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How Somalis are coping with the drought affecting the Horn of Africa

21-03-2006 Interview

"The ICRC is ready to bridge the gap until it rains," says water and habitat coordinator, Yves Degiacomi, from the ICRC's Somalia delegation.

 Q: Somalia is currently affected by a severe drought. In some regions in Southern Somalia, it has not rained for two years. Can you describe what the landscape in these areas looks like?  


A: The vegetation is completely dried up and sometimes you can see rotten carcasses on the ground. And then there is dust everywhere which makes it difficult to breathe. You have to imagine temperatures of up to 50 degrees such as in Luuk, in the Gedo region. This is one of the hottest places in Africa. 


 Q: Water is essential for our daily lives. Yet millions of people around the world struggle to have access to safe water for their basic needs. How are the Somali people coping with the crisis? What do they do to find water?  

© ICRC / P. Yasi / so-e-00091 
The ICRC is engaged in an urgent emergency response to make sure people have enough water for themselves and their cattle until the next rainy season starts. 

A: People in Somalia are used to a harsh environment so they have developed many coping mechanisms such as migrating to other areas. Since most of the rain water catchments are dried up they now have to walk long distances, sometimes for days, to find the next hand dug well. Not every village has one. But these hand dug wells are also drying up and the little water that is left is very salty.


 Q: Somalia is a sub-Saharan country in which water resources are always scarce. In which way is the current situation worse than in normal times?  


A: First of all the lack of rainfall has affected a wider area than in previous years. That means that even when people migrate they might not find water and pasture because the situation is pretty much the same all over southern Somalia and also across the borders in Ethiopia and Kenya. Secondly, there has been less rainfall than during other dry periods in the last ten years – around 20 millimetres less. This would not make a big difference in Europe which has a precipitation of between 1000 and 2000 millimetres per year. But in Somalia where you only have 200 millimetres of rainfall in areas like Northern Gedo this makes a huge difference.


 Q: How much water does a Somali family still have per day?  


A: It varies from area to area. As an absolute minimum one person needs 5 to 7.5 litres of liquid per day to survive. That includes water, milk and liquids from food. As cattle are dying, many people in southern Somalia do not have enough milk and food anymore. Consequently, the liquid available to them no longer amounts to 5 litres. Just to give you an idea: In Europe one person often consumes up to 250 litres of water per day for drinking, showering, washing and so on.


 Q: What is the ICRC doing to improve access to drinking water?  


A: We are engaged in an urgent emergency response to make sure people have enough water for themselves and their cattle until the next rainy season starts. We are carrying out different projects in the Jubas, Gedo, Bakool and Bay regions such as repairing boreholes, deepening hand dug wells and transporting water to remote areas. So far up to half a million people have benefited from this. As a long term response we are also helping communities repair rain water catchments. 


 Q: Where does the water come from that you transport to remote areas?  

© ICRC / P. Yasi / so-e-00062 
So far no major clashes between clans have been observed due to a lack of water. 

A: We take it from boreholes that can be found in the bigger towns. They are up to 200 metres deep and usually deliver up to 200,000 litres of water per day. Ideally there should be a borehole every 30 to 50 kilometres. Unfortunately this is not the case. The armed conflict in Somalia makes it difficult for the local communities to drill and to maintain boreholes.


 Q: Has the lack of water increased the level of conflict?  


A: So far no major clashes between clans have been observed due to a lack of water. However there is a conflict between wild animals and people over the scarce resources. Hyenas and baboons gather around water points and attack villagers. Another risk is the contamination of water points. Wart hogs approach and try to bathe in the water. Villagers have to chase them away because according to their beliefs and traditions the water would become impure if these animals bathed in it. Then they could no longer use it.


 Q: Are the Somali people afraid?  


A: A pastoralist told me once that his cattle were dying and that his goats and sheep were looking for water in a dry river bed. He was waiting for the day that his camels too began to die and he would be sitting alone in the river bed. I don't think people are afraid. The Somali are very courageous but maybe at the same time fatalist, ready to accept what the future holds in store for them.


 Q: What happens if it does not rain in March?  


Then the crisis could easily turn into a catastrophe. The ICRC is ready to bridge the gap until it does rain. After that a more long term approach is needed. We will discuss with the communities what needs to be done. They have to participate and to gain a feeling of ownership for any future projects such as the rehabilitation of hand dug wells. There will surely be less suffering if there are more functioning water points during the next drought.