Somalia: When the rains don’t come

Mireille Ferrari
World Food Programme Insight
4 min readDec 20, 2017

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Two years on, ongoing drought in Somalia means families facing hunger and loss of livelihoods are struggling to recover and rebuild their lives.

A woman and her granddaughter in their makeshift hut at a camp for internally displaced people in the southwest town of Dolow. Photo: WFP/Kabir Dhanji

In Jabaaqe, an agro-pastoral community in northwest Somalia, droughts have names. They call this one “ the kinship killer” — so named because only a third of Jabaaqe’s community remains. Those who have left have gone in search of water and pasture for their livestock, while those who remain pray for rain.

Sitting in the abandoned schoolhouse with Jabaaqe’s village elders, I’m told how the school had shut when there were no longer teachers or students to fill it. The community’s head farmer, Mohammed Farah, his skin darkened and hardened by the sun, tells me that for more than two years, Jabaaqe’s farmland has been barren. Yet Farah and his fellow farmers have continued to cultivate the earth every single planting season, in the hopes of rain. I ask Farah what will happen to the community if the crops fail yet again. His eyes are resolute as he answers:

“It will rain,” he says, “It has to rain.”

Photos from left: Head farmer, Mohamed Farah (2nd to left), and Jabaaqe’s village elders in the abandoned schoolhouse; Jabaaqe’s dusty, unforgiving terrain. Photos: WFP/Kabir Dhanji

But the rains in Jabaaqe have not come and what little rain has arrived in other parts of the country have been insufficient, scattered or late. For the poor rural folk who live off the land through farming or livestock rearing, the effects are devastating. Crop production in the last two years has been far below average and the lack of water and pastureland across the country has resulted in the death of over 50% of Somalia’s livestock. It will take years to recover the losses.

An estimated 3.1 million Somalis are facing dangerous levels of hunger, with malnutrition worsening among children. Approximately 388,000 children under the age of 5 are malnourished — including 87,000 severely malnourished who need life-saving treatment.

A newly arrived family in Dolow waits for a space in an IDP camp. They traveled 10 days on foot from neighboring Bakool in south Somalia. Photo: WFP/Kabir Dhanji

On top of this brutal web of hardship is ongoing mass displacement of families — about 950,000 people have been displaced as a result of drought since November 2016 (UNHCR, Nov 2017). Internally displaced people (IDPs) are among the most vulnerable in Somalia — living in poor settlements under the constant threat of disease outbreaks, malnutrition, violence, discrimination and eviction.

Since the famine alert at the beginning of this year, the World Food Programme in Somalia has been scaling up its response and from April to now has been providing monthly assistance to more than 2 million people — that’s over five times the number of people WFP reached in January. This massive effort has been possible in great part through the rapid and tremendous support of USAID, who in 2017, mobilized over $150 million for WFP’s drought emergency response in Somalia.

From left: 3-yr old Kawasaki Seleebam eats one of her 30-day rations of supplementary food to combat moderate acute malnutrition (Photo: WFP/Karel Prinsloo); Families wait their turn to “top-up” their digital cards with e-vouchers. (Photo: WFP/Kabir Dhanji)

In areas where markets are functioning, USAID-funded e-vouchers on WFP digital cards have meant that over 150,000 vulnerable families are able to buy a range of diversified nutritious foods at over 850 local shops across the country. Holders of the digital cards scan their fingerprint (biometric data) to confirm their purchases, providing assurance to WFP and USAID that assistance is reaching the people who need it most.

From left: USAID sorghum is flown into Mogadishu at the height of WFP’s scale-up of its emergency operations (Photo: WFP/Kabir Dhanji); A woman carries food from WFP in Wajid — a small town in the south so remote that food is flown in weekly from WFP’s warehouse in Mogadishu. (Photo: WFP/Karel Prinsloo)

Close to 63,000 metric tonnes of USAID food — the equivalent of 1,600 forty-foot shipping containers — is enabling WFP to feed hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Somalis. This food is transported into Somalia by sea and air, making its way to WFP food distribution sites, soup kitchens, schools and nutrition centres where children and pregnant and nursing mothers receive critical nutrition support to either prevent or treat moderate acute malnutrition.

Musa Ahmed traveled 160 kms with his 50 underfed goats to sell them at the market in Gabiley, Somaliland. Only 20 survived the journey. He will be lucky to get even a sixth of the market price for any of them. (Photo: WFP/Kabir Dhanji)

But the worst may not be over. Somalia is confronting the stark possibility of yet another season of poor rains — the fourth consecutive one. While early November rains in central and southern Somalia have eased some of the seasonal deficits, total rains are still 30 percent or more below average. This could spell more trouble for farmers and pastoralists across the country. Large scale, life-saving humanitarian assistance will need to continue for the millions who have yet to recover from severe food insecurity and previous losses of livelihoods.

Back in Jabaaqe, Farah takes us on a walking tour of the village’s farmland. He crouches and grabs a handful of dirt and releases it into the wind. We watch the dust scatter upon the dusty, bone-dry field.

I want to know, so I ask again: what will happen to the community if it doesn’t rain. A pause, as Farah’s eyes pan across the scattered thorny shrubs next to the field.

“We will make charcoal. Then when our last trees are gone, I don’t know.”

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Mireille Ferrari
World Food Programme Insight

Storyteller. Nomad. Always asking questions, always trying to understand.