Hargeisa, Somaliland – Swaths of Somaliland, a fragile, internationally unrecognised nation-state in the Horn of Africa, have been racked by one of the harshest droughts in two decades which is destroying livelihoods and pushing families into destitution.
When a storm broke in mid-November, Aicha Jama huddled her last-remaining sheep and goats out of their bush pen and into her own tiny hut.
Jama’s handful of wretched animals, already close to death from starvation, could not bear a violent gale. “Two goats died from cold just now,” Musa, Jama’s nephew, told Al Jazeera.
In the drizzly aftermath, Jama carried the bony bodies of the survivors out of her hut and they crumpled, shivering with their hides soaked, the animals were too weak to hold their heads off the ground.
November’s rain was some of the first to fall here for three years.
The coastal Awdal and Galbeed regions of northwestern Somaliland are suffering the driest conditions in recent memory.
Across three fractured territories that the international community still recognises as Somalia – Somaliland, Puntland and South Central – aid groups warn that a combination of protracted drought and sudden heavy rainfall brought on by El Nino weather patterns this year will probably push 855,000 people close to catastrophe in 2016.
In Somaliland’s Awdal region, traditional rains – known locally as Gu and Deyr – which should occur regularly though the year and serve to replenish water reserves and rejuvenate grazing pasture, have failed for several consecutive years.
” Two years ago we owned 200 sheep and goats,” said Jama. “But there has been no water, no food and the animals are dying continuously.”
Her small extended family say that they cannot move from the remote dry zone because their last donkey died and the remaining sheep and goats are too weak to walk.
En route from the coast inland through desiccated terrain dozens of pastoralist families like Jama’s displayed the meagre remains of once profitable herds – their lifeline – now reduced to three, five, 15 animals – or none at all.
Goat, sheep, donkey and even camel carcasses litter the bush around rural camps.
Livestock production is the backbone of Somaliland’s economy. Around 60 percent of the population practise some form of pastoralism or depend on animal products, primarily because the arid regional climate allows for few alternative livelihoods, says Abdullahi Rabile, a livestock specialist with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Somaliland.
Eighty percent of Somaliland’s export income is generated from sales of sheep, goats, cattle and camel.
In 2014, the combined territories of Somaliland, Puntland and South Central Somalia exported a record 5 million livestock, worth an estimated $360m.
Most of those beasts were raised in Somaliland – the most politically stable of the three territories – and the majority of sales went to Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the Gulf states.
But few communities in the drought zone sold any animals or managed to plant crops at all this year. Instead they are accumulating debt.
‘I lost them all’
In Lughaya, a windswept town on the Awdal seafront, Marian Hussain, 60, says she used to own 300 sheep and goats.
Before the drought she would sell up to 10 animals a year, with a goat or sheep making on average $50 to $80, and additional income earned through sales of milk and meat.
” But slowly I lost them all. Now I have five goats left. I depend on food and support from my relatives.”
Lughaya town elder, Ege Ali, earns more as a livestock trader than the transient pastoralists who raise the animals in the bush. He says he is regularly lending food rations to rural nomads whose herds have been decimated.
The business of the town is livestock, but there were no animal sales this year, not even camels … the animals that remain are too poor condition to sell.
“The business of the town is livestock, but there were no animal sales this year, not even camels … the animals that remain are too poor condition to sell,” Ali said.
Average household debt in Awdal increased from $68 in September 2014 to $400 in the same month this year, according to Rabile.
Rural communities across this parched region are familiar with drought; they have experienced it from time to time for generations. But they say the rains they rely on have become increasingly erratic and less generous, and they notice that the landscape is changing, growing more hostile.
“The current year is bad, but this follows a series of poor rainy seasons in many years,” said Richard Trenchard, FAO representative for Somalia.
“Most farmers and livestock owners are able to withstand a poor season or two. However … we often see that one particularly bad season, after a series of poor ones, can tip vast numbers of people into desperate food security situations. This is where we are now, at least potentially: thousands of people are staring into a hunger abyss following a series of poor rainy seasons.”
