Hargeisa, Somalia — Much of northern Somalia grew thick with trees and grasses 50 years ago. Lions, elephants, and giraffes roamed right up to the outskirts of the dusty regional capital of Hargeisa.
Rivulets - swollen during rains, trickles in dry seasons - from inland mountains often flowed into the semiarid coastal plain year- round.
Today these parts are almost bare.
Uncontrolled erosion and overgrazing have denuded the landscape. There are few trees; they have been ruthlessly cut for charcoal and construction. Streambeds are dry for many months.
Lions and giraffes are sighted occasionally near the Ethiopian frontier now - but it is mainly the baboons who forage for food near the nomad camps and small dik-diks who scurry away from Land Rovers like rabbits that hint at the wildlife once abundant here.
Devastation of Somalia's ecological balance is perhaps the most threatening predicament for this poverty-stricken nation.
Somalia's economy is based almost entirely on livestock and agriculture. It cannot afford to continue neglecting what has rapidly become the curse of the Horn of Africa: transition of lush lands into desert.
''That isn't to say we never had any droughts,'' remembers a white-haired merchant wearing a small red skull cap.
''As a boy I used to tend goats and camels around here. Life was hard but we had beautiful huge trees to give us shade. They are now gone. All that remains is desert and these scruffy bushes we now call trees.''
The problem has grown even more acute in recent years. Huge tracts of land have been stripped clean by tides of refugees who fled drought and war in the Ogaden. International relief officials estimate the number of refugees in camps here to be roughly 600,000; the Somali government claims the number is 1.3 million.
Ironically, Somalia has a unique opportunity to tap expertise of relief officials presently working with the refugees to cope with some of its problems. Relief agencies often know about development techniques, and they have money or know where to get it.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other relief organizations say Somalia's refugee emergency has ended.
''The situation has now stabilized to the point where the government and the agencies should seek to go beyond mere short-term assistance,'' says Peter Parr, director of the US-based Save the Children Federation (SCF) in Mogadishu, Somalia.
''But stabilization should not be interpreted as suddenly stopping all relief supplies,'' he says. ''Present aid should gradually be transformed into medium- and long-term development projects which would benefit both refugees and the local Somali population.
''Imagination in development projects is what the country really needs.''
There is only a trickle of refugees into this region now. Only three transit centers remain, and they offer a reduced level of services. The UNHCR reports there are significant numbers of people departing from Somalia's 40-odd camps.
Food theft, which received international attention here, has been reduced thanks to better organization, monitoring, and government crackdown on the problem. Earlier this year, up to 60 percent of relief food was diverted from some camps.
''We can now say that supply losses between the ports and the camps have been reduced to virtually nothing. I would be surprised if losses were to exceed 1 percent. The truck drivers know they just can't get away with it,'' says Rudi Ramp of CARE.
Last March the UNHCR and the Somali National Refugee Commission contracted CARE to monitor supply movements. Despite progress on this front, some relief officials maintain that theft of up to 25 percent of food supplies still occurs in the camps where CARE's mandate does not reach.
In many respects, refugee relief has meant big business for Somalia. Some say the government attempts to keep refugee figures high so that millions of dollars of emergency relief will continue to pour in. Refugees have helped to make aid programs Somalia's most important industry.
This is the cynical, though often realistic, view of relief situations in general, say knowledgeable observers.
However, some Somali officials are trying to shift gears toward aid for reforestation and irrigation. They know it will be better for the country than hanging onto relief aid.
''Development assistance, if organized properly, could also attract twice as much financial support than refugee relief,'' says one Western European diplomat.
CARE is thinking about a ''food for work'' arrangement for refugees. It would allow refugees to participate in reforestation, and agricultural and roadbuilding projects.
Most roads leading to refugee camps are simply rutted dirt tracks that turn into impassable quagmires during the rains. Deforestation has transformed much of the land into a dustbowl, seemingly overnight.
The Somali government is reluctant to start projects that permit permanent settlement of refugees. Its dispute with Ethiopia over the Ogaden rages on. The Ogaden is still the crux of President Siad Barre's ''greater Somalia'' policy. Were the refugees to stay, his demands would be undermined.
Medium-and long-term development has therefore become a matter of semantics. At first the government would only discuss ''emergency relief.'' Now ''self-reliance'' has become part of the jargon; thus a substantial proportion of the refugees have been allowed to cultivate plots of land.
SCF is seeking to link relief assistance with general development projects that would help both the refugees and the Somali locals. ''It is important to cooperate with regional health, agricultural, and educational services so as to create an infrastructure that will remain intact once the voluntary agencies leave and the Somalis can take over on their own,'' said SCF's Mr. Parr. SCF is operating six projects now, mainly in the south, ranging from vocational training to poultry farming and reforestation.
The Somali Cooperation for Development in Africa Committee, which includes the United States, several UN agencies, and Western Europe, has recently begun a nationwide program to combat erosion and to introduce soil and water conservation measures to alleviate pressure on grazing land.
The US, which is taking the lead in that program, will provide up to $6 million for planting trees.
''Somalia should be planting 12 times more trees than it is at the moment just to keep up with fuel needs,'' said Jim Kelly, director of US aid in Mogadishu.
But if reforestation is to be effective, relief officials warn, it must be given the national and international backing to permit a proper, full-scale program.