The Long Read: Somaliland’s Quest To Defuse A Climate ‘Timebomb’


When Hawo Mohamed woke one morning to find about a dozen of her goats dead, she knew her life as a herder was coming to an end.

Raised in a remote village in coastal Somaliland, in north-east Africa, Mohamed remembers taking her family’s goats to feed on green pasture flanked by a sprinkling of trees.

But in time the trees began to die, she said, and then, about eight years ago, seasonal rains grew much more erratic, seemingly worsening each year.

Little by little, her animals, starved of enough forage and water, grew weaker too.

“One day I went to collect the animals as usual and brought them home but the next morning 10 to 12 of them were dead,” Mohamed recalled, sitting in the sand nursing her newborn son outside a corrugated iron shelter in the coastal city of Berbera.

“When only a few of our animals were left, I saw my neighbours had already started to move and I went with them…I knew nothing would be the same again.”Somaliland climate migration1The Abdigeedi village, 100 miles north-west of Hargeisa in Somaliland and near the border with Djibouti. Picture taken on 6th July. PICTURE: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Claudio Accheri

Mohamed, 32, her husband Ahmed Ali, and their four children this year joined an estimated 600,000 people in Somaliland who have fled rural villages to seek new lives in cities, unable to cope after years of drought decimated their livestock and crops.

Somaliland, a self-declared republic of four million people in the Horn of Africa, is one of the world’s most vulnerable places to climate change. Poor and drought-hit, and without legal status as a country, it is struggling to adapt for the future.

“Climate change is real in Somaliland…and it is becoming a disaster.”

– Minister for the Environment and Rural Development Shukri Ismail Bandare.

As the Syria-sized republic battles worsening weather crises and growing migration within and out of the region, it is racing to find ways to stem a tide of climate migrants, keep people on ever-less-productive land and create new jobs for the unemployed.

In particular, soaring youth employment, as destitute families leave farming but find nothing else to do, is creating a social and political “timebomb” in a region already struggling with migration and extremism, Somaliland representatives warn.

“It is a nation moving,” Minister for the Environment and Rural Development Shukri Ismail Bandare said in an interview in her office in the capital Hargeisa, where goats roam the streets, some with their owners’ phone numbers written in pen on their side.

“Climate change is real in Somaliland…and it is becoming a disaster.”

But the crisis in Somaliland is also seen as a forewarning, with the World Bank estimating climate change could force about 140 million people to migrate in three of the world’s poorest regions by 2050 unless action is taken.

Hotter, drier
Analysis by the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Climate Hazards Center for the Thomson Reuters Foundation found average daily maximum temperatures in Somaliland have risen by about a degree over the last 30 or so years, to about 34 degrees Celsius.

Meanwhile there has been a marked increase in the number of dry seasons, with only three good March to May rains in 20 years. That has hit crops and the herds of goats, camel, sheep and cattle that are the backbone of Somaliland’s economy.

Faisal Ali Sheikh, head of the Somaliland National Disaster Preparedness and Food Reserve Authority, said Somaliland faced greater challenges than other countries in part due to poverty and poor infrastructure, with little transport and few roads.

Government data puts the republic’s GDP at $US646 per person, making it one of the 10 poorest places globally, according to World Bank figures. The government estimates 50 per cent of urban and 64 per cent of rural people are poor.

Adding to the complications is Islamic Somaliland’s legal status.


It broke away from Somalia in 1991, and has operated independently since, largely without the terrorism and violence that plagues parts of Somalia.

But the self-declared state is not recognised as a country, which rules out direct aid or loans from most global institutions.

“We are different from other countries…the challenges here are far greater,” Sheikh said in an interview in his office in the government sector of Hargeisa, a dusty city of about one million where there are few tarmac roads and no street names.

“We don’t have rivers or any water deposits. Our life on the whole in this country depends on water from rain…and we can’t get loans from other countries.”

Long-running crisis
Climate change has exacerbated a long-running humanitarian crisis in Somalia and in Somaliland, which makes up about 30 per cent of Somalia’s territory, in the north-west of the country.

The unusual circumstances make it one of the world’s most complex emergencies.

After 20 years of civil war in Somalia, famine swept it and much of East Africa in 2011, claiming 260,000 lives. Photos of emaciated children shocked the world as 13 million went hungry and many fled their homes during a brutal drought.

As signs of a similar drought-heralding El Nino weather pattern formed five years later, aid agencies moved quickly and averted another famine and widescale loss of lives during a drought in 2016 and 2017.

