The Science of Rainy Season and the Problem of Drought in Ethiopia

Rain rolling in from the southwest on the Guinea monsoon winds

The months of June to August in Ethiopia are rainy season, known locally as krempt.  It is during these three months that most of the country receives at least 90% of its total annual rainfall.  Rain is the distinguishing element of Ethiopia’s seasons.  Ethiopia’s two extreme seasons are rainy season between June and August and dry season between December and February.  Since I’ve spent the last 13 years in the American mid-west where annual precipitation is fairly evenly distributed across the seasons and temperature characterizes the extremes from summer to winter, I’ve been very curious about this rainy and dry season phenomenon in Ethiopia.  This issue of rain and the lack thereof is not just what characterizes Ethiopia’s seasons.  The lack of rain, or drought, and the shortages of food that go with drought, have become almost synonymous with Ethiopia in the minds of many people around the world.  This year has been no different with significant media attention on the drought and food crisis of the Horn of Africa, including parts of southeastern and southern Ethiopia.  So in an effort to better understand the science of Ethiopia’s rains and the problem of drought, I recently opened up an Ethiopian grade 10 geography book and turned to the chapter on weather and climate.

In the U.S., because the country is located north of the tropics, the prominent trade winds blow from west to east.  Thus when you turn on the weather channel in Chicago you’ll notice that most weather patterns move across the country in a roughly eastward direction.  Seasonal weather patterns in the mid-west of the U.S. are based mostly on latitude and the amount of direct sunlight received.  In Chicago, it is hot in the summer because the northern hemisphere is tilted sunward and Chicago receives more direct sunlight, while it is cold in the winter because the Earth has tilted in such a way that Chicago receives only indirect sunlight and far fewer hours of it.

Here in Ethiopia, because the country is located close to the Equator, there is only a small change between seasons when it comes to the amount or directness of sunlight.  Seasonal temperatures change relatively little and the change that does occur has more to do with cloud cover than directness of sunlight.  In fact, the coolest temperatures are during the time of year – June to August – when Ethiopia receives the most direct sunlight.  Because Ethiopia is located in the region between the tropics, the dominant trade winds move in a generally westward direction.  They are called easterlies, because they come out of the east. These easterlies play an important role in the seasonal patterns of Ethiopia.  There are also seasonal-only winds, called monsoon winds, the most prominent of which are the Guinea monsoon winds that blow over the central part of the African continent during June through August.  The Guinea monsoon winds actually blow against the dominant tropical trade winds, but blow strong enough that they account for most of the precipitation of Ethiopia during rainy season.

Ethiopia has four seasons.  The two extremes, like in North American, are summer – June through August – and winter – December through February.  Rather than temperature extremes, though, in Ethiopia the extremes are marked by amounts of rain.  The months of June through August are Ethiopia’s rainy season. The months of December through February are the dry season.  During dry season, it is extremely rare for most regions of Ethiopia to receive any precipitation at all.

During the months of June through August, because the direct sunlight hits near the Tropic of Cancer (north of Ethiopia), a large low-pressure air region develops and stays over North Africa (warmer air equals lower pressure air), while high-pressure air regions develop across and off the coasts of South Africa.  They develop both to the east of the continent in the Indian Ocean, and to the west of the continent in the Atlantic Ocean.  As a result of the high-pressure air region off the west coast of southern Africa and the low-pressure air region on land across the north of the continent, monsoon winds blow from the Gulf of Guinea, blowing in a northeastward direction, across the central part of the continent and the Sahel (atmospheric movement from high-pressure air to low-pressure air causes wind).  These Guinea monsoon winds, as defined by their name, are seasonal only and blow opposite to the dominant trade winds of the tropical region.  However, because of the large low-pressure air region over the northern part of the continent, these monsoon winds are strong enough to carry moisture from the Atlantic across the continent all the way east to Ethiopia and dump that moisture as rain across the Ethiopian highlands.  Meanwhile, the dominant trade winds – the easterlies – carry moisture from the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden onto the African continent and shower Ethiopia as well.  Despite its closer proximity to the Indian Ocean, it is actually the strong monsoon winds from the Gulf of Guinea in the Atlantic that provide most of the rain to Ethiopia during rainy season.  Because of the cloud cover that these moisture-filled winds bring to Ethiopia, temperatures during rainy season are cooler than other times of the year.

