The Year the Short Rains Never Stopped in Kenya

Pasture in Samburu, Kenya in November 2019
Pasture in Samburu, Kenya in November 2019 / Photo credit: Geyi Zheng

The little boy, less than two years old, was still crying when Geyi Zheng entered his mother’s home in Samburu, Kenya. A member of the survey team had measured the child’s mid-upper arm, and it indicated a level of malnutrition that required immediate action.

It was the middle of January, typically a hot and dry month, but it was the first day since Zheng had arrived that it didn’t rain. When she visited in November 2019 as a new Future Innovation Lab for Markets, Risk & Resilience research assistant, unprecedented heavy rains had brought a surge of forage that kept herds close to home.

Just two months later, Zheng was riding with that young boy and his mother to a hospital 30 minutes away on washed-out roads and through seasonal rivers that were nearly impossible to cross.

“If you imagine they had to travel that far on foot, there’s no way they could get there in time,” said Zheng.

Communities who are already vulnerable are always hit hardest by extreme weather. Already in 2020, pastoralist families in Kenya’s north faced flooding while further south farmers have struggled first with drying their recent harvest in the rain and also with huge swarms of locusts posing a continuing threat to both crops and pasture. As the impacts of climate change intensify, the need to promote climate adaptation and resilience will only increase.

“For families who rely on agriculture, a single season with too much or too little rain or even a sick child can have disastrous consequences,” said Michael Carter, MRR Innovation Lab director and principal investigator on the project in Samburu. “Adding climate change to this mix substantially increases the urgency of promoting climate adaptation and resilience for all rural families.”

A Weather Pattern out of Balance

Across the Horn of Africa, heavy rains have threatened livelihoods. The USAID-funded Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) reported on impacts of extreme wet conditions that took place during East Africa’s October to December 2019 season.

“This resulted in localized crop damage, large displacement of populations, and fatalities from flooding and landslides,” said Laura Harrison, a specialist and operations analyst for the Climate Hazard Center at UC Santa Barbara, a FEWS NET partner. “Flooding also made it difficult for some markets to operate properly and for laborers to find paying jobs which they need to support their own livelihoods before the harvest.”

The continued, heavy rains have also disrupted seasonal patterns. In Kenya the long rains last from March to May, and the short rains from October to December. January and February, the months before the long-rain season, are usually hot and dry. This year, the short rains never ended.

Seasonal river in Samburu, Kenya
Seasonal river in Samburu, Kenya January 2020 / Photo credit: ILRI

This has caused problems even beyond the recent boom in locust swarms reported across Kenya. In February 2020, the FAO raised the threat level posed by the locusts to significant in the northern parts of the country. This threat level implies imminent danger to both crops and livestock.  

For small-scale farmers growing rain-fed crops, planting the right varieties at the right time each season is critical, said Timothy Njagi, a research associate at the Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development. The extended rains have also made it harder for farmers to dry the recent maize harvest, which usually takes place outside in the sun. If farmers can’t dry their maize, they will lose more of it to rot and risk aflatoxin contamination.

“Farmers have actually been harvesting while it’s raining,” said Njagi. “This left them a short time for land preparation for the long-rain season.”

Njagi also said that the onset of the long-season rains are forecast to begin early this year. A farmer who waits for a regular mid-March planting will already be two to three weeks late, which has a huge effect.

“This month they really have to be on top of it,” said Njagi. “They have to finalize the harvest and prepare the land in addition to planting.”

Shifting Temperatures in the Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean is vast, stretching from Australia in the east to Africa in the west. Harrison said that the heavy rainfall in Kenya began in October with an important shift in sea surface temperatures across the equatorial Indian Ocean. In the Western Indian Ocean, temperatures were much higher than normal, while the opposite occurred in the Eastern Indian Ocean.

This type of situation is called a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) event, and is typically associated with higher than normal rainfall in East Africa. This event during the 2019 short rains was one of the strongest since 1900. The Western Indian Ocean was actually warmer than the eastern side at some times during the short rains season, which is highly unusual and likely contributed to rainfall across the Horn of Africa that was double to quadruple the historic average.

Indian Ocean dipole temperatures 1900-2019
October-November Sea Surface Temperatures (SST) in the western and eastern Indian Ocean, 1900-2019. From FEWS NET East Africa Special Report Jan 29, 2020.

“Months before the season began, climate models indicated a positive IOD might develop,” said Harrison. “In September, observations indicated a strong event was underway. Then in October the IOD reached an extreme strong level and high-intensity rainfall began in equatorial East Africa. The event relaxed to a neutral state in December, though Western Indian Ocean temperatures have since remained warmer than normal.”

A positive IOD event doesn’t just produce more rain. It also produces drought. On the other side of the Indian Ocean, the 2019 IOD event produced dryness that fueled fires across Australia. In Africa, the IOD event, combined with another temperature dipole in the Southern Indian Ocean, disrupted normal rainfall patterns further south. Zimbabwe in particular has been struggling with drought.

“Indian Ocean temperatures appear strongly influenced by increasing greenhouse gases and climate change, in addition to natural variability,” said Harrison. “When already very warm tropical ocean regions are heated, the risk of extreme weather also increases.”

Adapting to a Changing Climate

This extreme weather exacerbates other problems communities face.

“Malnutrition rates are often quite high in the areas that we work,” said Nathan Jensen, senior scientist and economist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). ILRI, a partner on Carter’s research in Samburu with The BOMA Project, has worked extensively across northern Kenya to pioneer index-based livestock insurance.

However, there are many potential responses possible from the public sector and donor communities. Njagi said that while it’s becoming increasingly difficult for farmers to predict the rains, advice for when to plant and with what varieties would make a big difference. Njagi also suggested making grain dryers available for small-scale farming communities so they no longer need to rely on hot, clear days to dry their harvest.

Both approaches are forms of climate adaptation that involve helping farmers to change the way they grow food. Another is irrigation, which farmers can use to overcome drought.

Carter said that in addition to these adaptations to climate change, strategies to build long-term resilience in rural communities who are increasingly at risk will be critical. His work with pastoralist families in Samburu uses index insurance as a risk-transfer tool so women who make gains by participating in The BOMA Project's poverty graduation program can hold onto them.

“Increasing people’s livelihoods increases the likelihood they can recover,” said Carter. “If you are close to poverty, the cumulative cost of a shock is huge. From that perspective, that puts a real premium on transferring risk so people don’t fall as far.”