Battered by drought and civil wars, more than 20 million people from Yemen to Tanzania are at risk of starvation in what aid workers call the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. But over the past two decades, nations that once produced searing images of famine's toll have moved to thwart it by strengthening community resilience. Our reporters traveled to Madagascar, Ethiopia, and Somaliland to investigate the daunting challenges as well as the long-term efforts that are saving lives.
Mohamed Abdi Madar stands at a catchment tank, pulling up a bucket of water for two of his camels. In this largely nomadic society, the animals are so vital that they’ve been woven into poetry for centuries.
They’re all the more precious today, amid the worst drought in living memory – one that has brought the region to the brink of famine. Mr. Madar has just four out of his original 15 left, and 35 sheep and goats out of 150.
Here in Carro-Yaambo, 20 miles west of Somaliland’s capital, desert gives way to more arable land, and communities both farm and keep livestock. But even so, they are struggling – fields are dotted with the carcasses of animals lost to the drought.
Still, unlike so many Somalis forced to roam in search of scarce fodder and water, Madar is staying put – a major goal for a region whose centuries-old pastoralist culture is, out of necessity, beginning to envision a more sustainable future. That means improving water and aid systems. But it could also mean deep changes to most Somalis’ traditional way of life, shifting away from the nomadic patterns of camel- and livestock-herding to more stable – and anchored – livelihoods.
Without this water tank, protected by a thick ring of thorn bushes, everyone nearby would have been forced to move in search of water to a dry riverbed six miles away, says Madar, a herder with several missing teeth, a graying goatee, and a red-hued head wrap.
“Even if we got to the river bed, we don’t have the power or the resources to dig out the water – so we would have gone there only with hope,” he says. “This water [catchment] saved our lives, as humans and livestock.”
Drought is a fact of life in Somaliland, a harsh, thorn-scrub desert land that declared independence from Somalia in 1991. But its hard-living pastoralists have been worn down by back-to-back droughts sweeping across the Horn of Africa, like the hot and desiccating winds that define this unforgiving landscape.
The numbers are staggering: In “pre-famine” figures for June, the UN estimated 6.7 million are in need of assistance in Somalia – among the 20 million the UN calculates are at risk in Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan, and Nigeria. The drought has killed 80 percent of the livestock that nomadic rural communities depend on in Somaliland alone, and forced 739,000 to move in search of water and food throughout Somalia.
Heavy hitters like the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have scaled up their interventions, with everything from pre-positioning supplies, hygiene kits, and half a million measles vaccines to ringing alarm bells. So far, however, funding requirements of nearly $150 million are almost $50 million short.
“This humanitarian crisis is not over,” says Steven Lauwerier, the head of UNICEF in Somalia, citing soaring rates of children’s health problems, continued displacement, and gender-based violence. “This is why UNICEF must continue our emergency drought response and why this generous funding is so critical at this time.”
But as vulnerable as Somalis are today, past disasters in the 1980s, '90s, and 2011 have taught lessons in building resilience. Like elsewhere in eastern Africa, that means providing clean water (like the catchment in Carro-Yaambo, built by the Irish agency Concern Worldwide), food supplements, and cash aid: all of which not only helps keep people alive and fed, but at home, rather than wandering in search of water or help. In Somalia and Somaliland in particular, where pastoralists have followed rains and pastures with their herds for centuries, it also means laying the ground for a major cultural and economic shift: programs to lessen dependence on livestock, the backbone of Somalis’ survival, with fodder and agriculture projects taking root.
Pastoralists “have no other means of making a living. They knew only one way, and that way is gone,” says Saad Ali Shire, the foreign minister of Somaliland, which remains unrecognized as an independent nation by the international community. They need aid now, and help restoring their flocks, he says. But even so, “There is the question: Do we want to go back to where we were?”
One day at a time
But looking that far into the future is not the top priority of the thousands of Somalis now clinging to each day of life.
The threat of famine is clear in the sunken eyes of Nabhan Ismail, an infant boy at an emergency center in Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa. Family members take turns comforting him, placing their hands on his tiny body, stroking him.
Nabhan turns restlessly, eyes wide in shock, just one of 50 infants here fighting for their lives. His family made the journey to this emergency stabilization center, run by the Somaliland Red Crescent and UNICEF, after waiting seven days to find a ride from their remote region 100 miles away, over the Ethiopian border.
“I am thinking about Nabhan’s health and praying to God that he will get better,” says his teary-eyed father, Ismail Ibrahim, as his child is fed one more time through a tube.
UNICEF has projected that 1.4 million Somali children are or will become malnourished this year – a 50 percent increase since the start of 2017. And malnourishment, in turn, makes children far more vulnerable to diseases like acute diarrhea/cholera. By mid-June more than 51,000 cases were reported in all of Somalia, claiming nearly 800 lives.
One life saved, however, was Nabhan’s. Three days after the Monitor first met the boy, he was on the way to recovery. “We think he will survive. We are so happy!” said his joyful grandmother, Ardo Mohamoud.
But Mr. Ibrahim says “countless” children perished in their distant rural area, including all six children of one family he knew.
“I have never, ever heard of a drought that claims the lives of the livestock and the lives of the people,” says Ibrahim, whose herd of 100 goats and sheep was decimated to six.
Communities can often sustain one drought, but “a second puts them under extreme stress,” says Jamal Abdi Sarman, of UNICEF in Hargeisa.
“When it rains and water gathers on the ground, people just drink it – right from the ground – because they are so desperate,” he says. “I’ve seen parents scooping up water for their kids and drinking it themselves.”