During the months of December through February, because the southern hemisphere tilts sunward, direct sunlight hits considerably south of Ethiopia around the Tropic of Capricorn.  As a result of this direct sunlight and higher temperatures, low-pressure air regions develop over South Africa and in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans off the costs of the continent’s southern region.  The high-pressure air regions develop across North Africa and the Middle East.  As a result of these air pressure regions together with the dominant easterlies, a dry wind blows over Ethiopia from South Asia, the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula.  These winds bring no precipitation at all, thus December through February is Ethiopia’s dry season.  The clear skies of this season account for the warmer days and cool nights received from December to February.

Between these two extreme seasons, some regions of Ethiopia can receive small amounts of rain.  The southern and southeastern regions sometimes receive small amounts of rain during September to November.  While the central and northern parts of Ethiopia usually receive small amounts of rain during March through May, which they call the “small rains.”  These autumn and spring rains are mostly as a result of easterlies bringing moisture off the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden over the Horn of Africa.

Because Ethiopia’s seasons and rain amounts are so guided by air pressure regions and wind directions, there is great concern over the effects that climate change could bring to the country.  Because Ethiopia relies on basically one season for almost all of its annual rainfall, it is very prone to drought, crop failure, and food crisis.  If the rainy season doesn’t bring enough rain, or if the rains are too strong so that the soil can’t absorb the water and it simply runs off the hills, Ethiopia ends up in trouble because it can’t produce enough food to sustain the country through an entire calendar year.  Historically, Ethiopia has relied on small second crops during the “small rains” of March through May to get the population through the year, but if the “small rains” don’t come or don’t amount to enough to produce crop (as has been the case during a number of the recent years), the country’s food supply runs out before it can be replenished from the new crops that come at the end of the rainy season.  The cyclical rain problem is especially challenging for pastoralist regions.  If the smaller rains of the fall and/or spring don’t come at all, many animals can be lost when the land becomes too dry from December through May.  For communities who rely on those animals for their food and livelihood, the situation can become very touch and go.

In Ethiopia, one sometimes hears people refer to a “green drought.”  It’s a strange phenomenon, but people are often the hungriest during the greenest time of year, the rainy season, between June and August.  Just while everything is starting to grow anew, the country runs short of food from the previous harvest season.  So while people watch the new crops grow and await the harvest at the end of the rainy season, they often watch in fear as their personal food stores diminish, as the international agencies talk about regional food shortages, and as the government debates whether or not the national food reserves are sufficient (or whether the government sold off too much of the reserves as export to raise revenue).  As Ethiopians harvest in September, they hope that the crop will be plentiful enough to sustain the ever-growing Ethiopian population through another entire year.

This year there has been much international attention on the drought and food crisis of the Horn of Africa, including Somalia, parts of eastern Kenya and parts of the southeastern and southern regions of Ethiopia.  The regions hit hardest in Ethiopia have been the Somali federal state of the southeast and parts of the Oromo federal state in the south and southeast.  These regions include large numbers of pastoralist communities who have lost whole herds of animals because of drought and have therefore lost both their food and cash sources.  These are also regions that typically receive less rain even during good rain years, so they are regions more susceptible to drought and changing weather / climate patterns.  Since the heavy rains of Ethiopia’s rainy season come from the monsoon winds blowing in from the Gulf of Guinea in the west, the western highlands of Ethiopia tend to get the most rain.  By the time these rain-heavy monsoon winds get over the mountains to the lowland regions of Ethiopia’s east, their moisture is mostly spent.  The eastern and southeastern regions of the country, therefore, must rely on the less rain-heavy easterlies that come from the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.  In recent years, rain from these easterlies has been very unreliable.