A direct link between human-induced global climate change and increasing drought in the Horn of Africa is difficult to make, says Friederike Otto, a senior researcher at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute.
The region is geographically diverse with complex climate variations and there is a lack of long-term observational records which make it difficult to validate climate models.
Nevertheless, a report published by Oxfam in October suggests that soaring global temperatures in 2014 and 2015, coupled with the onset of a particularly powerful El Nino in the late months of 2015, may exacerbate the impact of disrupted rainfall patterns with dire consequences for populations across the Horn of Africa.
In Somaliland, Trenchard says the current drought is further intensified by poor land management and the limited capacity of the territorial government to regulate and manage land and water use sustainably.
Aggravating practices include unregulated over-grazing in concentrated areas and the relentless chopping-down of trees for charcoal production – another significant source of income for Somaliland – which causes deforestation leaving the soil weak and unable to retain water.
When the herd is gone the pastoralists can no longer support their families in the bush. People are forced to seek help and alternative sources of income in towns and cities.
Somaliland proclaimed independence from Somalia in 1991 and maintains a fragile democracy. It is also the world’s fourth poorest economy.
However, an estimated 84,000 people are internally displaced (IDP) within its borders and it shelters thousands of refugees from other countries – most notably at least 8,000 from Ethiopia and an influx of more than 9,000 from Yemen after the crisis there this year.
Many of Somaliland’s IDPs have been uprooted by conflict in the region but the majority, according to the territory’s Ministry of Resettlement, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction, have been forced to move by recurring drought and deteriorating landscapes that have rendered life impossible for herders.
On the outskirts of the capital Hargeisa, thousands of displaced families live in shanty towns and ragged camps. Some IDP settlements have been supported by humanitarian organisations, while others appear starkly neglected.
The Naasa Hablod camp, for instance, sprawls over a hilltop above the city. Some IDP settlements are supported by humanitarian organisations. Naasa Hablod, however, is starkly neglected.
Osman Hugur Obsiye, chief of the camp, thinks about 1,000 families – perhaps as many as 5,000 individuals – squat on this rocky hill.
He says most families, including his own, are nomads displaced to the city over the past five years as drought and disease killed off their herds of sheep, goats, cattle and camel.
Obsiye claims Naasa Hablod receives almost no aid. Whereas humanitarian groups have built permanent structures in other settlements, here residents lash together their own homes from sticks, rags and rope.
There is no school, no mosque, no health facility and no police station. Water is brought up in trucks by merchants from the city and as a result residents claim they must buy it at an inflated price.
Maria Abdullahi owned more than 200 sheep and goats and lost them all to starvation in a single year.
“I have seven children … we came to the city because our chances are somehow better. In the countryside my husband could not find money for us,” she said.
In camps such as Naasa Hablod, Somaliland’s displaced populations are chronically neglected because the international community does not recognise the territory’s independence and channels the majority of humanitarian aid into the more visible crisis of South Central Somalia, believes Ahmed Fagaase, a displacement specialist with the aid group Danish Refugee Council in Hargeisa.
Back in Awdal, Aicha Jama thinks that with a handful of decent downpours over the coming weeks her surviving animals could begin to recover after three months. But the family has no source of income in the interim.
Aid groups have distributed rations of flour, sugar, rice and cooking oil and are treating rising malnutrition in the region, but the support so far is insufficient to meet the needs of the people affected.
FAO wants to restock drought-hit communities with live sheep and goats, but as yet there is no funding for the proposal.
As of October, the international humanitarian response plan for the whole of Somalia was only 36 percent funded.
Meanwhile, for pastoralists existing in the drought zone the land grows drier. Even now with spotty rain falling in some areas it will be months before surviving herds are restored and crops can be grown.
Families who have lost all their animals and their livelihoods may have no choice but to move to a town where they must find alternative ways to earn a living. In a territory with a youth unemployment rate of 75 percent, they risk being cast to the margins.
“My animals are my life,” says Shukri Bare, a pregnant mother-of-two in the small Awdal settlement of Kalowle.
“When they were almost finished we could no longer survive [in the bush] and we had to come for help here three months ago. We cannot go back. We do not know if we can recover from this.”