This blog is the first in a series published by the Rift Valley Institute to help understand the causes of the drought-related crisis in the Somali regions of the Horn of Africa. It is a product of the UK government’s XCEPT (Cross-Border Conflict Evidence, Policy and Trends) research programme. Observations that contributed to this blog were made on a research trip for the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) Aid Accountability Project.
In January 2022, the Somaliland National Drought Committee estimated that over 800,000 people in the country were experiencing acute food insecurity and water shortages due to three consecutive failed rainy seasons. The situation has not improved since, and if the current drought conditions persist, it is expected that over 1 million people will need emergency assistance in the coming months.
Somaliland’s eastern regions—Sool, Togdheer and Sanaag—are the hardest hit. Some areas have not received rainfall for the last four years. A researcher based in the city of Lasanod explained:
The Sool region is the hardest hit in Somaliland because there are areas in the region that have not received sufficient rain for the past 3-4 years. This has resulted in migration of livestock to areas in the Haud region that received rain causing early depletion of pasture and water.
The Haud is a vast territory stretching between southern Somaliland and the north-eastern part of Ethiopia’s Somali Region. During the April to June wet season—known as the Gu—the Haud is suitable for livestock grazing. During droughts pastoralists migrate to different parts of the Haud wherever the pasture and water is sufficient.
When I visited Odweyne and Burao in the Togdheer region in February 2022, I observed that while some parts of the region still have some dry pasture, they lacked water, making emergency water trucking for livestock and people a top priority. During my visit, I saw that animals were dying and local people felt helpless in the face of the crisis.
Origins of the crisis
Like other arid and semi-arid regions in the Horn of Africa, Somaliland has been facing drought since the Gu (April to June) and Dayr (October to November) rains failed in 2021. While drought is seasonal and recurrent, the intensity of the crisis is not simply a result of a lack of rain.
Several economic, social, and political factors—local and global in origin—have also undermined well-established community coping mechanisms, including external assistance from the diaspora, which have previously helped communities through periods of drought. During the current drought a combination of economic factors related to the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as more local political and security issues, have disrupted the coping mechanisms of communities in the region.
A drop in demand for livestock in Saudi Arabia
A collapse in demand by Saudi Arabia (KSA) for livestock—sheep and goats—from Somaliland since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic is a major factor in making the current drought more difficult to cope with than previous such events. During the pandemic, Saudi Arabia cancelled the Hajj pilgrimage, which usually brings millions of Muslims to the Kingdom and requires a massive increase in imports of sheep and goats from Somaliland, which are slaughtered for food. Prior to the pandemic, most pastoralists would sell their livestock in advance of the Hajj, when the demand for livestock in Saudi Arabia was at its highest. While there had already been a partial ban on livestock imports from Somalia since 2016—due to animal health concerns—the measures taken by the Kingdom to control the spread of Covid-19 made the situation significantly worse.
The current drought is consequently taking place at a time when pastoralists have been unable to sell livestock for export for two consecutive years. This has resulted in debt arrears, depletion of cash savings and the need to maintain (at significant cost) a stock of export-quality livestock that cannot be sold. The drought itself, causing the deaths of many animals, has also depleted the numbers of high-value stock, causing a serious economic loss.
Financial losses due to the Covid-19 export ban, and the reduced demand of livestock during the pandemic, have been estimated at USD 42 million across Somaliland’s livestock export value chain. Livestock producers, who rely almost entirely on the Saudi market to sell their sheep and goats, have been some of the worst affected financially by the drought.
Inflationary pressures on communities
Since the start of the pandemic, Somaliland has been battling high levels of inflation. Prices of fuel, water and staple foods have increased due to the interruption of global production and supply chains. Increasing costs of container transport globally have been felt strongly in Somaliland, leading to a spike in commodity prices. The chair of the Somaliland Chamber of Commerce revealed in February that the cost of bringing a 40 foot container from China to Somaliland has increased by more than 400 per cent, from USD 3,000 before the pandemic to USD 13,000 today.
Some food importers have suspended their businesses due to the high cost of international transportation. Ordinary people, in both urban and rural areas, have been badly affected by the resulting rise in price of basic commodities. For example, over the last year, a 50kg sack of rice has increased from USD 24 to USD 30; flour from USD 21 to USD 27; and sugar from USD 23 to USD 28. In the same period, fuel prices have increased from USD 0.6 to USD 1 per litre, triggering a demonstration by water truckers in Hargeisa in February 2022 against rising fuel and water prices.