These seasonal rain patterns in Ethiopia are an ancient phenomenon, as is the problem of drought.  The specter of climate change, however, stands to exacerbate the already persistent problem of drought in Ethiopia.  Furthermore, climate change stands to hurt some climates and countries much worse than others.  Countries like Ethiopia, which are economically underdeveloped and which rely from season to season on fragile weather and climate patterns, stand to suffer the most because of damage done to the planet and its reaction to that damage.  Regardless of what one thinks of the current government in Ethiopia, it’s been good to see the prime minister at the forefront as an outspoken representative for the African continent regarding this issue of climate change.

I would be wrong to not also point out that drought in Ethiopia is very region-by-region.  Many Ethiopians resent the image the world has of the country as a dry, famine stricken land.  While I don’t wish to diminish the horrible problem of drought in certain regions of the country (and it’s not always the same regions), most visitors to Ethiopia, especially during the summer and fall, would not see a famine stricken landscape.  Instead, in most parts of Ethiopia, including here in the Wolaita region, they would see gardens that can grow just about anything you want, green mountains rolling in all directions, streams rushing with water, and fruit trees everywhere; it’s a very lush, green and beautiful landscape.  This is one of the many ironies of Ethiopia.  It’s been called the “Water Tower of East Africa,” yet millions don’t have access to clean drinking water.  It’s been called the “Region’s Hydroelectric Generator,” yet the electric power flickers on and off constantly.  It’s a land of ancient Semitic languages and scripts, as old as Arabic and Hebrew, yet vast numbers of people are illiterate.  It was an ancient economic powerhouse, a key trading empire in the ancient Indian Ocean trading circuit, yet it’s now one of the poorest countries on the globe.  And it’s a land of “green drought,” where it can appear so lush and green, while people are suffering from shortages of food.


The Beautiful Landscape Out Our Backdoor



Though we love Chicago and very much came to consider it our home, probably the single greatest thing that we missed while living in Chicago was any kind of landscape beauty.  True Chicago has some beautiful parks, some great architecture and the fabulous lakefront, but Chicago is built on boring marshland and prairie.  It’s pretty sorry when “Cricket Hill” off of Wilson Ave. is considered “elevation” (my old cross-country team used to hate that little piece of Chicago “elevation”).  So on those days when I’ve missed things about Chicago, one thing that sustains me here in Wolaita-Soddo is the beautiful landscape just out our backdoor.

The CCC Children’s Home where we live and work is situated on the side of a steep hill that descends southwestly coming out of the Soddo town.  Because the home is built out of the side hill, the front of the home (facing the road) is one story, while the rear of the home is two stories.  When we step out our door at the back of the building, we’re standing on a second floor balcony facing out over a fairly steep embankment.  Looking slightly to the left, which is south, this embankment descends to a rainy-season stream and then up a hill on the other side, on the top of which is an Ethiopian Orthodox Church, with its typical round design and its 6am loud-speaker prayers.  Looking slightly to the right, which is southwest, the embankment descends several hundred meters to a large valley, which spreads out to the southwest and the west until it hits a rise of mountains in the distance.  According to an old missionary book that I found left in our room, these mountains to the west across the valley are called the Kwoibo Mountains (these Kwoibo Mountains are actually a southwestern extension of an escarpment rising from the Rift Valley a little further north of Soddo).  Though we can’t see it, just on the other side of these mountains is the Omo River gorge.  At clear moments (which are a little rare right now during krempt, or rainy season) more mountains can be seen even further to the west beyond the Omo River and to the southwest, towards to the Gofa and Gamo regions.

