From rain to famine: assessing the utility of rainfall observations and seasonal forecasts to anticipate food insecurity in East Africa

Erin Coughlan de Perez*, Maarten van Aalst, Richard Choularton, Bart van den Hurk, Simon Mason, Hannah Nissan, Saroja Schwager

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


East Africa experiences chronic food insecurity, with levels varying from year-to-year across the region. Given that much can be done to prevent this level of suffering before it happens, humanitarian agencies monitor early indicators of food insecurity to trigger early action. Forecasts of total seasonal rainfall are one tool used to monitor and anticipate food security outcomes. Factors beyond rainfall, such as conflict, are key determinants of whether lack of rainfall can become a problem. In this paper, we present a quantitative analysis that isolates the value of rainfall information in anticipating food security outcomes across livelihood groups in East Africa. Comparing observed rainfall and temperature with food security classifications, we quantify how much the chance of food insecurity increases when rainfall is low. Results differed dramatically among livelihood groups; pastoralists in East Africa more frequently experience food insecurity than do non-pastoralists, and 12 months of low rainfall greatly increases the chances of “crisis” and “emergency” food security in pastoralist regions. In non-pastoralist regions, the relationship with total rainfall is not as strong. Similar results were obtained for livelihood groups in Kenya and Ethiopia, with slightly differing results in Somalia. Given this, we evaluated the relevance of monitoring and forecasting seasonal total rainfall. Our quantitative results demonstrate that six months of rainfall observations can already indicate a heightened risk of food insecurity, a full six months before conditions deteriorate. Combining rainfall observations with seasonal forecasts can further change the range of possible outcomes to indicate higher or lower risk of food insecurity, but the added value of seasonal forecasts is noticeable only when they show a strong probability of below-normal rainfall.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)57-68
Number of pages12
JournalFood Security
Issue number1
Early online date11 Feb 2019
Publication statusPublished - 15 Feb 2019


  • Drought
  • East Africa
  • Famine
  • Forecasts
  • Livelihoods
  • Precipitation
  • Vulnerability


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