Young boy standing and holding handle of covered wagon
Turiyali, 9, at Torkham crossing, on Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. | Credit: Sayed Habib Bidell / United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

FEWS NET Scientists Investigate Why El Niño Precipitation Expectations Fall Short in Afghanistan

More Accurate Predictions Can Help Prevent and Address Food Insecurity
By Avalon Gordy

An El Niño-driven boost in precipitation anticipated for Central Southwest Asia has fallen short, with some parts of Afghanistan experiencing historically low levels of rain and snowfall since October 2023–leaving scientists to wonder why this season was so unpredictable.

While there is still a chance of elevated precipitation through March, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Physical Sciences Laboratory with the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) said they were hopeful El Niño would ease water deficits in Afghanistan earlier in the year.

This area of the world has been dry, and we were hoping for relief this year, and we have not seen relief thus far. The amount of snowpack is at record low levels for this time of year.

NOAA research meteorologist and FEWS NET principal investigator Andrew Hoell

Image

Map showing precipitation forecasts across Central Southwest Asia
This figure shows the precipitation forecast across Central Southwest Asia from October through December 2023.

El Niño events are associated with above-average precipitation patterns in Central Southwest Asia, while La Niña has the opposite effect, bringing below-average precipitation to the region. These behaviors allow climate researchers to monitor and assess potential seasonal outcomes months in advance. 

Three consecutive La Niña events from 2020–2023 led to below-average precipitation in Afghanistan, while above-average temperatures driven by climate change exacerbated the dry conditions, resulting in a multi-year drought. Despite previous years of climate predictability, during this season's El Niño event, the unlikely outcome occurred in Afghanistan: instead of the anticipated above-average precipitation associated with an El Niño event, the region is facing persistent dry conditions. 

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Map showing precipitation observed across Central Southwest Asia
This figure shows observed precipitation across Central Southwest Asia from October through December 2023.

Afghanistan relies heavily on cold-seasonal rain and snowmelt to support water resources, agriculture, and livestock. High temperatures combined with low precipitation have caused any built-up snowpack to melt away, and with water in short supply, livelihoods are dramatically affected.

"The effect on the ground is pretty profound. We've had a decrease in soil moisture from where we were even last summer," said Hoell.

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Dried ground with some grass growing put lots of patches
Below-average precipitation has persisted across Afghanistan in provinces such as Helmand, as shown here.

Minimal groundwater from limited precipitation is a major concern for food security in Afghanistan. Three years of drought prompted farmers to extract significant amounts of groundwater reservoirs for agricultural needs. Consequently, the groundwater levels have steadily declined each year, leading to reductions in water quality and quantity. 

"The recent drought and weather extremes have added another layer of acute food insecurity in all drought-affected areas, especially the areas where they are chronically food insecure,” said Mohammad Fahim Zaheer, a FEWS NET regional scientist with the University of California, Santa Barbara Climate Hazards Center

Climate extremes are one of many drivers of acute food insecurity in Afghanistan. Evolving political and economic turmoil, population displacement, and an influx of returning refugees have reinforced the urgent need for humanitarian aid across the country. 

"In certain environments where weather extremes and drought are the main drivers of acute food insecurity, the erratic precipitation is making the lives of scientists and decision makers a bit challenging," Zaheer said. "They are struggling to see exactly how the season will progress and how it will drive further saturation of food insecurity in the country, and how they will manage it in terms of needs and humanitarian assistance."

FEWS NET Scientists Assess the Occurrence of Low-likelihood Outcomes in Afghanistan

Ground observations are scarce in Afghanistan. With the absence of a dense meteorological network, research and weather forecasts are primarily conducted using remote sensing technology that tracks precipitation via satellite. 

The NOAA Physical Sciences Laboratory team uses a machine-learning-based technique to make forecasts and determine how El Niño and the Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO) lead to precipitation. This method is one of many used to produce FEWS NET seasonal outlooks. By using all of the available data, scientists like Melissa Breeden can develop forecasts for a variety of outcomes, ranging from the least to most likely. 

“Conveying forecasts in this manner–as a range of potential outcomes–is important for the long lead times we focus on, given the inherent uncertainty in making forecasts at this timescale,” Breeden said. “Due to the chaotic nature of the earth system, forecasting precipitation three weeks in advance is a different problem than forecasting three days in advance, for example.”

Looking ahead, Breeden and Hoell will focus on pinpointing the key drivers that shape the most probable forecasts for climate trends. In the case of Afghanistan, they will evaluate why a low-likelihood outcome, such as below-average precipitation, occurred during an El Niño event. They will also explore methods to anticipate these less common conditions in advance, aiming to make more accurate and informative forecasts. 

“A deeper predictive understanding of Afghanistan’s weather and climate will allow us to make more informed forecasts than are currently available to guide scenarios of future food insecurity,” Breeden said. 

FEWS NET will continue to monitor the ongoing El Niño and precipitation conditions in Afghanistan. Subscribe to FEWS NET updates to receive agroclimatology and food security forecasts directly in your inbox, and follow FEWS NET on X (formerly known as Twitter) and Facebook for the latest updates.

Country
Afghanistan
Strategic Objective
Adaptation, Mitigation
Topics
Agriculture, Climate Science, Food Security, Water and Sanitation, Weather
Region
Middle East & North Africa

Avalon Gordy

Avalon Gordy is a Communications Specialist for the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) Data, Learning, and Communications Hub. She received her B.A. in Journalism from Florida Gulf Coast University. Gordy has experience in journalistic writing, broadcast news media, and digital content creation.

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