Ecocentric

Could A 36-Year Drought Push Somalia Over the Edge?

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The fleeting moments that Somalia still gets in the international press these days mostly revolve around pirates, and understandably so. Piracy, though it no longer dominates headlines, is still a tremendous problem both inside Somalia and for the crews and owners of ships that must make the trip through the Indian Ocean to get from Europe to Asia. And things have taken a turn for the worse: recent reports indicate that Somali pirates are becoming increasingly violent with their hostages, using them as human shields and employing torture in their bargaining tactics.

Less discussed is the fact that the other 99.9% of Somalia is in the throes of its worst drought in 36 years. Much of the nation hasn’t seen rain since November, and some 55,000 people have already had to leave their homes this year — literally in search of greener pastures. As the Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog noted yesterday: “Events over the years have led to an image of a country mired in endless conflict, plagued by piracy and lawlessness. But there is another story, one of ordinary people persevering in the face of incredible odds to make a better life for themselves and their children.”

As the drought has dried up pasture and crop lands alike, a third of the nation’s population – some 2.4 million people – has been impacted. And as in other parts of the world, the price of food has risen in step, with some cereal prices up an unwieldy 135%, according to the NGO Concern Worldwide that works in Somalia and whose program advisor authored the post. In better times, the country’s informal agrarian economy, run largely by semi-nomadic herdsmen, accounts for about 40% of the national GDP and half of the nation’s exports. Now that activity has dried up, and according to aid groups, one in four kids is malnourished.

Fixing that won’t be easy. Only patches of the nation are still run by the UN-backed government, and food aid has not been easy to deliver to the millions of people living in insurgent-controlled areas for years. Due to budget cuts, the World Food Program (WFP) estimates it only has about 30% of the food rations that it needs at present to compensate for the weak food supply. The U.S. has donated an emergency $14.5 million to WFP to help, but with this summer’s harvest expected to be low after the prolonged dry spell, any injection of cash will only go so far.

Water – or more precisely, the lack of it – has long been a destabilizing force in Somalia. Because infrastructure is not in place to keep water-drilling rigs maintained and supplied with fuel to run, herders crowd water sources and drill their own water holes, depleting underground resources and creating competition and conflict between different communities, according to the Somali Environmental Protection and Anti-Desertification Organization (SEPADO). That activity and others, like timber export and dependency on wood and charcoal for fuel, has caused widespread desertification of the land, driving people from rural parts of the country into urban areas where there is little if any governance or opportunity.

Somalia is not unique in this regard. Desertification is a source of conflict in other parts of Africa like Darfur, where the competition for land and water has fueled rivalries that get cast later as ethnic conflicts.

But with the severity of its instability and this near historic drought, Somalia is uniquely vulnerable. Another environmental disasters – rampant overfishing – already led to the resurgence of piracy; as my colleague Ishaan Tharoor has written, many Somali pirates, once fishermen, initially turned to their life of crime because their fishing grounds were depleted. Today, the al-Qaeda inspired militant group al Shabab continues to gain influence in the economic fragility and vacuum of governance; this week the insurgents claimed responsibility for four peacekeeping troops in Mogadishu. Al Shabab has ramped up its recruiting in Somalia’s impoverished — and now increasingly hungry — population. As in Yemen, where militants have capitalized on the insecurity that water scarcity creates in a population, the destabilizing elements in Somalia grow stronger on the backs of disaffected youth without hope or opportunity. They are probably not doing any rain dances.

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