But the crisis killed about 80 per cent of Somaliland’s livestock, its major export and the basis of the state’s economy.Somaliland drought 2012Carting water during a 2012 drought in  Somaliland. Widow Faadomo Hirsi and her grandson wheel their daily allowance of two 20-litre jerrycans back to their house where Faadomo was looking after seven people – her children, grandchildren and her elderly mother. PICTURE: Oxfam East Africa (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

As people struggled to recover, the republic then was hit in May, 2018, by tropical Cyclone Sagar – the strongest recorded cyclone to make landfall in that part of the world – forcing thousands more from their homes.

Hopes were high for a reprieve this year. But the March to May rainy season, known as the Gu’, again failed, leaving Somaliland teetering on the brink of catastrophe.

“It is pretty much game over for getting any precipitation in Somaliland until October or early November,” said Chris Funk, research director for the US-based Climate Hazards Center.

“Overall the situation is looking really grim.”

He said Somaliland was particularly vulnerable to climate threats because it was one of the few regions to receive droughts during both El Nino and La Nina weather oscillations, the dominant pattern of large-scale tropical climate variation.

The increased regularity of droughts was also tied to climate-change-driven warming in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, which has tended to produce more rainfall over the ocean and less over eastern East Africa, he said.

“It is pretty much game over for getting any precipitation in Somaliland until October or early November. Overall the situation is looking really grim.”

– Chris Funk, research director for the US-based Climate Hazards Center.

“It seems in the long term this increasing frequency of drought will continue as that seems to be the new normal,” Funk said. Somaliland “seems to be getting drier and much hotter”.

“Worst ever” conditions
The United Nations’ food agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization, said a third of the population of Somalia, including Somaliland, was now facing food shortages – 30 per cent higher than estimated at the start of 2019.

With a crisis looming, the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in May launched a call for $US710 million in drought aid for Somalia.

The appeal came four months after a UN humanitarian bid for more than $US1 billion, to support aid operations in Somalia during 2019, fell far short, as donor response to repeated drought appeals wavered.

For many rural families in Somaliland, however, it is already too late to ride out the drought.

Much of the country’s livestock is dead and families have been forced from their homes, leaving the future of the next generation uncertain, with nearly two out of three young people unemployed.Shepherd in 2012 SomalilandAden Jama takes one of his few remaining goats out to look for pasture during the 2012 drought. PICTURE: Oxfam East Africa (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

A government spokesman said about 600,000 people were believed to have left their homes in recent years, driven by pressures linked to climate change – and the number was rising.

Fatima Aden, who put her age at about 80, moved to the Sheikh Omer camp for people internally displaced in Somaliland about six years ago, abandoning a pastoral life that had supported her family for generations.

In the camp of about 1,500 people, about 10 kilometres from Hargeisa, Aden spoke about her childhood from her buul – a traditional hut that used to be built from branches and grass but is now made of wood, corrugated iron and pieces of cloth.

“When I was young it was green, with forests everywhere, and people had enough livestock in every family that could be sold to buy anything they needed,” said Aden, a mother of six who lives with 15 members of her family.

“In my life I have seen many dry spells and different levels of drought but the severity of the drought we have had for the past 10 years really is the worst ever.”

Aden, who earns some money selling the stimulant leaf khat in the camp, said more and more people were coming to the cities and the camps with no work, nothing to do and no access to running water or electricity.

“We have never seen people lose all their animals before and get to the point where they risk losing their lives,” said Aden, as cats sniffed around her feet searching for scraps of food.

“Life is changing every year, and every year is becoming more difficult,” she said. “I worry for the future, for my children, their families.”

Aid lifeline
With few opportunities to earn an income and youth unemployment soaring, charities and non-governmental organisations this year have stepped up efforts to assist the rising numbers in need of help.

In Sheikh Omer camp – one of an estimated 20 such camps in and around Hargeisa, according to charity workers – Save the Children has provided grants since 2017 to keep youngsters out of child labour and in school.

This year the charity started a cash transfer scheme, giving families $US75 a month for food and other supplies amid projections of growing numbers of people in crisis.

“Malnutrition, drought-related diseases and displacement are on the rise,” Save the Children spokeswoman Jamillah Mwanjisi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Malnutrition, drought-related diseases and displacement are on the rise.”

– Save the Children spokeswoman Jamillah Mwanjisi

Some families are only managing to hold on to their rural homes and livelihoods with help from local and international aid groups.

The village of Abdigeedi, about 160 kilometres north-west of Hargeisa and near the border with Djibouti, is particularly hard-hit.

Sited in one of the most drought-affected areas, it has lacked good rains since 2014 and was then flattened by Cyclone Sagar last year.

The cyclone destroyed every home in the village of 2,000 people, with only the brick mosque, school and health clinic left standing.

“For the past four or five years this community has been suffering with a failure of rain and is heavily dependent on assistance,” said Nour Abdi Indanoor, food security and livelihoods project manager with Save the Children.

