Breaking down the decade of drought in Somalia

January 22, 2020
Written by Olivia Giovetti
Photo by Kieran McConville

Over ten years of drought in Somalia has left nearly 50% of the country hungry.

Somalia began the decade with the worst drought the region had seen for decades. And from there it would only get worse. 2015 saw the start of a drought still going on today. In fact, since 2011, Somalia has had only one proper rainy season, in 2013, with all other years falling far short of the norm of two rainy seasons per year. 

Conflict and displacement prevent us from getting accurate hunger data for Somalia, but there is significant cause for concern. Fighting disrupts access to food, and over 2.6 million people (nearly 20% of the country’s population) are internally displaced, owing to violence, flooding, and food insecurity. Somalia’s child mortality rate of 12.7% is the highest among all countries surveyed in 2019. 

One of the significant drivers amid all of this is Somalia’s longstanding history of drought. Let’s take a look at how this climate disaster is becoming the country’s new normal, and how drought in Somalia has left nearly 50% of the country hungry.

Dead livestock in Somaliland

The carcasses of hundreds of dead sheep and goats litter the landscape in Somaliland, a self-declared, autonomous region of Somalia, as pasture and water supplies disappear across the Horn of Africa. Photo: Kieran McConville

2010-11: The worst drought in 60 years…

Situated in the Horn of Africa, Somalia is mostly arid, as monsoon winds lose their moisture by the time they reach the area. However, the drought of 2010-11 was of a different magnitude than those that often come in due to the El Niño weather cycle. It was the worst drought for 60 years and triggered an official declaration of famine.

2012: While lives were saved, an estimated 260,000 were lost

International donors and governments were slow to release funds in response to the famine declaration and this hampered the humanitarian response.  While many lives were saved, an estimated 260,000 were lost during the famine between 2010 and 2012. Half of them were children under the age of 5. 

Half of all lives lost during the 2010-11 drought were children under the age of 5.

2012-14: Breaking the cycle of crisis-and-response

It’s hard to understate the importance of sustained investments in medium- and long-term interventions to reduce community vulnerability in the face of food insecurity. As countries like Somalia accept that many effects of climate change are irreversible (despite the fact that they often have the least to do with causing climate change). Preventative work is the only way to get out of the cycle of crisis-and-response. 

In 2011, Concern began working with farmers to rehabilitate eroded land and implement rainwater harvesting techniques so that disasters, when they strike, are minimized. In 2012, we launched our Farmer Field Schools program. Farmers like Sheikh Muhumed Dhinbil Cumar (who come from 12 or 13 generations of farmers before) were able to cultivate 50% more land, abandoning old staples like the acacia tree and shrub brush in favor of more climate-friendly crops like citrus trees, peanuts, and black-eyed peas. 

Somali people displaced by hunger

New arrivals to Mogadishu, Somalia, rest on open ground. The number of families being displaced by drought and hunger are steadily increasing. Photo: Kieran McConville

2015-16: No water, no work

The 2015-16 El Niño events are significant in this context for setting off another period of prolonged drought. In fact, as of this writing, the late 2015 “long rains” was the last rainy season to not fall below average for the country.  When the water has come, most of it races off the dry earth rather than soaking into the ground. 

For a population that primarily earns money by growing crops or raising sheep, goats, and cows (selling whatever isn’t consumed for survival to cover school books, health clinic bills, and other vital costs), these low rainfalls brought chaos to families already living in extreme poverty. 

2016: Seven failures and a nervous wait

In March of 2016, Sheikh Muhumed Dhinbil Cumar and his neighbors waited in anticipation for rain. But once again, for the seventh straight season, their hopes would be dashed by more meager rainfall.

Some preparations were in place: boreholes drilled in places where there were ground reserves, and catchments to save water that would otherwise run away. Concern also began trucking water from boreholes to lined earth pits that, in better times, catch water for remote communities. 

But the prolonged absence of adequate rainfall meant that families were still missing meals or eating less in a bid to stretch what they have in an area underserved by public services like education and healthcare. When the rains fail, young men often head to towns and cities in search of jobs. But there aren’t many opportunities for them there, because they haven’t got the right skills. Many leave behind households where a single woman looks after children and older relatives. 

Concern staff members Hawa Wehliye and Ibrahim Ambar

Concern staff members Hawa Wehliye and Ibrahim Ambar sit in front of goods donated by other Concern team members.

Early 2017: The new “worst drought in decades” 

By 2017, it was the new “worst drought in decades,” leaving more than half of all Somalis — a staggering 6.7 million — urgently in need of food assistance. 

So bad was the situation that the entire Concern  Somalia team deducted 10% of their own salaries to support the effort. The money was sent by mobile phone transfers to families in urgent need.  Half a million people were at immediate risk for starvation. Staff member Ambar, summed it up quietly and succinctly: “They are our brothers and sisters — how can we not help?”

“They are our brothers and sisters — how can we not help?” — Ibrahim Ambar, Concern Somalia staff member

Fall 2017: “Long rains” do nothing to shorten drought

The much anticipated “long” rains finally arrived at the end of 2017, but they weren’t enough to make a significant difference. 

By this point, the drought in Somalia had also brought with it outbreaks of cholera and diarrhea, as well as the worst measles outbreak in years — infecting some 16,000. Under normal circumstances, deaths from these illnesses can be prevented. Dehydration and hunger left many too weak to reach medical centers or fight off infections.

2018-2020: Famine averted, but the crisis continues

Somalia managed to avoid a famine in 2017, thanks to timely intervention and the use of cash transfers to support people through the hungriest months.

However, Somalia continues to struggle on a number of fronts, including the cruel combination of drought and floods. The 2019 rainy season was delayed and then came the devastation of torrential and sustained rainfall which overwhelmed many Somali communities and led to significant loss of life and destruction of property. This kind of rain does not help.

Currently, 2.2 million Somalis are at crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity, with many households in certain parts of the country still at reduced capacities in terms of crop yields and livestock herds. Many pastoralists with small herds have accumulated substantial debts, and will therefore face large periods of food gaps in the coming months. In mid-2019, the United Nations predicted that Somalia would see a 40% increase in hungry households compared to the beginning of the year. 

Funds are desperately needed to roll out infrastructural projects that mitigate the worst effects of the region’s new normal of erratic weather patterns, droughts, floods, uncertain planting dates, and shorter growing periods. Without a long-term commitment that focuses on the root causes of hunger and malnutrition, history can still repeat itself.

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