They eke out an existence in the face of myriad humanitarian, environmental and political challenges. Now people in rural Somaliland face a debilitating drought that threatens to change their way of life forever
Hargeysa( ) Hassan Haji Towakal has lived in one of the world’s toughest environments for 80 years. He has seen many droughts, but the recent prolonged lack of rainfall is the worst he has experienced in Somaliland, the breakaway country situated in Somalia’s relatively peaceful northern corner.
The drought, which has left roughly 240,000 people without enough food and killed between 35% to 40% of Somaliland’s precious livestock, has also made Haji Towakal question the future of pastoralism – the only life he has known.
“I do not have livestock now. The drought is still here … I am struggling but I don’t have any answers. People were always busy herding livestock. They would come to the town to buy and sell, but now they are not in a good shape,” he said.
Wearing a black waistcoat and clutching a blue and white walking stick, he sits on a plastic chair in the village of Gargara, a cluster of flimsy shelters fashioned from branches and sticks, and a few low stone buildings
Gargara is about a three-hour drive on bone-jangling tracks from the capital, Hargeisa, but it might be on another planet.
Hargeisa is a sprawling mix of pastel coloured, one-storey shops, new estates of smart bungalows, and busy green stands where men cluster to buy the mild stimulant khat as goats and camels wander by. Gargara has wells – which is why about 1,000 people have come here over the past five years – but little else.
Somaliland is a textbook example of how tackling climate change and attaining sustainable development – as defined by the global goals adopted in New York this September – are two sides of the same coin.
Caught as it is in the political tailwind of efforts to end the crisis in Somalia, where al-Shabaab militants are still fighting African peacekeepers and the government, the country is still struggling for international recognition. But in rural areas, the state is barely real even to its own people.
Only about one-third of the population has access to safe drinking water. Life expectancy in the country, which has a population of approximately 3.5 million people, is just 53 years for men and 56 for women. Across Somalia as a whole, only about 33% of people have access to electricity.
The World Bank has estimated that gross domestic product for Somaliland was $1.4bn (£930m) in 2012, giving the country GDP per capita of just $347. That makes Somalilanders the fourth poorest people in the world, just ahead of the populations of Malawi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Burundi. Somaliland relies mainly on livestock exports and remittances from overseas. Foreign investors are still wary because of the unresolved political situation.
Goats lie under a shelter outside Gargara village in Somaliland. Photograph: Felicity McCabe
Conversations with pastoralists in Gargara and other nearby villages make it clear that drought places an unbearable burden on people who already tick all the humanitarian needs boxes.
“Water is a basic need for humans and every living thing. It is something that is general and personal. All communities need it, whether it comes from shallow wells or any water assistance,” Haji Towakal says.
The arrival of so many displaced people has strained existing resources, creating tension locally. Save the Children is building new wells on the outskirts of the village to provide free water to the displaced people, but other concerns need addressing.
“I have in mind so many things,” Haji Towakal says. “Children should be sent to school on proper scholarships, and learn income-generating skills. Each one should get money to study for business to gain a better livelihood. I need cash for my children. I need health for my family.
“There is no hospital here. There is a health centre but it does not support us. It doesn’t have drugs. There are nurses but no one assists them for payments or restocking. It’s there as a premises but it is not functional.”
Omar Osman Farah, a 62-year-old wearing a white koffia, pulls up a chair beside Haji Towakal.
“We need what all humans need. Latrines are very important. We need health. The displaced people need shelter. They need education and schools,” he says.
Now, my life is full of worry. I don’t like staying here but I have to. I won’t go back without something to go back to
Sahel Siyal Mohamed
The displaced people live in cramped domed huts – branches, thatching and cloth placed over a frame of sticks – close to the village. Many have been here for five years, since the rains started to fail and their villages ran out of water.
Sahel Siyal Mohamed, 26, tells of her journey from the village of Biyo Cade, three years ago. She walked with her two-year-old son on her back, while her three-year-old boy walked by her side, clutching her hand. It took two days.
“It was full of struggle … You tell your children they just need to sleep. We got tired a lot.”
From 60 sheep and goats, she now has just three sheep and two goats. She has tried to make a new life in Gargara by selling tea, but the villagers are now too poor for such purchases.
“If you try to cook food to sell, there is no market. You end up eating it yourself,” she says as her two-year-old daughter squirms in her lap. “Now, my life is full of worry … I don’t like staying here but I have to. I won’t go back unless there is something to go back to.”
In a report this month, the World Bank said as many as 100 million peopleglobally could slide into extreme poverty because of rising temperatures. The bank said efforts to stabilise climate change should incorporate strategies to eradicate poverty, and called for social safety nets and universal healthcare for poor people.
At the weekend, before UN talks begin in Paris to agree a global deal to limit climate change, action/2015 campaign members will participate in global climate marches to put pressure on politicians to agree a deal that will accelerate action and ensure no individual is left behind.
Abdikarim, nine, might be forgiven for feeling he has already been forgotten. He and his family left their village, Faahiye, for Gargara five years ago. They used to have 200 animals. Now they have 10.
He doesn’t go to school; only about half of children between six and 13 go to primary school in Somaliland. He herds goats, fetches water for his mother, Shukri, and amuses himself with stones – the only plaything in a place where footballs are a luxury too far. But dreams, however unrealistic, cost nothing.
“I want to be a minister, of education. A lot of people came here advocating for education. I would like to have a school here,” he says. There is a school in Gargara, but there is not enough room, and not enough teachers for all the new arrivals, and many cannot afford the fees.
“I am just disappointed all the time,” says Abdikarim.“I ask God all the time to bring more rain. I get thirsty. When I am thirsty, I can’t walk, I can’t do anything. I just sit down.”