Tighten your belts, warns weatherman as rains projected to fail

Heavy rains in Nyeri town

Heavy rains in Nyeri town on March 1, 2023. Kenya is staring at a failed crop this season as the weatherman forecasts below-average rains for the March-April-May period, which will pile more inflationary pressure on millions of households that are already grappling with a high cost of living.

Photo credit: Joseph Kanyi | Nation Media Group

Kenya is staring at a failed crop this season as the weatherman forecasts below-average rains for the March-April-May period, which will pile more inflationary pressure on millions of households that are already grappling with a high cost of living.

The March to May period marks a crucial rain season in the country’s farming calendar as it is during this time that communities and households plant the main crop of the year. However, the announcement of depressed rainfall by the Kenya Meteorological Department has dampened the hopes of a good harvest.

The weatherman on Wednesday warned that below-average rainfall is expected over the highlands west, central and south of the Rift Valley, all of which are key farming regions. The region covers Trans Nzoia and Uasin Gishu counties, which are considered Kenya’s bread baskets and contribute a large share of the country’s maize production.

‘Depressed rainfall’

“The depressed rainfall over most parts of the country is likely to negatively affect agricultural production, especially over the high potential areas of the highlands west and east of the rift valley, central, and south rift, as well as the southeastern lowlands,” said the Met.

Depressed rainfall will worsen food security and nutrition in the arid and semi-arid regions, but the problem is expected to spread to other parts of the country.

“Food prices are expected to rise further and accessibility to food is also expected to be poor,” said the agency when releasing the long rain season’s outlook.

Kenya’s climatic woes could worsen towards the end of the year, particularly during the short rains period, when the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) has warned the region could experience the El Nino weather phenomenon as high temperatures and persistent drought in the Greater Horn of Africa disrupt normal patterns.

“Long lead forecasts for June to August indicate a much higher chance of 55 per cent of El Nino developing,” said WMO in a statement.

El Nino rains could impact farm produce as they could come during the harvest season, leading to losses and further causing disruptions in the food value chain. Commodity prices, already impacted by the ongoing drought, could continue their upward trend into the new year, according to the forecasts.

The weatherman wants relevant authorities and humanitarian institutions to closely monitor the situation and provide food and food supplements to the most vulnerable communities to avert the loss of lives.

The revelation of poor rains comes at a time when the country is facing an acute shortage of maize, which has pushed the price of flour beyond the reach of many consumers and added more pressure on inflation. A two-kilogramme packet of flour is currently retailing at Sh200, up from Sh150 in the corresponding period last year.

The depressed rains will also inflate power bills as falling water levels in dams will see the country turn to expensive thermal power in order to meet the demand for electricity.

Kenya’s inflation in February edged up for the first time in four months on renewed pressure on food and cooking gas prices, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. Inflation—a measure of the cost of living over the last 12 months—rose to 9.2 per cent from 9 per cent the month before, the first rise since October.

Absence of buffer stocks

The prevailing maize supply in the market and an absence of buffer stocks in the national reserves will hamper humanitarian assistance to affected families as Kenya depleted emergency stocks in the Strategic Food Reserve nearly five years ago when the government stopped buying stocks to refill them.

The sharp rise in the cost of food has been occasioned by another season of failed short rains between October and December last year, which marked a record fifth season of failed rainfall in the country.

The short rains play a key role in supplementing the main crop season as farmers in the eastern and parts of the south rift use it to plant early maturing crops.

The National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) said last month the number of Kenyans in need of food aid increased to six million in 32 counties as the country battles the effects of the drought.

NDMA said the population facing acute food insecurity had risen to 4.4 million with an additional 500,000 food-insecure people having been identified in nine other counties, mainly in arid and semi-arid regions.

The worsening of the drought means that the government will be forced to set aside more funds to offer assistance to affected households to mitigate deaths from starvation.

This will squeeze the government further as it is already operating on a shoestring budget, which has seen President William Ruto direct state agencies to cut expenditures.

President Ruto’s administration has slashed the total spending for the current financial year ending June by Sh14 billion by dropping many of his predecessor’s infrastructure projects, among other cuts.

In the first supplementary budget for the financial year 2022/23, the National Treasury has cut development spending by Sh106.3 billion, with a substantial chop being from the state departments of Infrastructure and Water and Sanitation.