Let’s get this out of the way. The current famine in the Horn of Africa isn’t caused by drought. Rather, a complex mix of societal and political factors created a dangerous situation. The worst drought in 60 years (pdf) is what pushed that situation over the edge into a humanitarian crisis.
However, just as these social factors were known well in advance, signs of an impending drought were also clear. At International Research Institute for Climate and Society’s monthly climate briefing, Brad Lyon talked about some of them.
There were signs that a drought could develop as early as June 2010. “We didn’t know how severe the drought might become”, said Lyon. “There were certainly indications that drought was likely to develop, though.” One of those indications was the developing La Niña in the equatorial Pacific.
Generally, La Niña can cause a subpar October to December rainy season in the Horn of Africa known as the short rains. As that season drew closer, the La Niña strengthened. By the beginning of September 2010, IRI forecasters were calling for an increased chance of below normal precipitation across the Horn of Africa for the short rains season.
October began dry, and that trend continued through December. Many farmers experienced crop failure, which in part caused local cereal prices to start rising in January 2011. Prices have more than doubled in many areas and are still on the rise as the spring long rains have failed to materialize.
The long rains are not as predictable as the short rains due to weaker connections with ocean temperatures. But the widely anticipated failure of the short rains provides an early warning for drought and subsequent rise in prices.
In countries like Ethiopia, which experienced a famine in 1984-5, safety nets have helped stave off widespread food insecurity. That’s not to say the situation is good. The Famine Early Warning System and Network still shows parts of Ethiopia and neighboring Kenya are at high risk of acute food insecurity.
The biggest worry, though, is Somalia. University of South Carolina geographer Edward Carr writes on his blog, “famine stops at the Somali border.” This is in part due to extreme political instability in the country, which has resulted in humanitarian aid being blocked at the border.
The next chance at ameliorating the current drought is this coming fall when the short rains return. While good short rains might not stave off continued famine in Somalia, they could help stabilize the cereal prices in the region, which would reduce the risk of the catastrophe spreading across Ethiopia and Kenya. As of now, IRI is forecasting near average precipitation for the season. Check out IRI’s forecast page for the latest information.