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Somalia: displaced persons and residents are struggling with a severe drought

10-02-2011 Interview

A severe drought is aggravating the woes of Somalia, a country that has been ravaged by conflict for over two decades. Thousands of Somalis flee their homes every year in search of safety and shelter elsewhere. Ottavio Sardu, an ICRC agronomist explains how the drought is affecting both displaced and resident communities.

How does the current drought affect the lives of the Somali people, who are already suffering from the consequences of armed violence and conflict?

Ninety percent of Somali agriculture depends on rain, so it's badly weakened by the current drought. You can get an idea of the scale of the problem by looking at the Bay region, which is usually the sorghum provider for Somalia. We estimate that 70% of the next harvest will be lost. And that's just an example.

This not only affects the farmers, herders are suffering just as much. They will have less pasture for their livestock and their animals will become weaker and less responsive to vaccination. When this happens, herders try to move their livestock to better areas. That means that more animals are grazing on smaller patches of land and disease spreads more easily. Livestock production – meat and milk – will decrease owing to higher mortality rates. Already 5 to 10% of the cattle have died.   

Even people living along water courses are threatened. For instance, in Shebele the river level is already too low to allow gravity-driven irrigation. So production is at risk there too.

Somalia was still recovering from the previous drought in 2006 and the inadequate rainy seasons that followed when the current drought set in. The most vulnerable people, such as children, old people and those who have fled their homes, will once again be the ones who suffer the most from food shortages.   

You have recently come back from northern Somalia, where the ICRC has been assisting 15,000 people, both displaced and local residents. How would you describe the situation there?

I went to Garowe, a very dry region with poor soil. The vegetables and grain consumed there are brought in by traders. Prices were already high since the war has considerably hindered travel by the traders. Skimpy rainfall this past year caused a further price rise. Since October, prices have gone up by as much as 50%. Many people can no longer afford to buy vegetables and grain, and this is likely to cause serious malnutrition.

We estimate that around 6,000 displaced people are living in Garowe, having fled the fighting in the southern part of the country. Most of the residents are herders; 10% are fishermen or farmers. We had focused aid on displaced people and local farmers. Most displaced people have only basic agricultural skills. When we first talked to them, they weren't interested in our help since they hoped they were going to go home soon. With time, they realized that they might have to stay longer than they had thought. So they started farming but were poorly equipped, for example they had low-quality pumps and uncertified seeds. Once they realized that this wasn't enough, they asked us for help and we gave them vegetable seed – carrot, onion, cucumber and tomato – to cover their own food needs and produce a surplus to sell on local markets. The most recent survey shows that the people we aided are now growing almost 60% of the agricultural production in the area.

Simply distributing seeds is not enough, however. You need to develop skills and help ease poor local conditions to improve harvests. We therefore set up an irrigation system and taught people to plant their own gardens. We also distributed irrigation pumps, sprayers and pesticide. In Puntland last year, we assisted almost 3,000 households, that is, about 18,000 people.

Only six months ago, several regions of the country were hit by flooding. How does the ICRC adapt its agricultural aid to such difficult climatic conditions?

We don't introduce any new kind of seed or new technologies. Rather, we try to support existing coping mechanisms. The Somalis developed their system of agriculture and herding in order to be able to survive floods and droughts. That system combines animal husbandry in a fixed settlement with seasonal cultivation of rain-fed crops. Surpluses can't be counted on so the system tends to favour subsistence rather than cash-crop production.  

Farmers maximize production to offset shortages caused by drought and flooding, good years and bad. The surplus produced is stored in the bakaar, an underground grain store, and the food reserve helps deal with hard times and avoid famine. The system used to be so efficient that during famines the farmers/herders could sell part of their surplus to nomads. The famine of 1991-92 actually resulted from these bakaar being looted, not from any natural disaster.

Helping the displaced people in Garowe plant their own gardens and produce a surplus for sale fits exactly into the Somali agricultural tradition. In the south and central regions, which used to be the country's bread basket, in 2010 we've distributed vegetable seed and locally purchased tools to 135,000 residents and displaced people, and seed for staple crops more widely, ultimately benefiting 350,000 people. We've also repaired and upgraded existing irrigation works in all central regions from Galgudud to Lower Juba, benefiting 14,000 people.

Doesn't the free distribution of seed and tools prevent the development of the local market in Somalia?

Not if agricultural needs are correctly assessed. The criterion we use is vulnerability – vulnerable people don't have the means to obtain the goods they need. So far, the market in Garowe, for example, can't provide tools and seed in either adequate quantity or quality. Once we have helped them improve their skills, it's usually our beneficiaries themselves who express the desire to have higher-quality seed and tools. Since the policy of the ICRC is to purchase locally as much as possible, we actually give a boost to the local market. Then the various communities, with the money they earn from cash crops, can maintain ongoing demand for better quality. In that respect, we are in a way part of the development process.

What is the impact of ICRC agriculture aid in Somalia?

Unfortunately, the future of Somali agriculture remains uncertain. In 2010, the ICRC aided about one million people through livelihood projects such as rebuilding river banks and distributing fishing kits. The two main objectives have been to ensure subsistence and to increase the household income, depending on the situation in the field.  

In 2010, our aid led to an estimated grain production of 23,000 metric tonnes, which covers 5.2% of Somalia's current shortfall in grain production. That is a huge achievement for a single organization, and a good omen for the future of agriculture in Somalia. Nevertheless, clearly too many people still depend on humanitarian aid.  

 

Emergency water-trucking to half a million people hit by drought  

Somalia is in the grip of an extremely severe drought after the rainy season in November/December proved totally inadequate. Most parts of Somalia are affected by the drought, which is unusual for the country. Water supplies have dwindled and cattle have started to die in several regions. The ICRC is currently delivering water to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people and local residents in the affected areas. This operation, conducted simultaneously throughout the country, is the biggest ever carried out by the ICRC.

"The drought is exacerbating the grave plight of millions of Somalis whose suffering in the past two decades of conflict has become chronic," said Alexandre Farine, head of the ICRC's water and habitat unit for Somalia. "The effects of the drought may become even worse since the dry season is only starting and no rains are expected until April at the earliest."

 The ICRC operation provides drinking and cooking water and water that should also save livestock that would otherwise die. More than half a million people in 11 regions, from northern Bari to southern Juba, are benefiting from the operation, which started in November. The ICRC stands ready to step up the operation if needed.


Photos

Bakool province. Displaced people, mainly single female heads of families, waiting to receive tomato and sorghum seed. They will also receive leaflets on how to optimize production. 

Bakool province. Displaced people, mainly single female heads of families, waiting to receive tomato and sorghum seed. They will also receive leaflets on how to optimize production.
© ICRC / Y. Van Loo

Nugaal province, Garowe. Field ready for planting. Most of the farmers aided by the ICRC in the area are internally displaced urban dwellers from southern Somalia who had little agricultural knowledge. They receive irrigation pumps and advice. 

Nugaal province, Garowe. Field ready for planting. Most of the farmers aided by the ICRC in the area are internally displaced urban dwellers from southern Somalia who had little agricultural knowledge. They receive irrigation pumps and advice.
© ICRC / O. Sardu

Nugaal province, Garowe. Lettuce production in soil watered by an ICRC pump. 

Nugaal province, Garowe. Lettuce production in soil watered by an ICRC pump.
© ICRC / O. Sardu