Relief SCENE:Drought
Drought vs Famine vs Anarchy
Somalia’s Complex System of Survival Destroyed By More Than Lack of Rain
Although the photos and images are grim most of Somalia endures
Although the photos and images are grim most of Somalia endures

We see the photos of skeletal children, despondent mothers and weak old men. We want to help. Our first reaction is to give them something to eat, something to drink. If we are to believe the statistics this latest disaster to befall Somalia is due to lack of rain. There is truth to this but most coverage lacks the insight behind the truths.

Somalia is experiencing a famine because of a series of unseen and more calamitous events that have occurred over the last few decades. Disasters like the 1993 civil war, the 2005 tsunami, the 2006 Ethiopian invasion, the 2009 rise of “the youth” and now the drought. We are seeing just the leading edge of the wave that will bring far worse penalties for Somalia.


Horn of Africa Drought
Horn of Africa Drought

The best single source for information about how rainfall, water and the effects of moisture on Somalia is the Somalia Water and Land Information Management based in Nairobi.

This UNICEF-funded NGO that measures precipitation and climate predicts worse things to come. Not just from lack of rain but the cascading effect of crop failure. Failed crops for two years in a row due to lack of rain have led to rapidly rising food prices Lack of rain sprouted forage has not just caused widespread death of livestock but the need for herders to sell or eat their breeding stock. These primary and secondary effects only point to troubled times ahead. This grim forecast along with the current deprivations force more and more Somalis to abandon their flocks, farms, homes and communities to flee to refugee camps. The slow unraveling of traditional economic patterns also slowly erode other social structures.

Normally problems related to sustenance would cause internal displacement as pastoralists move towards urban areas where life support exists. The increase in violence and sharply reduced food imports have pushed these desperate people out of their own country and 40 miles into Kenya. A safe harbor that requires running an ugly gauntlet. Distance, extortion, lack of funds all conspire against the desperate. Here the town of Garissa (pop. 70,000) is dwarfed by the nearby refugee camps. Dadaab was built in 1991 to house around 90,000 Somalis fleeing the civil war. Currently it and satellite camps are home to just under 380,000 refugees.

Refugees at Ifo Camp
Somalia Report
Refugees at Ifo Camp

People who make it there are given the bare essentials of life and quickly fall into social units as they wait, completely dependent on charity. It may be safe, they may the basics, but it is not their home and it is not Somalia. In order for them to return there must be something better or at least some hope that the future will be brighter. For now there is nothing to indicate that.

Looking around at the excesses of our own culture makes the desperation of Somalia even more poignant. If they could just have one small shred of what we throw away everyday. So we assuage our guilt and concern by donating money to a large organization who assures us that they will get it to the best and most urgent place. But that is actually the worst thing to do because sustaining the artificial life in a refugee camp leads to permanent places like Palestine, the borders of Thailand, and other “temporary” solutions that turn a country inside out resulting in marginalized people, lost generations, insurgent groups, crime, terrorism and ultimately publicly complacency. Complacent because after the initial headline grabbing disaster is gone the refugee camps and the resultant booming population growth remain.

Dadaab turned 20 years old in April of this year and Kenya, with its own internal problems insists that the camp is a temporary solution to famine, not the violence and lack of opportunity inside. Everyday it grows larger as the international community asks Kenya to host even more refugees. But what is actually going on? What is famine? What is drought? What are the underlying engines of both and what is the real homeostasis of the region? Is there really a “normal” Somalia? Will there ever be a normal Somalia?

The answer is complex but worth pursuing. Right now the largest single factor in Somalia’s disaster has been the constant post-colonial erosion of organizational structures that kept both the nomadic, urban and international systems turning over. In addition Somalia has been a petri dish for well intentioned but ineffective social programs that have turned it into a massively dysfunctional quasi country. Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is the most visible of these foreign constructs but Somalia has a long history of outside programs that are underfunded and eventually abandoned. It would be helpful to look at what does and doesn't work inside Somalia.

When the Going Gets Tough

Somalia is a hard country but it functions. Although many of the affluent and educated have left it is a literate and industrious nation. Around 37% of Somali's can read and write vs 28% in Afghanistan. Outside of Mogadishu hundreds of small towns and minor cities bustle with commerce, buses are full of travelers, shops are full and social activity bustle late into the night. Safety and success are relative terms but moving around the country the outsider will meet a wide variety of Somalia: solitary nomads, returning relatives, happy school girls to grouchy shopkeepers. Most are healthy, active and optimistic. They have learned to function without a government, relying on their own resources to survive and often prosper. This is not the first or last drought they have seen and even though this is called the “worst drought in 60 years” to many Somalis it is just another obstacle to surmount. But the lack of surplus of water is not the reason for the regions woes.

The cycle of rain
The cycle of rain


Water comes from four sources. There is the ocean, the run off from Ethiopian highlands that feeds the rivers, natural water table that feeds wells, and there are the rains.

The ocean off Somalia has two monsoonal flows that make the region very attractive for fishing. Mid April heralds the reverse of monsoons from northeast to southwest.

