• East Africa;
  • drought indices;
  • Palmer drought severity index;
  • Bhalme–Mooley index;
  • standardized precipitation index;
  • precipitation


This study analysed and modified (where necessary) the properties of three drought indices: the Palmer drought severity index (PDSI), the Bhalme–Mooley index (BMI) and the standardized precipitation index (SPI). We modified the original PDSI's recursive formula, potential runoff, and Z index, which produced more realistic results than the original PDSI (designed for the USA) for East Africa. We improved the SPI by first using a plotting position formula designed for the Pearson type III (P3) distribution to transform the ‘smoothed’ precipitation data into non-exceedance probabilities, which we then transformed into standard P3 variates by the regional flood index method. The modified SPI depicted East Africa's drought conditions more accurately than the original SPI. Using the three indices and East Africa as a case example, we identified eight assessment criteria to determine the most appropriate index for detecting drought events on a regional basis. BMI produced results that are highly correlated to those of the modified PDSI, which suggested that precipitation alone could explain most of the variability of East African droughts. Furthermore, among the three indices, SPI is more appropriate for monitoring East African droughts because it is more easily adapted to the local climate, has modest data requirements, can be computed at almost any time scale, provides relatively consistent power spectra spatially, has no theoretical upper or lower bounds, and is easy to interpret. Copyright © 2003 Royal Meteorological Society