A historic drought, floods, and a widening war with al-Shabab have displaced more than a million people this year.
Nurta Hassan Ebow held her hand over her daughter’s face, shielding her from the sun. As the temperature neared 90 degrees, the tiny child, who has never known a permanent home, lay motionless. Two months ago, Ebow gave birth to her on the road, after fleeing her village in the Lower Shabelle region of southwest Somalia. They had only made it to this camp on the outer fringe of Somalia’s capital the night before we spoke earlier this month.
“We had to leave because of the drought and the conflict,” said Ebow, 25, referring to the current offensive by the Somali government against the terrorist group al-Shabab. “We had no food. Our livestock is dead.” Their first night at the camp, Ebow and three of her children slept in a makeshift shelter. When we spoke on May 10, they were waiting for their own small wood-and-plastic-tarp bivouac there.
The Horn of Africa is experiencing a historic drought, one of the worst in six decades. A drought and famine in 2011 and 2012 killed a quarter million people here. Somalia, with the help of international donors, has averted a famine this year, but the current drought is of the same magnitude or worse than 2011, Mohamed Moalim, an adviser with the Somali Disaster Management Agency, told The Intercept. Most of the country is still facing acute food insecurity, while the risk of famine stalks rural areas and internally displaced people, or IDP, camps like this one.
The drought is compounded, ironically, by catastrophic flooding. Almost the entire population of the central Somali town of Beledweyne was displaced due to flash floods this month. Twelve days later, the water had still not receded, leaving critical infrastructure inundated and roads impassable and delaying the arrival of humanitarian aid.
A long-running conflict against al-Shabab involving the Somali government and a host of international military forces, including the United States, Turkey, and the African Union, has also led to widespread displacement. The Pentagon’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies found that, in 2022, al-Shabab attacks increased by 23 percent and fatalities caused by militant Islamists spiked 133 percent, a record level exceeding the total in 2020 and 2021 combined. From January through mid-March, when Ebow was driven from her home, there were at least 630 acts of conflict-related violence in Somalia, with more than 230 reported fatalities in Lower Shabelle, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
Last Friday, al-Shabab fighters attacked an outpost of the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia in Bulamarer, about 80 miles southwest of Mogadishu. Al-Shabab claimed that the coordinated assault, including suicide bombs, killed 137 Ugandan troops. The African Union acknowledged the attack but did not comment on its losses. U.S. Africa Command was drawn into the fighting and, according to a press release, “conducted an airstrike against militants in the vicinity of the ATMIS forward operating base” that reportedly “destroyed weapons and equipment unlawfully taken by al Shabaab fighters.”
“The combination of conflict, drought, and floods drove more than one million people from their homes between January 1 and May 10.”
The combination of conflict, drought, and floods drove more than one million people from their homes between January 1 and May 10, a record rate of displacement for the nation. “These are alarming figures of some of the most vulnerable people forced to abandon the little that they had to head for the unknown,” said the Norwegian Refugee Council’s country director Mohamed Abdi.
Ebow and her children are among 3.9 million people who are now homeless within the country’s borders, while another 700,000 Somalis are displaced abroad. With insecurity rising and the drought killing off livestock, Ebow said, people were streaming out of her village. The Intercept heard the same from more than a dozen other recently arrived IDPs in the camp. Narifa Hussein Mohamed, an administrator who oversees al-Hidaya, said 400 people arrived in the first week of May. When I visited, they were doubled up with neighbors, sometimes eight or 10 people — mostly women and children — in rickety shelters that look fit for no more than two or three.
As IDP camps go, al-Hidaya is better than many in countries marred by conflict. It is laid out in a coherent fashion and has potable water and an open-air school for children. But privation is still the rule here; accessing water is a challenge, and nourishment, like hope, is in short supply. “These people need food, clothes, mattresses, shelter from the rain,” said Mohamed. “They also need work or some training so that they can make money, have an income.” Al-Hidaya is just one of hundreds of makeshift sites on the outskirts of Mogadishu where exhausted people on the run from war, want, and withering weather have found meager shelter.
Ebow — scrunched up on the dusty ground, cradling her baby — said her family is now divided. Her husband and four other children were too sick and weak to travel, so she had to leave them behind. She hoped to find some work to help pay their way to join her, but the sum involved — perhaps as much as $100 — is so far out of reach as to be impossible. Most Somalis live on less than $2 per day.
Women and children in IDP camps in Mogadishu and the town of Baidoa, about 140 miles northwest of the capital, have turned to begging in the streets, housecleaning, shining shoes, or selling khat — a leaf that, when chewed, offers psychotropic effects — to support their families. Nearly 90 percent of respondents to a recent U.N. survey on how the drought is affecting children said that kids are engaged in hazardous work, with about 18 percent involved in sex work.
Amina Sidow, 40, arrived at al-Hidaya from Lower Shabelle with her five children just days before we talked. She said this year’s drought was the worst she had ever experienced. “In 2011, there was some assistance. The cows got very skinny, but they didn’t die,” she told The Intercept, sitting outside her tiny, jury-rigged home: several scraps of frayed plastic tarp, layered and stretched taut over a frame of bent tree branches. “Now all our animals are dead. We’ve lost everything.”
Water shortages have led to increased disease among livestock — even among camels and goats, which are usually more resilient than cows — low birth rates, decreased milk production, and deaths. This leads to a lack of vital nutrition, such as milk and protein, especially for children. Even when livestock aren’t dying, their decreased health and weight have led to reduced value at market, hurting household incomes. Herds often take five years or more to rebuild after catastrophic shocks, and many pastoralist and farmer households had yet to recover from a drought in 2016 and 2017 when the current one began in October 2020. Numerous IDPs at al-Hidaya said they had lost all their animals to the drought or had sold them off, suggesting extremely lean years to come for many of the displaced.
“Climate change is causing chaos,” said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres on a visit to Somalia in April, noting that the country has experienced an unprecedented run of five consecutive insufficient rainy seasons. “Poor and vulnerable communities are pushed by the drought to the brink of starvation, and the situation can get worse.”
“We want to help ourselves. But right now, we need someone to help us.”
For Sidow, whose husband died six months ago, “worse” is hard to imagine. “We have no means to build a proper shelter. No materials,” she said, raising her hands and then dropping them in her lap. “We need water. We need food. We want to work, to be productive, but what can we do? We want to help ourselves. But right now, we need someone to help us.”