Somalia: drought and conflict limit the country’s vast agricultural potential

11-09-2009 Interview

For almost 20 years, Somalia has been ravaged by war. It is also a victim of the drought that has afflicted the Horn of Africa in recent years. Henri Maindiaux is an agricultural specialist who has just completed a two-year assignment in the country. Here, he explains the programmes developed by the ICRC to re-start agricultural production and ease people’s suffering.

©ICRC/P. Yazdi/so-e-00082    
Bakool region, near Hudur. Dried-up waterhole.    

©ICRC/W. Gundolf/so-e-00057    
Bas Shabelle region. Renovating an irrigation system.    

©ICRC/P. Yazdi/so-e-00082    
Baadley, Bas Shabelle region. Various types of seed distributed by the ICRC.    
Henri Maindiaux    

     What have been the consequences of the drought for Somalia?

The worst-hit areas have been the central regions and a wide strip along the border with Ethiopia, which stretches up to Kenya. They have experienced very low rainfall for more than two years. As a result, harvests have been meagre and cattle are in a poor condition, which has a direct impact on people's food security.    

The last long rainy season – from April to the end of June – was poor. Rainfall was very low, even non-existent in the central regions and along the border with Ethiopia. Rainfall has also been lower than average in the rest of the country, in particular in the southern regions near the coast. But nevertheless it did rain and so those people can expect a harvest of sorts.

In addition, people have been displaced by the worsening security conditions. Some have left the big cities seeking refuge among their respective clans in the rural regions, thus increasing the number of inhabitants in places already suffering from reduced agricultural production.

Levels of malnutrition are high in relation to international standards, and are a particular problem among children. The ICRC, one of the few humanitarian organizations working in Somalia, has just opened a feeding programme in the Galgadud region, in the middle of the country. The programme operates in cooperation with the Somali Red Crescent Society.

A whole section of the Somali population – those who receive no financial help from family members living abroad – is now dependent on humanitarian aid.

 What is the ICRC’s response in terms of agricultural projects?  

First of all, we distribute food-producing seeds - sorghum, maize, niébé (a small bean) and sesame. For the last long rainy season, 23,000 households each received 15 kg of seed. We also gave them food so that they wouldn’t be forced to eat the seed. In October, for the short rainy season which lasts until mid-December, 20,000 more families will receive similar aid.

We also distribute market-garden seeds – six varieties of veg etables – in suitable regions, in partnership with the Somali Red Crescent where possible. We identify the beneficiaries in consultation with local communities and their representatives (elders, traditional leaders). The aim is to re-start agricultural production.

The longer-term goal is to help rebuild agricultural infrastructure, such as settling tanks, irrigation channels and irrigated perimeters. We build small locks at the head of the channels to improve their operation. We build bridges over the channels so carts can cross without damaging them. We also distribute pumps and help make covers to protect them. Some 8,000 people have already benefited from these irrigation programmes this year, mainly in the south of the country.

What are the benefits of having an agricultural specialist on hand?

These programmes cannot be run without proper agricultural expertise. We need to be able to respond appropriately to people’s needs yet take account of the country’s wide range of climates – the north is very dry, with oasis agriculture. In the south, along water courses, and even in Bay and Bakool and in the central regions, there are many possibilities for irrigated agriculture. Twenty years ago, there were huge areas of rice fields, banana trees and sugar cane. Then there are all the central regions beside rivers, which are no longer irrigated, where rain-fed farming is possible during the two rainy seasons - if rainfall is good.

 What are the main challenges experienced during these projects? How do you overcome them?  

The main ob stacle is that poor security conditions limit our access to certain regions. If our Somali colleagues are able to enter areas we expatriates cannot, we exchange assessment reports and photographs over the internet, and decide what action should be taken from a distance. Luckily, the internet and the telephone work well.

 What is your most surprising memory from your two-year assignment in Somalia?

I remember a surprising place south of Belet Weyn, alongside the Shabelle River. There is a small plantation of fruit trees, with bananas, guavas, lemons and grapefruit. Vegetables are grown between the trees. It is a real oasis of peace at the heart of a country ravaged by 20 years of war. Yes, Somalia has huge potential.