Soddo town itself sits at about 2,100 meters atop part of the escarpment that rises on the west side of the Great Rift Valley.  Just behind the town (to the north… on the opposite side of town as the CCC home) rises a beautiful mountain called Mt. Otona.  Though we haven’t attempted it yet, the Bradt guide book says that there are some good views of Lake Abaya from atop Mt. Otona.  Lake Abaya is the largest of the Ethiopian Rift Valley lakes (by surface area) and lies about 30km south-southeast of Soddo.

The Great Rift Valley runs through Ethiopia in a southwesterly direction from the Eritrean border in the northeast to the Kenyan border in the southwest.  The Great Rift Valley has been created by the drifting apart of two tectonic plates, the African Plate on the west side of the Rift Valley and the Somali Plate on the east side.  In the U.S., most discussion of tectonic activity has to do with California and the Pacific Ring of Fire.  The reason for high earthquake activity in California and earthquake / volcanic activity along the Pacific Rim has do to with the pressure of tectonic plates moving and pushing against each other.  The Rift Valley is quite different in that its existence has to do with tectonic plates pulling apart from each other.

At its northeast end, the Rift Valley appears like a large funnel or triangle and when looking at satellite views of the landscape, one can see how the African Plate, the Somali Plate and the Arabian Plate all once joined at this point.  This northeast end of the Rift Valley is considered one of the most inhospitable places on earth.  It maintains average temperatures that are considered the highest on the planet and at one place in the Danakil Depression, the landscape dips to 116 meters below sea level.  This part of the Rift Valley is also spotted with a number of active volcanoes.

As it runs through southern Ethiopia, however, the Rift Valley is much narrower across (only about 30km from western to eastern escarpments at Lake Abaya) and even within the valley, the elevation is still about 1000 meters above sea level (except for at Lake Shala, about 75km northeast of Soddo, which is made from a sunken volcanic caldera; Lake Shala is the deepest of the Ethiopian Rift Valley lakes with an impressive depth of 266 meters).

So while Chicago has skyscrapers, busy streets, Lake Michigan, sidewalk restaurant seating, Saturday morning brunch, diverse neighborhoods, burritos, summer music festivals, mojitos, and lots of other things that I miss, Wolaita-Soddo has the Rift Valley and the rugged highlands that rise on either side from it.  True, “Cricket Hill” offered a pretty good view of the Loop, but it’s got nothing on the beautiful landscape out our backdoor.

P.S.  I’ve always suspected that Cricket Hill is really just a large landfill that was seeded over at some point in the past.  Does anyone know anything about this?


Today we were struck with a tremendous irony (I think it’s irony.  I don’t actually know how to use the word irony properly.  For awhile in Chicago, Richelle and I were really into the TV series Castle.  The lead character, playing a crime author / murder mystery solver / NYPD homicide detective sidekick, was always complaining about how people overuse and don’t really understand irony.  Probably he was referring to me).  Anyway, today we were struck with something that seems to me to be ironic.  Richelle and I have been married for nearly eight years and yet we have never purchased a major household appliance until today.  We have always lived in rented apartments where the fridge / stove / microwave / etc. were already furnished and we always went to the laundry-mat to wash clothes.

Today, here in Wolaita Soddo, we just purchased our very own college dorm room-style refrigerator and, strangely, we feel really grown up about it.  Why does this seem ironic?  I guess because buying household appliances seems like one of those really home-making sort of things that people do, but after eight years of living together, Richelle and I are now living in our least “homey” place; we’re living in the place that seems least our own.  We are now living in a three-room space (concrete walls and floors, no real kitchen, running water only two days a week, draining water only in the bathroom, hot water only after boiling it, and beds made of plywood propped up on wooden blocks) in the middle of a dorm-style row of children’s rooms.  Children are always running and screaming just outside our door (sometimes they just open the door and walk in). Kids are often peering in our windows as we work on the computer, wash dishes or make coffee.  And I can’t work in the garden without fifteen little “helpers.”  Yet, somehow, this place feels a little more like “ours” because, together, we just invested in a refrigerator.


