Somali Drought; Harbinger of Hard Times

by | 7.19.2011 at 1:00pm
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Somali refugees in the Gulf of Aden. 2009. Photo by David Barker, courtesy US Navy

For all its problems, Southern California has been a wonderful home for a lot of people over the past 100 or so years. It has nice beaches, good roads, plenty of places to eat, and, for now, a reliable supply of drinking water. Now imagine the L.A. riots had spread across the entire region, plunging it into a bloody civil war and cutting it off from the state government in Sacramento. Roads patrolled by murderous guerrillas fall into disrepair and food distribution all but ceases, leading to a huge spike in food prices. With everyone tied up in the more pressing reality of warding off attackers and trying frantically to find something to eat, the complicated business of providing water to a large population living on a dry landscape goes by the wayside. So the taps run dry and people begin dying en masse.

Sound like a post-apocalyptic return to the stone age? It could happen, and has been in Somalia, which has been consistently ranked by myriad sources as one of the most dangerous countries on the planet. Political unrest and civil war have been the arid East African country’s state of normalcy for decades. Now, as if to add insult to injury, the Horn of Africa–the landmass separating the Indian Ocean from the pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden–is now suffering its worst drought in 60 years. With so little stability, it has been impossible for Somalian authorities–when there have been any–to build and maintain storage facilities to protect against drought. Most of the country receives only 8-12 inches of rainfall annually, but rain comes mainly as torrential downpours, doing more to promote flooding than to augment groundwater storage. Water infrastructure in the form of diversions and storage reservoirs is practically nonexistent, and most people rely upon rudimentary groundwater boreholes to supply their drinking water.

Food insecurity in Somalia is a decades-old problem. 1992. Photo by SSgt. Charles Reger, courtesy DoD

To call Somalia a country at this point is a bit of a stretch. There hasn’t been a fully functioning government there since 1991. As such, only about 1,600 miles of Somalia’s 13,700 miles of roadway are paved, and most of it is crumbling and in need of repair. There isn’t much irrigated agriculture to speak of, which explains high food prices and near famine conditions. Recently, things have gotten so bad that el Shabbab–Somalia’s al Qaeda-linked Islamic militia that in 2009 ejected foreign aid workers it had been extorting money from–recently began allowing aid organizations back into the large swath of Somalian territory it controls. There is a catch, of course. El Shabbab says it will require a $20,000 fee from each organization every six months, and that it will not tolerate groups with “hidden agenda(e).”

News media are full of calls for humanitarian aid in Somalia, and the help is desperately needed by the country’s nearly 10 million inhabitants. The U.N. reports that nearly 5,000 people flee from Somalia to Ethiopia every week, but the situation there is scarcely better. More than 115,000 refugees have already arrived in the neighboring country, adding to regional tension. The Atlantic reported that 23 percent of Somalian refugees entering Ethiopia are severely malnourished.

Although the Horn is in bad shape, humanitarian assistance is a mere band-aid fix in the grand scheme of things, particularly in Somalia. A surface skim over the past 50 years of Somali history reveals generations of clan rivalry and exploitative leadership. Within the past century, outside influences have run the gamut from British and Italian colonization, Soviet-backed Marxism, and U.S. military aid, none of which has succeeded in doing much more than exacerbating inter-clan rivalries and, ultimately, empowering warlords and pirates. Although people living within Somalia’s land area share language, religion, and even ethnicity in common, the region’s clan-based society has not adapted well to Western-style nation-state structure. Somalia is a splintered collection of opposing factions, and cross-border violence between Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and other Horn nations is a regular occurrence.

Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. Photo courtesy US Navy via WikiCommons

Without addressing social and political problems, infrastructure challenges cannot be met. Until that happens, resource conflicts and mass exodus of Somalis into other, similarly (but perhaps slightly less) troubled countries in the region will continue to unfold. From the comfort of air-conditioned buildings equipped with reliable plumbing and well-maintained, tree lined roads, such problems may seem distant to most Westerners. But this is our problem, too. Anarchy and economic chaos in Somalia begat piracy, which has certainly affected developed world shipping traffic traveling from the Mediterranean Sea, through the Suez Canal, and ultimately through the Gulf of Aden. Earlier this year, the Guardian reported that piracy adds an estimated $16 billion per year to the cost of shipping, mainly because vessels have to be re-routed through the Panama Canal or, in the case of larger ships, around South America’s stormy southern tip.

But perhaps the situation in Somalia is also a crystal ball in which the West can see how things work when resources get tight and people get desperate. If the climate change map posted in Al Gore’s recent Rolling Stone article is any indication, the U.S., Europe, Australia, and most of the other currently productive areas of the world are in for dry times. How will we adapt to a lack of resources that may be more severe than ever before in recorded history? Can you picture battered trucks full of armed militants in Los Angeles cruising dusty, potholed boulevards?

Like California, Somalia has beautiful beaches, although incidences of kidnapping and murder remain high. Photo by tahir turk via WikiCommons

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Columbia Water Center demonstrates research-based solutions to global freshwater scarcity and climate-related water risks.  Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

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