The failure of seasonal rains earlier this year in Somalia threatened more than two million people with hunger as their crops shrivelled in the fields and livestock died from the lack of water and pasture.
It was one of the driest rainy seasons in decades, and the UN issued an urgent call in May for $710 million in aid to help prevent the country tipping into starvation.
Now, it’s the reverse. Torrential rain pounded central Somalia last month, causing flash floods that have affected more than 547,000 people, forcing 370,000 from their homes.
Farmland and roads have been washed away in what is the country’s worst flooding in recent history, and diseases like malaria and diarrhoea are on the rise in the hardest-hit areas.
Somalia’s two rainy seasons – the Gu’ from April to June, and the Deyr from October to December – have dictated the lives of farmers and pastoralists for centuries.
But extremes, like the failure of the Gu’ and the exceptionally heavy Deyr, no longer seem so abnormal, and point to the growing impact of climate change in a country that, due to almost three decades of conflict, is already one of the world’s most vulnerable.
Somalia has been in a state of near-constant crisis since the overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Years of clan-based violence was largely supplanted by the rise in 2007 of al-Shabab – a jihadist group that has battled successive central governments it views as courrupt and beholden to the West.
The violence has caused waves of mass displacements, as have a series of droughts, with the worst in 2011 leading to famine in pockets of the country – made more acute by al-Shabab’s refusal to grant aid agencies access to the areas it controlled.
The 2019 Gu’ was the third driest in three decades, and the second consecutive below-average rainy season in a country still feeling the impact of a prolonged 2016-17 drought – when famine was only avoided due to a huge humanitarian response.
“Over the past 30 years, droughts have become more intense and frequent in Somalia, which also faces recurring flooding during the rainy seasons,” the UN’s emergency aid coordination office, OCHA, has warned.
Each climatic shock depletes people’s assets and reduces their ability to recover.
Hassan Ibrahim Ali is a farmer in Jowhar on the Shabelle River – a historically fertile area about 90 kilometres north of the capital, Mogadishu.
His farm was washed away when the river broke its banks in 2015 after days of heavy rain. But in the last two years – up until the October floods at least – drought had been his chief worry.
“We’ve had very little rain this season, much less than we had hoped for,” Ali told The New Humanitarian earlier this year. “That has really decreased the productivity of my farm.”
In March, Ali tilled and planted and waited for the Gu’ season, but what little rain did fall was far from enough.
Before Somalia collapsed into civil war in 1991, a system of canals channelled water from the Shabelle to irrigate the surrounding farmland. But the canals have fallen into disrepair, and rehabilitating them is far too expensive an undertaking for local farmers.
“I cannot afford to water my whole farm that way. If I did, I will have to sell that rice at a price no one can afford.”
Ali was forced to rely on an irrigation pump to water his farm – a prohibitively costly method given the price of fuel. But it was either that or miss another harvest season.
That was not even an option for Abdulahi Hussein Sheikh, who grows rice – or used to anyway – on the outskirts of Jowhar. “I cannot afford to water my whole farm that way,” Sheikh said. “If I did, I will have to sell that rice at a price no one can afford. So I had no choice but to abandon my rice farm this year.”
Money going on other things
In the aftermath of the 2016-2017 drought, the new federal government of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (Farmajo) – with the support of the EU, the UN, and the World Bank – put together a recovery and resilience framework to guide future policy.
The principle finding of the “Somalia Drought Impact and Needs Assessment” was that Somalia is undergoing a climate emergency in which droughts, floods, and desertification are wreaking havoc on the country’s livestock and farming sectors, which have sustained people for centuries.
Water, whether too little or too much, is at the heart of this crisis – and the UN has warned that the situation will worsen.
The report recommended urgent water management initiatives to improve Somalia’s irrigation facilities. These included: better use of floodwater; and the rehabilitation and construction of water harvesting systems – typically used to capture and store rainwater.
But since the publication of the report in April 2018, very few of those recommendations have been implemented.
One big stumbling block is the lack of money. Somalia is one of the world’s poorest countries, with capital spending accounting for just three percent of total expenditure, according to the World Bank.
The United States, the biggest bilateral donor, spends virtually all of its aid money on the emergency response and on the conflict, peace, and security sectors.
With 4.2 million people in need, largely as a result of long-running displacement, humanitarian aid is by far the biggest ticket item for the international community. This assistance is for shorter-term needs rather than longer-duration development projects.
“If we want to talk about the longer-term solutions that are going to help Somalia better adapt to climate volatility and climate change, that is going to take multi-year investments,” said Andrew Lanyon, resilience and social protection coordinator with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.
The FAO is running three projects in the Shabelle region of South West State and Jubaland State focusing on the rehabilitation of irrigation systems and water catchment areas.
But Lanyon conceded that this level of rehabilitation is way short of what is required to deal with the scale of Somalia’s water crisis.
Experts like Lanyon suggest that major infrastructure and public works projects like dams to capture and control excess water are what is really needed to help change the lives of farmers like Ali and Sheikh.
But that runs into a second major problem – the insecurity in the countryside as a result of al-Shabab, for whom rural development projects would be tempting targets.
Al-Shabab remains a “formidable fighting force” despite years of operations against it by the African Union’s military intervention, known as AMISOM, and Western special forces, according to a June report by the International Crisis Group.
“Today, you secure an area, but you’re not very sure that tomorrow it will be secure.”
“The problem is the level of unpredictability,” AMISOM spokesman Charles Imbiakha told TNH. “Today, you secure an area, but you’re not very sure that tomorrow it will be secure. And that’s why those periodic attacks are still happening in Somalia.”
Climate change in Somalia is increasingly a national security issue, according to a report released last month by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Displacement as a result of drought, and growing tensions between herders, farmers, and clans allow al-Shabab to exploit the “grievances of the population that stem from weather-related losses”, the report noted. As a result, “insurgent groups gain recruitment opportunities and [their] political narratives gain support”, it added.
Another layer of complexity is the difficult working relationships between the federal government and Somalia’s six autonomous states, which all resent Mogadishu’s urge to centralise control.
“Even if the international community wanted to invest in large-scale infrastructure projects outside Mogadishu, the complicated working relationship and distrust between Mogadishu and member states would discourage them,” Zakaria Yusuf, a political analyst with the ICG, told TNH.
How difficult the politics of water can be is underlined by the recently drafted National Water Act. It calls for the establishment of a new National Water Resource Authority to take charge of all issues related to water management, but it has been mired in a complicated turf war.
The Senate is currently debating the remit of the new authority: some legislators want to maintain the powers of the existing Federal Ministry of Energy and Water Resources, while the Act grants more control to the proposed National Water Resource Authority.
Exactly when the Water Act will be signed into law is anybody’s guess.
How it will be implemented, given the weakness of the Somali state, is yet another concern.
The federal government is unable to enforce even existing environmental laws, like a ban on charcoal and firewood exports dating back to 1969. And the exploitation of products like acacia bussei, a slow-growing hardwood, have more than just an ecological impact: al-Shabab is known to be taking a cut of the multimillion-dollar trade.
Additional reporting by Abdishakur Abdullahi Ahmed in JOWHAR, Somalia.