Relief SCENE:Food
Somalia's Farmland at Risk
Drought, Lack of Manpower, Reliance on Aid Permanently Damage Farming Industry
By YAHYA MOHAMED 08/18/2011
The charcoal trade is adding to Somalia's drought woes
©Somalia Report
The charcoal trade is adding to Somalia's drought woes

Update: This story has been updated and corrected.

Somalia's once-rich agricultural areas are at risk of permanently failing due to drought, decades of war, lack of manpower, and the farmers' reliance on aid, all of which have wreaked havoc on the country's 'food basket' region.

Somalia's Food Basket

Somalia once enjoyed lush farmland thanks to government help, hard-working farmers, and ingenious Italians. Below is a quick review of how the farming was broken down by region.

Marere district of the Middle Juba region, which is now ravaged by drought, the government ran 'The Marere Scheme', a successful irrigation project to produce sugar cane. The project was established in the early 1970s after an awareness campaign on farming by the government. The water from Juba River was used to irrigate the Marere sugar cane fields. The cane was then transported to a small factory in the same district to produce sugar.

Other districts like Kismayo and Afmadow also served as part of Somalia's food basket and produced onions, potatoes, tomatoes, maize and millet.

In Hiran, the agricultural productive areas were Beledweyne, Bula Burte, Jalalaqsi and Matabaan. Banana, maize, sorghum and vegetables were mainly grown in these areas and irrigated with water from the Shabelle River. The food was mainly grown for the local population and any surplus (mainly vegetables) was exported to Ethiopia and the neighboring regions.

Mogambo villiage of Jamame district hosted rice farms under a government-sponsored program called 'The Mogambo Irrigation Project', which produced enough rice for the local community and surplus that was supplied to the neighboring regions. It was established through an irrigation scheme where the water catchments were formed at the mouth of Juba River before it discharged its water to the Indian Ocean. The region was also known for the production of banana and vegetables, but the drought has decimated the crops.

Gedo region's Bardere district is also served by Juba River. The district, which is now in the hands of militant Islamist group al-Shabaab, was well-known for the production of tobacco. However, the militants banned the production of the crop once it took power in 2007.

Good days over

Suleiman Jelle, a tobacco farmer from Bardere who recently arrived at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, told Somalia Report that his 10,000 hectares of land now remains barren.

“The authority stopped me from producing tobacco in early 2008. 80% of my farm was used to produce tobacco. My family depended on the other remaining part of the land for crops that we consumed,” said Jelle.

The United Nations declared famine in several areas of Somalia and reported that more than 29,000 children have died as result.

Bay, Shabelle and Juba regions are the places where most of the drought displaced people come from. Ironically, some of these regions were producing both cash and food crops during and after the colonial period. (Cash crops are non-food farm products. They are not consumed locally. They are mainly exported or people do not depend on them as the main source of food.)

White Italian settlers who arrived during the colonial time established large farms along the rivers of Shabelle and Juba regions, the two main rivers in Somalia which are also the main source of water for most parts of Southern Somalia.

Italian farmers irrigated the land near the two rivers to produce banana and sugar cane which were exported to Italy.

Siaad Barre’s government acquired the farms under its socialism rule, but could not provide the required equipment or and enough skilled labor to keep the farms thriving. They could not also export the products to Italy, as the Italian farmers had done, because the Italian government doubted the quality.

Juba and Shabelle Rivers

Somalia’s Juba and Shabelle rivers flow through Gedo, Hiran, Lower Shabelle, Middle Shabelle and Lower Juba regions, which were once known as “Somalia’s food basket”.

The two rivers originate from the Ethiopian highlands and discharge their water to the Indian Ocean via Lower Shabelle and Lower Juba regions. They permanently supply water and cause floods even if it does not rain in Somalia. The plains therefore provide several strategic points to hold the water before the rivers discharge it to the ocean.

What Happened to the Fertile Land?

