Changing water availability during the African maize-growing season, 1979-2010

Lyndon D. Estes, Nathaniel W. Chaney, Julio Herrera-Estrada, Justin Sheffield, Kelly K. Caylor, Eric F. Wood

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Understanding how global change is impacting African agriculture requires a full physical accounting of water supply and demand, but accurate, gridded data on key drivers (e.g., humidity) are generally unavailable. We used a new bias-corrected meteorological dataset to analyze changes in precipitation (supply), potential evapotranspiration (Ep, demand), and water availability (expressed as the ratio P/Ep) in 20 countries (focusing on their maize-growing regions and seasons), between 1979 and 2010, and the factors driving changes in Ep. Maizegrowing areas in Southern Africa, particularly South Africa, benefitted from increased water availability due in large part to demand declines driven primarily by declining net radiation, increasing vapor pressure, and falling temperatures (with no effect from changing windspeed), with smaller increases in supply. Sahelian zone countries in West Africa, as well as Ethiopia in East Africa, had strong increases in availability driven primarily by rainfall rebounding from the long-term Sahelian droughts, with little change or small reductions in demand. However, intraseasonal supply variability generally increased in West and East Africa. Across all three regions, declining net radiation contributed downwards pressure on demand, generally over-riding upwards pressure caused by increasing temperatures, the regional effects of which were largest in East Africa. A small number of countries, mostly in or near East Africa (Tanzania and Malawi) experienced declines in water availability primarily due to decreased rainfall, but exacerbated by increasing demand. Much of the reduced water availability in East Africa occurred during the more sensitive middle part of the maize-growing season, suggesting negative consequences for maize production.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number075005
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 1 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


  • maize
  • sub-Saharan Africa
  • trends
  • water demand
  • water supply


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