Signs around the village indicated at least eight NGOs and charities – from the Norwegian Refugee Council to UNICEF – were helping the community with everything from food vouchers to latrines.

“They could not survive without that,” said Indanoor, swatting away flies in the sweltering heat.

Loss of independence
Saleban Sead Ali, head of the village elders, said help was welcome but no one was able to provide for the goats and camels that were central to their lives, with many animals dying.

“After the cyclone people tried to carry their weak animals to another village for help but they came back with nothing. They all died,” said the father of 10, who estimated his age at 47 and spoke via a translator.

“We can’t move to another location. Our land is not suitable to farm so our only opportunity is to rear livestock again,” he said. “I hope to [do so] again despite the harsh conditions, to be independent again.”

Ayan Mahamoud, Somaliland’s resident representative in Britain and the Commonwealth, said climate-driven crises were now nearly a constant in the state, weakening the traditional nomadic way of life and the clan system of Somaliland society.

“Every other year now we have something huge,” Mahamoud told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“The pastoral community has been affected the most, losing so many animals and their social structure,” she said.

As people move to cities, where youth unemployment is huge, “it is becoming a timebomb”, said Mahamoud, who lobbies for Somaliland’s official recognition and supports the 150,000 or so people from the republic now living in Britain.

Staying on the land
Efforts are underway to try to help rural people remain on their land and adapt to worsening droughts and other climate pressures, through measures from building irrigation systems and water storage to introducing drought-resistant seeds.

Drought early warning systems are being put in place to help pastoral communities sell livestock before conditions turn threatening, avoiding economic losses.

Officials also are trying to find ways to stabilise food prices across the region.

In Biyoguure Village, about 30 kilometres down a sand track from Berbera, 40-year-old farmer Ahmed Ali is determined to stay in his village with his wife Zaynab Abdi and four young sons.

“Every year it is getting worse and worse and the droughts are getting longer and longer,” Ali told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in a school building sheltered from the scorching 40 degrees Celsius heat outside.

“But I don’t know what the other options would be if I tried to leave.”

Ali’s family is one of several in the village of about 140 people to this year start receiving $US70 a month from a local NGO called GRASHO – Grass Roots Support For Humanitarian Organisations – which gets FAO funding to work on crop projects.

GRASHO spokesman Abdulkadir Buuh said the organisation had increased assistance this year, with a drought emergency predicted, and now works with about 18 villages.Borama SomalilandThe city of Boroma in Somaliland in 2013. PICTURE: UNHCR Somalia (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Humanitarian aid experts say providing such help in advance of a disaster, rather than just responding afterwards, can cut losses and aid costs.

But even with this help Ali doubts his children will remain on the family’s land.

“I don’t think my children will stay farming because they have seen what I have faced and the environment,” he said as he walked up to the family’s enclosure, on a hill overlooking the barren village where thorn fences keep the hyenas away at night.

Still, “I feel it is my duty to take care of the village and the peace like my forefathers.”

About 10 kilometres away in the village of Magab, Maryam Jama, 19, also doubted she would ever leave her village despite the worsening conditions. Generations of her family had been pastoralists, she said.

Jama was married at the age of 10 to another villager, Mahdi Mohamed, and had her first child at 11. She now has two sons.

“We have lost a lot of livestock – camels, goats, sheep and donkeys,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a buul in her village, where residents receive animal fodder and deworming treatment from GRASHO.

“I tried to leave a couple of times but I had no better options,” she said. “I am a native here and I see my future here. I am hoping with help it will only get better.”

Drought resistant crops
Some efforts to help rural families adapt to the harsher conditions have started to pay dividends.

Local non-government organisation HAVOYOCO – the Horn of Africa Voluntary Youth Committee – set up a community seed bank in 2015 in Galoley.

The village, about 50 kilometres from Hargeisa, is in an area known as the food basket of Somaliland.

Project manager Mohamed Ali said the bank distributed drought-resistant, disease-free seeds – ranging from maize to sorghum and tomatoes – to local farmers who then contributed seeds from their own harvests back to the bank.

HAVOYOCO, which receives funding from a range of organisations, from The Development Fund of Norway to Oxfam, CARE and the FAO, also has improved water harvesting in the area, capturing rainwater for crops and animals.

“People had many challenges before. It was difficult to get seeds during drought seasons or good quality seeds,” Ali said, surveying acres of green, healthy crops that contrasted vividly with the rest of Somaliland.

But now “people from the east and other regions are coming here for better pastures and food”, he said.

With weather patterns becoming more extreme each year, “we support people because we want people to keep their livelihoods”, he said.

“It is critical that we diversify our economy to bring trade and jobs.”

