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Spatio-temporal analysis of droughts in the Lake Chilwa Basin, Malawi


Drought phenomena are attributed to water availability deficit that is caused by low precipitation. However, droughts are quite complex and cannot simply be defined on the basis of precipitation as other factors may have an influence. In this study, we investigated the spatio-temporal patterns of droughts in Lake Chilwa Basin, an endorheic lake basin that has recently experienced major recurrent lake recessions. The standardized precipitation index (SPI) and standardized precipitation evapotranspiration index (SPEI) at 6- and 12-month timescales were used to evaluate drought severity variations from 1970 to 2018, in relation to the recessions. The stationarity difference in rainfall between 1973 to 1995 and 1996 to 2018 and climatological trends were tested using Mann-Whitney and Mann-Kendall tests, respectively. The El Niño Southern Oscilation (ENSO) influence on rainfall was also investigated. In general, the results show a statistically insignificant decreasing rainfall trend, coupled with statistically significant temperature increase (α=0.05). In addition, both indices broadly detected droughts within similar category ranges and variation patterns, suggesting minimal influence of temperature on droughts compared to rainfall. The study also reveals that not every ENSO event leads to low rainfall in the basin. It is further shown that unlike past major recessions, e.g., 1994/95, recent lake dry-ups of 2012 and 2015 were as a result of milder droughts. Moreover, the trigger threshold of lake dry-ups is shown to have shifted; such that average annual rainfall below 1000mm is likely to yield a dry-up in recent times than before, which may be attributable to anthropogenic pressure.

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We further acknowledge the Malawi Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services (DCCMS) for kindly providing the climate data.

Data, material, and code availability

Meteorological data used for this study can be accessed through the link provided below. Additional data, material or code used can be provided upon request to the authors if needed,


This work was financially supported by the project ‘Building REsearch Capacity for sustainable water and food security In dry lands of Sub-Saharan Africa’ (BRECcIA) which is supported by UK Research and Innovation as part of the Global Challenges Research Fund, grant number NE/P021093/1.

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O. Kambombe took lead of the research, analyzed, did literature review, and drafted the initial manuscript.

C. Ngongondo took lead in the supervision, guided research direction, and assisted in the writing and editing of the manuscript.

L. Eneya contributed in the supervision, provided research direction, and assisted in the writing and editing of the manuscript.

M. Monjerezi contributed in the supervision, provided research direction, and assisted in the writing and editing of the manuscript.

C. Boyce provided most of the meteorological data used for the study and assisted in the writing and editing of the manuscript.

The listed authors have made a significant contribution to warrant their being part of authorship and have approved the work.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Oscar Kambombe.

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Kambombe, O., Ngongondo, C., Eneya, L. et al. Spatio-temporal analysis of droughts in the Lake Chilwa Basin, Malawi. Theor Appl Climatol 144, 1219–1231 (2021).

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