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Somalia: after the drought, heavy rains complicate the humanitarian situation

03-06-2010 Interview

After 20 years of war, the dire humanitarian situation in Somalia continues to worsen. The security climate is precarious, weather conditions have aggravated the problem of food insecurity, and water-related diseases are on the rise. Alexandre Farine, the ICRC’s water and habitat coordinator in Somalia, has just returned from a visit to the centre of the country.

©ICRC/A. Farine 
A water point in Garazle, in Galgaduud region (central Somalia). 
©ICRC/A. Farine 
Rainwater reservoir built by the ICRC in Hananburo (central Somalia). 
Water being distributed to displaced families in Galgaduud region in 2009. 
Drought in the Muduq region (central Somalia) in 2008. 

 Will the rains now falling in Somalia bring an end to the problems stemming from water scarcity in the central region after three years of drought?  


No, not really. The rains are very heavy, and, after three years without rainfall, the ground is parched and cannot absorb the water. So the water simply runs off, sweeping away whatever lies in its path – including crops. The ground is literally being washed by the rain.

Small lakes are forming here and there, but the water isn't clean because it hasn’t been filtered naturally. The lakes are a boon to herders, though, who can use the water for their animals and for household purposes such as cooking. But they drink the water too, and this gives rise to water-related diseases. That's why the onset of the rainy season can lead to the outbreak of illnesses like cholera. The ICRC has seen this happen before, and we've already stocked chlorine at the water points in case they need to be disinfected.

 How does the ICRC help the people gain access to drinking water?  


People living in the central region of Galgaduud have suffered from a crippling drought in recent years. The ICRC responded to this emergency by launching a major initiative to distribute drinking water with tanker trucks. For six weeks – from mid-March to the end of April – we helped more than 100,000 Somalis who had no other way to procure water.

Over the past few years, the ICRC has also given local communities a hand in fixing and renovating existing wells. In Galgaduud region we are completing work on the Xeraale and Garazle wells. These two wells will provide drinking water to over 17,000 people. So far this year, the ICRC’s water projects have helped around 300,000 people in Somalia. In 2009, our efforts reached 800,000 Somalis.

During my visit to the region I checked on some of the older projects too. The Balanbal well in Galgaduud region and the Matabaan well in Hiran region, both of which were completed in 2001, are still working. The same is true of the Abudwaq well, which was dug in 2003, and the Ceel Abshir well, completed in 2006. The people who use the wells clearly recognize the importance of keeping them in good working order. They have managed to do just that without any outside assistance during these difficult years.

 What are the main problems you encounter when carrying out these projects?  


The armed conflict is really putting the local infrastructure to the test, and hundreds of projects are proposed. Our first task is to identify priority projects that will reach particularly vulnerable people in more densely populated areas. Selecting the projects is no easy task in the face of such daunting needs.

The other challenge has to do with safety because of the ongoing conflict in the country. Often we can't make as many field visits as we'd like, and some areas are simply off limits for much of the year. This makes it very difficult to monitor our efforts in the field. We have to strike a balance between the risks we take and the impact we seek. Without our close working relatio nship with the Somali Red Crescent Society and our Somali colleagues’ expertise, the ICRC would be unable to work in this country.

 What strikes you most about the Somali people?  


Despite 20 years of fighting, Somali civilians continue building a life for themselves. People get married, have children and plant their crops. They don't let themselves get down, and they remain hopeful about the future. When we need to select a project, for example, we often sense tension between the clans. But once a decision is made, everyone works hard together to complete the project. Their perseverance is sometimes surprising, and it serves as a lesson for the rest of us.