– Edna Adan Ismail, Somaliland’s first female cabinet minister and a former foreign minister

But Edna Adan Ismail, Somaliland’s first female cabinet minister and a former foreign minister, said many rural people had no choice but to move and try to find other work as traditional livelihoods were lost.

“Their survival depends on it,” said Adan, who set up the Edna Adan University Hospital in Hargeisa.

In a bid to diversify its livestock-dependent economy, Somaliland is courting overseas investors tempted by the country’s position along a vital sea transport route.

Somaliland controls 760 kilometres of coastland along the Gulf of Aden. In that zone, the United Arab Emirates is funding a $US440 million upgrade of the deep-water port at Berbera as well as setting up a military base.

“It is critical that we diversify our economy to bring trade and jobs,” Adan said.

But winning political recognition as a state is also critical to Somaliland’s future, she said.

“When you are recognised, people will come and they will invest.”

Fighting for independence
Somaliland was a British protectorate until 1960 when it united with the formerly Italian Somalia. It later broke away from Somalia in 1991 in a bloody civil war.

Hargeisa became known as “the Dresden of Africa”, with the city devastated by aerial bombardments. Much of its population fled.

But as Somalia spiralled into chaos after 1991, following the ouster of dictator Mohammed Siad Barre, northern clans in Somaliland restored peace, eradicating piracy and the Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist group al-Shabaab within their borders.

The republic now has its own parliament and elections, its own currency, passports, flag, military and self-declared border, with police checkpoints in operation across the state.

But despite operating peacefully, Somaliland has not won recognition from any country – although local authorities in Cardiff in Wales, Tower Hamlets in London, and the English cities of Sheffield and Birmingham recognise its independence.

“With or without recognition we are a country but we do want our people to be able to progress,” said Mahamoud, Somaliland’s representative in Britain. “But no one is willing to make the first step.”Roadside SomaliandA woman sits by the roadside near Borama in Somaliland in 2013. PICTURE: UNHCR Somalia (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Western nations have said it is up to the African Union to decide whether to recognise Somaliland. But there is little incentive for that body to set a precedent in a continent where about 15 of 54 countries are struggling with civil conflicts.

Repeated calls and emails to the African Union and the Somalia government went answered.

Somalia has insisted that Somaliland is not independent. It accused the West African nation of Guinea of “violating Somalia’s sovereignty” when it officially hosted Somaliland’s President Muse Bihi Abdi in July this year.

Britain’s foreign office said the United Kingdom did not recognise Somaliland as an independent state but supported and encouraged talks between Hargeisa and Mogadishu.

“We firmly believe that it is for Somaliland and the federal government of Somalia to decide their future, and for neighbours in the region to take the lead in recognising any new arrangements,” a spokeswoman said by email.

Future generations
With limited foreign investment, the Somaliland government and other organisations are trying to create new jobs for young people in a republic where 70 per cent of the population is under 30.

The government this year launched a year-long military service programme for 1,500 young men and women while HAVOYOCO is running a vocational training project to teach carpentry, welding, and administrative skills used in the workplace.

Oxfam has helped fund an innovation training facility in Hargeisa called HarHub where youngsters from camps for displaced people can learn IT skills at the Hargabits academy.

“We see youth unemployment as a major challenge in Somaliland and major investment is needed in that sector to create jobs and diversify,” said Oxfam spokesman Abdiaziz Adani.

“The traditional ways of living as pastoralists, due to climate change and droughts, won’t be the same again.”

Hamse Sulub is one of those making the change.

The 19-year-old moved to Hargeisa seven years ago from a village near the Ethiopian border after drought killed most of his family’s camels.

“I worry about my family having enough food every day to eat. What young people need is to get jobs and for that they need the skills and facilities to learn.”

– Hamse Sulub, 19

After studying at Islamic school, he saw an advertisement about Hargabits and dropped by the centre one day. The staff assessed him and took him on as a student, teaching him graphic design and how to use spreadsheets.

“When I was young in the village it was my responsibility to take care of the animals…I didn’t have any knowledge,” said Sulub, sitting by a chicken coop at the shelter he shares with his mother and four brothers in Sheik Nuur camp.

But “this has given me confidence. My plan is a few more years in education then I plan to have my own business,” he said.

“I worry about my family having enough food every day to eat. What young people need is to get jobs and for that they need the skills and facilities to learn.”

Without jobs or hopes for the future, increasing numbers of Somaliland youth could join the rising number of young Africans seeking to migrate, said Environment Minister Shukri Bandare, stressing migration due to climate change was a global concern.

“They will go to Europe, to the United States, across the ocean to get a life,” she said.

“If we don’t collaborate, hold hands to solve the world problems when it comes to climate change, we will be doomed. We won’t be leaving anything for the coming generation, nothing.”



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