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Somaliland: Devastating drought changes pastoralists' lives forever
Some 20 huts made of twigs and clothing, a modern version of traditional Somaliland homes, dot an unpaved road leading through the autonomous region nestled by Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia to the south. Living on the side of a dusty road is not easy for pastoralists who enjoy their freedom and formerly resisted from living so close together. But a devastating drought has changed everyone’s perspective.
The El Nino weather pattern halted rainfall for about a year in Somaliland this year until the Guu rains arrived last month. Many older Somalilanders have noticed dramatic changes in the weather patterns over the course of their lifetime.
“In my 90 years, this is the worst drought I’ve seen. The last time there was a drought this severe was the year I was born,” Bildaley village elder Hashi Derie Elmi told RFI, adding that three people died during this drought and the one in the year of his birth.
Although he admits he could not remember the first 20 years of his life, he described the weather patterns over his lifetime, including the colonial years, when Somalilanders were British subjects.
“In those years we had periods where we received very good rain and had many animals, but over the years things have changed and the rainfall has really decreased,” he said.
Villagers, who did not live next to each other, would hunt gazelle and deer to augment their diet if their livestock died. But many of the animals, including lions, fled to neighbouring countries during the 1990s civil war, leaving the land nearly devoid of the once-abundant wildlife.
“We used to get rains every two months, every three months, and the maximum we’d go without rain was five months," Hashi Derie Elmi remembered. "But now that has increased. And now we go six months, eight months without rain and sometimes a full year without rain."
Somaliland has no natural rivers, only gullies that form throughout the country when it rains. The limited groundwater is suitable for animals but not for human consumption.
“Traditionally, our best source of water is a small dry river that fills when it rains. It doesn’t take us long to get there, it’s nearby,” said Nemo Hassan Awale, the matriarch of her family of five children in Bildaley, home to 400 families.
In Bildaley, as in other parts of the country, many people lost all their livestock, and effectively, their livelihood as well.
“Those who originally had 100 goats, they could now have just 20 and these are very weak. Those who had 200, may only have 30 or 40 left, and they are all weak,” said elder Elmi. The loss of an important source of food and milk left many destitute.
This led villagers to leave behind some aspects of their pastoralist lifestyle. Many decided to live on the side of the road to try and help avoid more death in their community - it was their lifeline over the past year.
“We moved next to the road so that these people are easily reachable. Otherwise we would not have been here and many people wouldn’t have stayed in this village. They came closer and closer and closer so that people can reach them easily,” said elder Elmi.
Although initially reluctant to do so, villagers saw how they could prevent more deaths by asking motorists to help in times of crisis.
“If we can’t get water, I have to get a jerry can and I give it to a vehicle going somewhere - anywhere they can get water – they send it back with another car returning the same way,” said Awale, speaking of the informal system of water deliveries, which has sprung up along the roadside.
The Guu rains have brought some water to the village but, although many believe this will provide a solution for Somalilanders, it actually increases their vulnerability to the elements. Goat is a staple food, eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Pastoralists keep cows and camels, too, but all who survived remain weak and could die from being in the damp in their weakened state.
The 400 goats and sheep Muse Jama Luban used to tend were sufficient to support his two wives and seven children. Only 50 goats remain and he does not have high hopes that they will sustain his family.
“They are still too weak to be taken and sold in the market. Nobody will buy them,” he said, adding that in Bildaley, he’s considered wealthy because he still has some livestock.
“Even if they recover, the market’s not good at the moment and they might not give us good prices for our livestock. That’s what I worry about these days."
The drought was devastating, but could have been worse. Somalilanders told RFI on several occasions that sharing was part of their survival.
“We have to find a way to help each other and share whatever we have,” said Luban. “If I cook some food we have to share, and that’s how we’re surviving.”
Further north, off the unpaved road, another group of traditional Somaliland homes cluster in a loose configuration outside the town of Gargara, some 170 kilometres north of Hargeisa, the capital.
The huts belong to Internally Displaced People (IDPs) affected by the drought, some 1,300 families who either came to the town or were brought there by Ahmed Hussein Badmah, a member of the Lughaya district council, which includes Gargara.
As the head of the social affairs committee, Badmah went out to find his constituents who were suffering near the coast of the Gulf of Aden.
Pastoralists in need are not new for Gargara; in 2011, during a drought period, some 1,500 families came to the town to be closer to humanitarian aid. In 2014, the climate improved and 600 pastoralists moved on.
The Save the Children NGO, which has two offices in Somaliland, works with him and the IDPs by trucking in water or bringing supplies, such as tarpaulins, for their huts.
Councillor Badmah was one of the first who became aware of the circumstances on the ground-- most of the local government’s revenue for the area comes from taxes on the livestock. Carcasses of dead animals lining the side of the road are a bleak reminder of the drought.
Mariam Hussein Badmah came with her family from Faahiye, near the coast. Dressed in a black-and-white chequered hijab, with her youngest child sitting on her lap, coughing, she tells the story of how she came to Gargara.
She has 10 children. The oldest three are in Djibouti—the daughter is a housemaid, the two sons are staying with relatives. She lost 200 goats and 15 camels and it has been an uphill battle ever since.
“When you don’t have anything, it’s hard to decide what was the worst part of the drought,” she said, looking at the sandy ground. Raindrops hit the soil as she continued. “It’s now raining and we don’t have a place to stay out of the rain. All the rain comes through the hut and there’s nowhere else to take the children.”
Shelter is her main priority now that it is raining.
“As a mother, where we live is a big problem. I wish I had a better shelter than this. Even if they don’t eat, at least they would be protected from the rains,” she said.
Even with help from aid organisations, Badmah said that the local government is still trying to find long-term solutions. “For those people who lost their assets, their livestock, the rain doesn’t do anything for them now. What will they do? It rains. How will they survive? Will they eat grass? That is the challenge we still face.”
Mother-of-seven Mariam is realistic about her situation, but unsure of what to do next. “We can’t get back the number of goats we used to have and nobody can give us back those numbers. No one can give every person what they used to have before, so that’s difficult,” she said.
Pastoralists have limited options, especially with these accelerated cycles of drought in the country. Badmah says that he is hoping to encourage the worst off to switch to farming but even that prospect, in an arid climate, is threatened by unstable weather patterns.
Changing conditions have put a strain on the people, impairing all aspects of society, including socio-economic status. Camels are considered a symbol of wealth and regularly go for 1,000 dollars a piece.
All of Abdelahi Younis Nur’s livestock died. As a father of nine, he is well aware of what he lost—he had 300 goats and 50 camels. Badmah found him in Xaab Weyne, near the Gulf of Aden.
“When we lost our livestock, the best we could do was to burn charcoal to support ourselves and our families, but that is not helping any longer,” he told RFI, his bloodshot eyes revealing his close work with making charcoal.
"When you have nothing, you don’t have any options for the future. I don’t know what to do,” he said.
This report from Somaliland was produced with support from Save The Children.