P.S.  We have created a sort of kitchen… plywood countertops propped up on wooden blocks, 3-electric burner hotplates for a stove, and a plastic basin and bucket with spout for a sink.  And now a fridge (though the fridge is in our bedroom because there’s not enough space for it in our kitchen – nor enough electricity).


Why three pots of buna?

Okay… as you can tell, we clearly stole a little inspiration for our title from the book, Three Cups of Tea.  Let me assure you that in our blog we will attempt to refrain from the exaggerations, self-aggrandizement, and alleged outright lies of Greg Mortenson (see 60 Minutes expose of a few months ago).  Despite the valiant efforts of friends (thanks, Henry and Kim), we were for the longest time stuck for a blog title.  We wanted something that would reflect Ethiopia, catch people’s attention, and yet wouldn’t seem horribly trite within six months.  It was Richelle’s brilliance that finally came through with this title.

So why “Three Pots of Buna”?  Buna is Amharic for coffee, Amharic is the national language of Ethiopia, and Ethiopia is the land of coffee.  As with many ancient lands in the world, much of ancient Ethiopian history merges on legend, and legend has it that Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee as a consumable beverage.  The story goes that a young boy named Kaldi in the Kaffa region of southwest Ethiopia was tending to his family goats in the field one day when he saw the goats dancing.  After observation of the goats for a few days, he found that the source of the goats dancing energy was some red berries on some nearby bushes.  He too consumed the berries, discovered the caffeine-energy that they produced, shared them with his village and… thus… coffee cultivation, consumption, and export throughout Ethiopia, then to the Middle East and eventually around the world (yes, the coffee “bean” is actually the seed in the center of a berry that grows on a bush… when you buy the non-export-qualify unroasted coffee beans here in the local market, you may have to extract some of the beans from their dried-up berries).

Ethiopia is not only the birthplace of coffee, but coffee is woven into the culture and into everyday life.  Coffee is brewed traditionally in a black earthen pot called a Jebuna.  During a traditional coffee ceremony, coffee beans are roasted over charcoal, then ground.  A handful or so of ground coffee is then poured into the top of the Jebuna and hot water is added.  The coffee is allowed to sit for a few minutes, and then coffee is poured into small cups and served (often some grass is placed at the top of the Jebuna to act as a filter to keep the grounds in as it’s poured… sometimes there is no filter and you simply enjoy some of the grounds with your coffee…).  While consuming the coffee, the people sit around, talk and often snack on popcorn that’s been sweetened with a little sugar.  While most Ethiopians take their coffee black with sugar, here in the Wolaita region of Ethiopia, the “old-timers” take their coffee black with salt and spiced butter added.  As an aside, also here in Wolaita region, we’ve learned a new way of understanding the Ethiopian phrase, shai-buna Shai is Amharic for tea, so when Ethiopians ask you if you want to sit down for either tea or coffee, they’ll sometimes ask, “Shall we go for shai-buna?” Apparently in Wolaita, shai-buna can literally mean one cup, half coffee, half tea. 

So why “Three pots…”? In a traditional coffee ceremony, the Jebuna is filled with hot water three times, using the same original grounds.  This usually means that those enjoying the coffee are served three rounds.  The first round is wefram (literally means fat); it’s very strong, as the grounds are fresh.  The second round is a little weaker, and the final round is k’ech’in (literally means thin).  When you visit someone’s home and you see them spread the grass on the ground, pull out the charcoal burner and start roasting coffee, you know you’re in for a long visit, because you’ll be leaving only after three pots of buna.  The coffee ceremony represents a lot about Ethiopia.  It’s a long, slow, social, traditional process steeped (or should I say, “brewed”) in centuries of history, in which Ethiopians take great pride.

I hope you’ll enjoy our blog as we write about our observations and experiences with Ethiopia, its culture, its landscape, and its people, as well as our life here at the CCC Children’s Home in Wolaita, Soddo.