The Gu extends from April through June, and the Deyr begins in September and ends in November. There is the Haga in July and August that favors the central region and the Haisin that wets the mountains and western part of the country. Rainfall in Somalia is always sporadic and can range from 50mm in the driest areas and 600 in the mountains.

The dry seasons are the Hagaa from July to September and the Jilaal from December to April. The oceans off Somalia there are the rains

The coastal position of Somalia next to the verdant mountains of Ethiopia and the open ocean make for a unique ecosystem and weather patterns that have been harnessed by Somali's into centuries old patterns of nomadic, maritime, agrarian and trading activities.

It is the very flexibility and inconsistency of rainfall on land that has led to a culture of survival and centuries old system of compromise inside Somalia. The best example of how this weather pattern and Somali’s work together is the camel.

Starving Camel
Starving Camel

Much of Somalia is a hard arid land but semi predictable rains and resultant pasture growth allowed the region to support large herds of migrating animals. Camels, goats and other grazers were moved along the belts of rapidly sprouting grass lands and when mature, they were shipped overseas to nearby consumers of livestock, leather, milk or meat. Cash in hand and his best animals ready for breeding, food and milk, the process would start again

Camels were first domesticated by Somalis and they take credit for their role as launching the dromedary as the Toyota pickup trucks of the ancient world. Camels from the Horn of Africa composed 65% of the world’s 15 million dromedary’s in the late 80’s and camel exports historically contributed about 10% of Somalia’s GDP. Camels were unique in that they determined wealth, provided a hedge against drought and could be converted into other goods. Camels were the mainstay of Somalia’s rural economy and they did well in the on again, off again rain patterns. Times of drought mixed with times of plenty were managed by the pastoralists.

Pastoralists move their herds with the rainfall. Camels should be watered every week but can go up to 30 days without moisture and an adult camel will drink 80 – 100 liters of water at one time. Camels can survive off their grazing in greener times but a herder must make tough decisions when drought faces his herd. Sell, slaughter or risk finding sources of water?

A thirsty camel can drink up to 200 liters in a day
@Somalia Report
A thirsty camel can drink up to 200 liters in a day

Camels require grazing and water but can withstand drought better than smaller animals like goats. A typical well is not sufficient to feed a herd of camels so a system of large wells and reservoirs were created. Additionally pastoralists could negotiate alternative passage as the rains favored certain areas. Even in times of intense fighting the clan system allowed all parties to negotiate a pragmatic solution to grazing, disputes and passage.

With the lack of rain over a long period, camel herders find themselves without forage and the lower water tables provide less water for the commercial delivery of water to large reservoirs. Gestation time for a camel is over a year, making long term planning even more risky. Groups like al-Shabaab who do not care about the natural migration or support the historical negotiations required to get camels to market make entry into Kismayo make the decisions easy for pastoralists. Faced with selling or eating even their breeding stock to survive, they must move towards the cities.

From 1978 to 1988 the population of all livestock in Somalia slowly increased to 6.6 million camels, 19.7 million sheep and 19.7 million goats. By 1997 it was estimated camel populations were started to shrink to 5.7m. In September of 2000 the Gulf nations banned import of Somali livestock due to Rift Valley fever. Although the ban was lifted in 2001, it effectively destroyed the motivation to maintain large camel herds. Somalia’s export of camels peaked in 1997 and quickly collapsed. Some sources estimate that a combination of the ban and the 2004 drought destroyed 80% of Somalia’s livestock.

The Ocean

Somalia's fisherman are hampered by their inability to reach foreign markets
Somalia's fisherman are hampered by their inability to reach foreign markets

The bounty from the oceans around Somalia should not only be immune to rainfall and climate, but the remote locations should make it immune to the effects of violence. Somalia historically is a seafaring nation. Today there are only four functional ports (Berbera, Bosaso, Mogadishu and Kismayo) and no functioning commercial fishing industry other than the small local littoral activity.

Somalia was a major fishing ground for tuna, swordfish and other large edible fish. The country’s almost 2,000 miles of coastline is 700 miles more than that of California. California’s commercial fishing industry brings in $800 million a year. Somalia does not have a commercial fishing industry and even Somaliland, a region immune to many of the woes, has 170 ships, no exports and a single cannery in Las Quorey that can produce 2.5 tonnes a day but only for internal consumption. The only measurable export is about $1.5M a year in dried shark fins due to the lack of refrigeration and transport.

But even at its peak Somalia’s fishing industry only delivered 11,000 tons in 1980. Around 1990 it was estimated that there were 60,000 Somalis working in the fishing industry, but mostly off shore and local enterprises. Fishing contributed an anemic 2% to the GDP with most of their offshore resources being stolen by large fishing fleets from Europe and Asia. In the mid 2000’s piracy began to turn Somalia’s ocean into a no-go zone and only armed and illegal fishing fleets are found offshore. Commercial fishing requires refrigeration, transportation and of course security. Somalia has lost all of that. Somalia’s fishing industry peaked in 2009 at 30,000 tons never to regain its growth.

Shark Skins Drying in Somalia
@Somalia Report
Shark Skins Drying in Somalia

It is clear that even with the abundant oceans, Somalia will not be feeding its people from the sea anytime in the near future.

