time.

We reflected upon the primary role of Sauti Moja, and confirmed that we will contribute to adaptation in this livestock-based economy by continuing to support the shift to more drought-hardy livestock as well as provide donkeys to help women access water from long distances. We will also continue to support education and technical training leading to employment for marginalized youth, provide family health training (family planning, HIV/AIDS prevention, and child health and nutrition), and facilitate peacemaking between communities in resource conflict.


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