Sahra Ashkir, a former agricultural officer in Siaad Barre’s government who also works with agricultural institutions in Somalia, explained that the land is still there, the rivers are still flowing but the manpower and the capacity to keep the agricultural land productive is no longer. Even the culture of farming is slowly vanishing, making the local citizens permanently depend on aid.

“When there is no peace all activities will stop. The people who could provide manpower have fled their farms. The youth who could farm are freelance fighters. Most of them have fled the country. They are in the refugee camps,” Ashkir told Somalia Report.

Ashkir argues that the irrigation schemes which the farms depended on have also been destroyed.

“Civil war destroys everything. Just as you can see the buildings of the walls in Mogadishu destroyed by gun shots, the equipment bought by the government has been vandalized,” she said. “It took Siad Barre’s government a lot of effort to invest and educate the public about farming. Now all is lost.”

Deforestation, particularly the production of charcoal in the rich agricultural land, is also blamed for the drought. The Juba regions have been subject to constant charcoal burning which is exported to Gulf countries. It is very common to see loads of trucks carrying charcoal for export in the ports of Somalia.

Greedy businessmen, unconcerned authorities and al-Shabaab, which uses the trade to fund its insurgency, have largely contributed to deforestation that had a negative impact on agriculture in most parts of southern Somalia.

“The forests have been destroyed. No trees were grown for over two decades in southern Somalia. Drought and famine will easily set in when the nature is destroyed,” Ashkir told Somalia Report.

Insurgents calling on people to farm

Just a few weeks after denying famine exists in Somalia and claiming that the UN’s announcement was politicizing the drought situation in Somalia, al-Shabaab recently launched an awareness campaign on farming in the areas under their control. For the last few weeks, they have been supporting local farmers in the Lower Juba region with seeds and farming techniques and as well literally calling on Somali businessmen to invest in the agricultural rich land. Al-Shabaab controlled media has been publishing and producing a series of programs on the productivity of the land that was once known as “Somalia’s food basket”.

“The administrations of the Juba regions are saying the land is ready. Come and invest,” read announcements on one of al-Shabaab websites. They even provided contacts of the local administration in those areas so that anyone who is interested can communicate to them to invest in the agricultural sector.

Somali political analyst Abdiwahabab Sheikh Abdisamad believes the group was trying to support its denial of the existence of famine.

“Al-Shabab will do all that it can to show that the situation is not that bad. They have been preventing people from fleeing the areas under their control who are going to any place where they can get assistance,” Abdisamad told Somalia Report.

One of the top leaders of al-Shabaab, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, recently acknowledged that indeed the Juba and Shabelle regions have been hit by a severe drought. However, he dismissed that famine exists in those parts of the country.

“The international media and the humanitarian organizations are exaggerating the situation. It is not that bad as they want to put it,” Aweys told al-Shabaab controlled media early this month after touring parts of the Juba and Shabelle regions in South central Somalia.

Shark Skins Drying in Bosaso Port
@Somalia Report
Shark Skins Drying in Bosaso Port

Eat Fish or Starve

Despite the fact that Somalia has a long coastline (over 3,000 kilometers) as well as two rivers, fish has never been a staple food for most Somalis. Over half of the Somali population are pastoralists, while most of the rests are farmers.

Even before the fishing industry was decimated by a variety of factors (youth turning to piracy, illegal fishing and conflict among them), the traditional fishing methods did not land massive hauls. Although there were several awareness campaigns conducted in many parts of Somalia at different times, even Somalis living along coastal areas do not typically care for fish. They rely on huge supplies of animal meat from the interior rural areas. Camel and goat meat are also still available in large quantity and people do not how to make fish meat compared to goat and camel meat, which is prepared in many ways.

Sahra Ashkir said that Somalis know little about fish and other products in the sea.

“We don’t even know what is in the sea,” Ashkir argues. “Probably we never experienced the stability that could help us learn about fishing to make a living.”