'Water is life'
West of Hargeisa, however, aid agencies have seen success with water programs. Today, in places like Carro-Yaambo, there has been more resilience, and less displacement of people.
The cistern the herder Madar is using, known as a berkad, measures 13 by 7 meters (roughly 43 by 22 feet), is 3-1/3 meters deep, and is covered to keep away dust and minimize evaporation. Concern has built 15 of them in this region over the past five years: the local communities dug each pit, and the aid agency provided the $15,000 worth of materials.
“We took the most vulnerable places where people exist,” says Khaled Haib, a water, sanitation, and hygiene engineer for Concern. The agency has also dug two boreholes over the years, trains local water management teams to run each water source, and provides purification tablets to make the water safe for drinking.
“We always train them to make them sustainable,” says Mr. Haib.
In other areas, however, the water supply is short-term, and contingent on outside groups – a challenge against long-term displacement.
On the fringes of Burco, 110 miles east of Hargeisa, lies “Prosperity Camp” – the name this rugged desert camp’s displaced residents chose, with great irony.
Clusters of stick-structure tents are draped with patchworks of cloth, to keep away the scalding heat and blowing sand. There are no latrines, and though trucks make daily water deliveries, the only sign of it are the grimy yellow jugs many carry when they emerge from their tents.
“Water is life, but what about food, and something to cook it with? There is no shelter, and now the wind and rain falls on our families,” says Farah Robleh, a man with gray stubble and veins on his forehead, whose herd of 200 goats and sheep has been ravaged to just 20. His wealth of 20 camels are now carcasses.
“When we first came here there were 70 families; life was good. Now there are 1,000 families and it is so, so crowded,” says Mr. Robleh. “I don’t think anyone can live here anymore. We have no options, we are only waiting for help.”
The drought has so uniformly destroyed livestock herds that many Somalis have nicknamed it “sima,” short for “similar,” because this drought made everyone similarly impoverished.
When the livestock of Basra Yusuf’s family began dying off in January, the government provided emergency food and support, which kept them in their village near Ainabo, farther to the east. But that help stopped when the rains began, as if the crisis were over.
Finally, all 300 of the family’s goats and sheep were dead, and Mrs. Yusuf and her husband were forced to move with their seven children in search of support.
“Here we get help,” says Yusuf, her second-youngest child tied to her hip with a wrap. “If [everything] goes again, we will have no choice but to look for something else.”
Preventing displacement is the aim of one cash-dispersal program run by Concern. The village of Yirowe, 15 miles southeast of Burco, does not have its own borehole – a decades-long frustration with dangerous ramifications during drought.
But the cash intervention helped the 655 families of Yirowe stay put, and even take in roughly 150 displaced families from the countryside.
As the drought gained momentum earlier this year, one-third of the poorest families in the village – about 220 – were each given $65 per month for three months, then double that in a final payment in April.
“Without this help, this situation would be worse,” says Abdirizak Ayah Awad, the head of the village committee that chose the poorest families. “We believe none of us would have died without it, but we would not even be at a basic level.”
But the Yirowe elders worry about a future dependent on rain, with 14 sub-districts under their leadership.
“Even if the drought ends, we need the water,” says Awad, making his bid for a borehole. “Now the people are so weak, we believe they can’t recover for 10 years – so we need external help.”
Forging a new path
As droughts have become more severe, unpredictable, and frequent – every year or two, instead of every decade – the trend is yielding widespread recognition that long-term survival and true resilience will require fundamental lifestyle changes.
Diversification toward agriculture is already underway: a dramatic step for a nomadic society whose ancient poets idolized the camel as a “living boulder placed by God in the wilderness,” whose beloved, sustaining existence was “as vital to life as the tendons of one’s back.”
“Most importantly, we need to diversify the economy,” says Dr. Shire. “Nomadism probably was the best way of living in this land 50 years ago, 100 years ago. Not anymore. That’s no longer tenable.”
“Somaliland is not alone in this; all the countries in Sahel region are experiencing the same situation,” says Shire, adding that the land is overburdened: Somaliland’s population has expanded almost six-fold since the 1950s, to 3.5 million, and the number of livestock has grown four-fold.
To fight the drought, the government has raised money for assistance, intervened with food and water, and is looking for ways to replenish herds. But it has been overwhelmed.
The climate, landscape, and seasons described by travelers to Somaliland in the 19th century – when the natural cycle better suited pastoral life – no longer exists, says Shire: “It’s a totally different country. I don’t think there is a future for nomadism.”
“If we want to keep camels, and sheep and goats, then we must change the way we raise them,” he says. “Otherwise there will be nothing for [them] to eat 10 years down the road – it will all be desert.”
In Carro-Yaambo, the community has taken advantage of their water to speed the transition from solely herding livestock to more farming, a shift that has been underway for 20 years.
“It’s not optional, it’s mandatory,” says Mohamed Abdi Yusuf, an elder at another water catchment tank. “Whenever people lose their livestock, they start farming.”
That process, too, is helped by aid agencies. Some 40 miles west of Hargeisa is a 13-hectare plot of land known as a Free Farmer School, where last year a lead farmer was chosen, and 40 community members have learned growing techniques.
Young citrus trees, sunflowers, onion, and garlic all wave in the breeze as clouds gather, perhaps to bring more rain. Local elders offer corn and watermelons as gifts – and totems of their need and desire to embrace a changed lifestyle.
“We gave them seeds and tools, to increase their resilience,” says Haib, the engineer from Concern. “Since the transition into farming, they need some knowledge.”