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The best 'glimmers of hope' against climate change in Somalia

By Sara Jerving
Thursday September 29, 2022

Jerrycans lined up at a displacement camp in Baidoa, Somalia. Photo by: Sara Jerving / Devex

When drought hit Somalia in the past, those that reared livestock or grew crops typically stood a fighting chance to recover. The drought only claimed the lives of a portion of their animals and they only had to sell off some of their assets to stay afloat. A dry season was followed by a good rainy season, which served as a buffer to help people rebuild what was lost.

But that buffer is gone. Climate change is accelerating the frequency and severity of droughts and people are pummeled year after year with disaster until nothing is left. They leave rural areas, pouring into urban displacement camps with minimal job prospects, becoming dependent on aid.

Somalia is the second most climate-vulnerable country in the world. The country is currently on the brink of famine. Four rainy seasons in a row have failed — a climatic event not seen in at least 40 years. It's expected a fifth rainy season, due to start in October, will fall short, which would be unprecedented, and prospects for the rainy season next year are bleak. These freak events of nature are slated to become the new norm.

The situation is unsustainable. Humanitarian groups say donors are fatigued by the recurring crises. Government and development groups say they know how to begin turning this around — resilience programming that helps rural communities stay put instead of migrating to urban areas. But it's a matter of ensuring this programming is prioritized and receives adequate investment.

Bridging humanitarian and development work

About 60% of the population in Somalia is pastoralists. But the rural areas no longer have the pull they once had. 

Somalia has seen a threefold increase in severe climatic events since 1990, said Christophe Hodder, the United Nations’ climate expert for Somalia, with three major droughts since 2010, recurring flooding and more regular locust swarms that destroy crops. By 2080, it’s expected temperatures will rise by 3.4 degrees Celsius, with an additional 152 very hot days per year — where the maximum temperatures will surpass 35 degrees Celsius. It’s also expected that water availability will decline by half during that time. 

Somalia's Special Envoy for Drought Response Abdirahman Abdishakur said that over the past three years, close to $7 billion was spent on humanitarian responses in the country.

“If half of it was invested into resilience, we wouldn't be where we are today,” Abdishakur said, citing research which found that for every $1 spent on resilience, up to $7 can be saved on losses for disaster-affected communities.

“Once people lose their animals then they have no reason to stay in the rural areas. If their animals are alive, then they have a reason to stay behind and keep fighting,” he said.

“The red tapes and excruciating bureaucracy around the global funding for climate crisis mitigation and adaptation must be significantly reduced if not removed altogether.”

— Adam Aw Hirsi, Somalia’s minister of state for environment and climate change

But building resilience is not straightforward. The government is in the process of state building and the country is overwhelmed by al-Shabab’s insurgency, making huge swaths of the country inaccessible to the government and development workers. It also deters investors from building up job-creating industries.

Stronger communities

There are a variety of strategies to improve resilience that are at play in Somalia. Development and government groups told Devex some of these include rewilding of water catchment construction and rehabilitation of water infrastructure, including surface water catchments; flood defense walls; irrigation canals; mapping water sources and breakage points along rivers; rangeland restoration and improvements to soil health; as well as mangrove, cactus, and tree planting.

 “We need to bring back all of the rain, land management, and traditional Indigenous knowledge that often is lost because of decades of conflict and displacement. Trying to harness and bring back some of those traditional approaches linked with modern technologies such as GIS mapping is really key,” the U.N.’s Hodder said. 

It also includes encouraging farmers to grow resilient food crops and herders to use breeding practices that require less water. Communities are also encouraged to have contingency plans and receive training to monitor climate risks in their area to react more efficiently, and earlier, to natural hazards.

“Those programs blunt food insecurity and malnutrition, discourage internal displacement, provide employment to target communities, prevent youth from suicidal emigration to Europe and joining violent groups,” said Somalia’s Minister of State for Environment and Climate Change Adam Aw Hirsi.

The country needs “all the technical and financial support we can get from the international community,” he said. “Our people, like many others in this part of the world, are suffering from a climate crisis they have not contributed to.”

People must be reached with assistance in rural areas, before they flee for urban areas, said Daud Adan Jiran, country director for Mercy Corps in Somalia. This means support must come at the onset of a crisis. People also need options when drought hits, such as whether they should move or sell livestock or buy fodder — with systems built in place such as thriving livestock markets.

Cash is increasingly a mode of providing aid in Somalia. But while currently much of it is humanitarian cash transfers, some groups are working to create a broader safety system that extends beyond crisis.

The journey from guest to host

A consortium of nine national and international NGO members, led by the Norwegian Refugee Council, known as BRiCS, or Building Resilience in Communities in Somalia, has implemented over $242 million in resilience activities since 2013.

“We're observing glimmers of hope of improved resilience, specific in terms of water management and natural resource management,” said Perrine Piton, the head of the consortium.

One example is Laanle, a village in central Somalia, mainly populated by livestock owners. During the last major drought in 2017, 86% of village residents were displaced in pursuit of water.

The current drought hit this area hard again. But since the last drought, BRiCS invested $150,000 in a new water system, including drilling a borehole, powered by solar, a concrete storage tank, livestock drinking troughs, a pipeline and water points for residents, and water trucking to neighboring communities. The water is sold at a small fee for maintenance and the community has a volunteer water management committee to maintain the system.

Instead of fleeing the area, the village is actually hosting 3,000 people who are displaced from other communities.

“This community is showing signs of resilience,” Piton said. “People in the community that have been displaced by previous drought, including being displaced for significantly long periods to remote urban areas, are now able to stay where they are.”

In Guriel, another village in central Somalia, a borehole water system was improved by BRiCs that enabled a farmer’s cooperative to produce fodder for livestock through irrigation.

But not all projects have withstood the severity of this current drought. In Baidoa, an epicenter of the crisis, a BRCiS-constructed 25,500 cubic meter earth dam dried up.

Asked about how scalable these programs are, Piton said “it's not necessarily the most expensive programming because there is a lot of community contribution.” For example, one community funded a borehole through a bank loan, and BRiCs supported it with solar panels. BRiCs has also negotiated private sector deals to provide up to 60% of infrastructure costs.

A road map

These programs need a coordinated approach and long-term funding, Hodder said, with partnerships between development, humanitarian and peace-building actors, the government, and communities.

But aid organizations said it's often a struggle with donors, who are fixated on immediate humanitarian needs, and donors also don’t want funding to find its way into the hands of Al Shabaab. But there are workarounds, such as giving more authority to local organizations who can penetrate these restricted areas, development actors said.

Another barrier in the Somali government’s way is inadequate access to climate financing which requires strong governance systems and is not structured for fragile states, Hodder said.

“The red tapes and excruciating bureaucracy around the global funding for climate crisis mitigation and adaptation must be significantly reduced if not removed altogether,” Hirsi said.

And metrics need strengthening. Tjada D'Oyen McKenna, CEO at Mercy Corps, said the organization is working to raise funds to better measure resilience and track indicators over time.

“Resilience provides a roadmap,” said Jaafarsadiq Hassan, deputy chief of party at Mercy Corps Somalia. “We are able to paint a vision with the communities, as we walk that journey together.”


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