The rising cost of water has affected emergency drought relief efforts. The regional humanitarian coordinator in Burao, who I interviewed in February said:
During this drought, we have been appealing for assistance from aid agencies for a long time. But only two aid agencies responded, and they said we would support you with a water emergency, but it has to go through a tender process in order to award a contract. However, as they were processing their tender, the price of one water tanker of 50 barrels increased from USD 180 to USD 350 in the remote border areas. Then the aid agencies cancelled their support because it was no longer feasible.
Political and security crises limit aid, access and migration
Some areas are more affected than others by the drought; Gedo, Bay, Mudug and Sool have been the most affected regions. Of these, Sool has suffered particularly badly due to political and security factors that have constrained the humanitarian response. A Somaliland government official in Lasanod said:
Security-wise, the Sool region and its capital Lasanod are considered a red zone [high risk area]. This affects the operation of NGOs. The NGOs that should have been based in Lasanod have their offices in Burao. We raised this issue with the Ministry of Internal Affairs on why Sool and Lasanod are in the red zone, but they always say we do not know. It is political.
In addition, some parts of Sool and Sanaag are considered ‘disputed areas’ between Somaliland and Puntland without a permanent and meaningful humanitarian presence. At the same time, development projects rarely reach this area, meaning there has been less assistance building up effective systems to respond to drought. Commenting on this, a Somaliland government official in Lasanod stated:
Puntland and Somaliland are competing over the control of the Sool region. There are areas like Buhoolde district in the Togdheer region, which neither Puntland nor Somaliland controls. Humanitarian NGOs do not have a presence and this district remains one of the most drought-affected areas. But the drought-affected people in Buhoodle cannot access international or government-led emergency responses due to politics.
Protracted clan conflicts have also limited migration and resource sharing between communities, particularly in the Sool region. The President of Nugaal University noted:
The Sool region faces political, security and development challenges, but there are also protracted and bloody conflicts within the local communities in the region. Such conflicts took place in the east of Lasanod, Buhoodle and Yagori areas. Due to these conflicts, the local communities cannot share water and pasture resources during this drought season, this worsens the drought conditions.
Where cross-border migration can take place, it often creates a burden on host communities and their meagre resources when they are already dealing with the drought. For example, conditions in the Sool region worsened due to the migration of drought-affected pastoralists from Haud (both within Somaliland and Somali regional state) and Mudug (Puntland) to the Nugal area, spreading diseases and parasites amongst the livestock brought there.
Competing international crises
During droughts, international donors often play an important role in the humanitarian response. However, unlike during the 2016/2017 drought, when the international community responded quickly, this time the response has also been slow. On 21 February, a senior FCDO Somalia official stated that the current conflict in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic have meant that major donors have multiple crises competing for their attention, thus slowing their response to drought and famine in the Somali regions. On top of this, donors are still supporting communities displaced by previous famines in Somaliland and Somalia with transfers of cash and food..
What should be done?
Multiple local and international crises have exacerbated drought conditions in Somaliland, hampered community coping mechanisms and slowed down the international response. A more effective drought response should consider both short-term and long-term interventions. In the short term, water and animal feed should be delivered to the affected communities. In the case of Sool, Buhoodle and Eastern Saaang regions, Somaliland and Puntland should put their political differences aside and form a joint humanitarian committee that involves the diaspora and local business community.
Longer-term, given the dependence of pastoralists on livestock exports for revenue and commodity imports for food, a number of things can be done to make these communities more resilient to shocks. For example, insurance mechanisms can be introduced to help pastoralists cope with the loss of livestock during droughts; livestock export markets can be diversified, so as not to rely on one potentially volatile destination (in this case, Saudi Arabia); funds can be set aside to anticipate and help communities deal with crises; and there should be more investment in water sources that can be accessed during drought. On the political side, renewed efforts should be made to address security, particularly in Sool and Sanaag, which will allow more investment and development assistance in these areas, and thus reduce their vulnerability to drought.
Ahmed M. Musa is a Senior Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) working for the Aid Accountability Project. He is also a Postdoctoral Researcher with the University of Nairobi‘s Diaspora Humanitarianism Project, which is a collaboration with the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS), Rako – Research and Communication Centre and RVI.