The Land

Somalia does have crops with bananas being the most famous export. The Juba River Valley supports banana plantations. In addition Somali farmers grow sorghum, corn, sugarcane, mangoes, sesame seeds and beans using seasonal rains or irrigation from the two main rivers.

In its heyday the banana business employed 120,000 Somalis and the year round water supply in the Shabbelle and Juba river kept 12,000 hectares under plantation. The civil war in the early 90’s shut the industry down and it tottered back into productivity between 1993 and 1997. Today the banana industry barely keeps 3,000 hectares under cultivation with fertilizer hard to bring in and produce almost impossible to export in a timely manner.

Other crops are dependent on rain and in a time of extended drought there is simply no crop and therefore no income for farmers. Irrigated crops along the same two rives do supply a regular rotation of crops but antiquated systems provide a low yield. In all Somalia does not have the farmers, let alone the rain to feed itself.

Under the ground is a potential source of income as Range Resources weathers attacks and harsh conditions to drill exploratory wells for oil in Puntland. If oil is found in the Nugaal and Dharoor Valley areas it will bring money to the government and may cause even more fighting as clans jockey for control. f

The Air

Dozens of small planes deliver fresh khat every day throughout Somalia
Dozens of small planes deliver fresh khat every day throughout Somalia
Could Somalia survive from the skies? Not likely. The space above Somalia is criss crossed diagonally with thousands of commercial flights per year. The United Nations has removed the cash flow from the government and the pockets the funds from fees paid to the UN's Civil Aviation Caretaker Authority for Somalia (CACAS) operating from Nairobi, Kenya to interface with the International Civil Aviation Organization since 1996. Even today flight plans must be filed and approved by the UN inside Somalia. The ICAO predicts that air traffic in Somali air space will be increasing by 5.7% in 2009 and it is expected to increase by 8% during the next 2 years. The money will stay inside Kenya. Air also brings in the qat and takes out the impressive qat revenue. It is estimates that Kenya exports $250 million a year in khat and that 60 to 75% of Somali's are users or sellers. Rough estimates by drug agencies (there is no clear tracking) put the daily sales at $300,000 a day just from the airports in Kenya to Somalia. Once again anarchy hand in hand with foreign supervision.

Optimism or Pessimism?

A snapshot of Somalia today shows that even with proven resources (fish, bananas, camels etc) Somalia has a hard time functioning. Add violence, degradation of infrastructure, social engineering, brain drain, drought and you have another mid 90’s Afghanistan or Pol Pot era Cambodia where the only quasi functioning elements are the UN and armed militias. Inside that chaotic image are a number of well functioning white and black market systems that function. A glance at the GDP estimates by various groups show something surprising.

The gross domestic product of Somalia is estimated at around $6 billion a year with a growth rate of 2.6%. Although the data is suspect, and the total laughable, that growth rate is higher than New Zealand, France, Spain or the UK.

These estimates are not based on any methodical or reliable information but rather “WAG”s by analysts using mostly bits and pieces from NGOs, government surveys and well, just making things up. In addition Somalia’s economy is made up of 20 to 50% of remittances from the diaspora, that’s a massive flow of tax free cash without any corresponding benefit.

The CIA has consistently tracked growth in the Somali economy with the UAE as their main trading partner with well over half of exports going to the tiny trading nation. Yemen accounted for a quarter with Saudi Arabia a tiny sliver. The most affected by the current conflict is the 10% of manufacturing contribution. For example there was briefly a Coca Cola bottling plant in Mogadishu that opened in 2004 and was shut down and re-created in Hargeisa. Opportunity flows into safe areas and away from dangerous ones.

The diaspora keeps the emerging airline business full and the mobile phone system is among the most inexpensive and high quality in the world. Money transfer, charcoal, import and road taxes, payoffs by foreign organizations and even piracy push invisible money into the system. An impressive $1.6 billion alone is sent into Somalia by outsiders using international money transfers. The number may be much larger since money transfers through informal hawalas and direct delivery of cash is not tracked. This phantom influx of money goes into buying local goods and stimulating the economy.

Sufficiency and Dependency

There are some key things to remember. Somalia has never been self-sufficient. Harvests during good rains only provided 40% of cereal needs. The remaining balance had to be imported. Somalia spends more than it makes, imports more than it exports, and the Mogadishu-based government relies on handouts to survive. Rice, flour, oil and other staples are typically important and shipped to rural areas. During times of conflict, poor rainfall and displaced populations the already broken systems break down even further initially pushing rural Somalis into the camps in Mogadishu and now into Northern Kenya.

The use of large centralized refugee camps well away from population centers are not the answer or the solution they are simply necessary evil to deal with massive refugee housing and feeding. They are essentially the global version of IV feeding a nation during trauma.

Global famine areas
Global famine areas

Unfortunately since there is no short term solution to the drought, there is no short term or long term solution to restoring security to the south and very little constructive action for outside support to the internal support systems of water, livestock, agriculture and fishing while violence and lack of funding are the norm rather than the exception.

Until there is a Somalia that is better than Dadaab, then there will be little incentive for Somalis to return home.