Drought crisis in East Africa: ‘When the animals die, people do too’

Hussein Dirie, 70, surveys his abandoned village, Somaliland. (Credit: Charlie Ensor)

BURAO, Somaliland — Hussein Dirie stands alone in a village he has known and lived in all his life. Outside of Somaliland’s bustling towns and cities, a pastoralist’s life is destroyed by a drought more unrelenting than he has ever known.

Across Somalia and Somaliland, the U.N. estimates that 6 million people are in need of help. The drought is more severe and more extreme than any drought on record, and, so far, it shows no sign of ending while the U.N.’s Somalia appeal remains half-funded.

In normal times, the Gu rains, which fall between March and May, provide fresh pasture to feed animals. But due to successive failed rains, pastoralists have lost their livestock and their livelihoods.

“Most Somalis depend on livestock. When the animals die, people do, too,” said Abdi Yaasiin, secretary of the Togdheer region. “The future, only God knows. I hope that he gives us something to live on, but the future is not so good.”

“The international community should be doing more. It is not enough,” said Yaasiin.

Around 80 percent of livestock  – the backbone of Somaliland’s economy – have died.

Dirie is unable to move to areas better supplied by aid and with nothing to fall back on, he said that the drought is worse than any he has seen.

“I have lost all of my livestock. I only have a few camels left,” Dirie said, pointing with his walking stick to the remains of one of his camels lying prostrate on the scorched earth. “Before I was able to move with my livestock, but there was nowhere left for them to graze.”

Only five camels are left from a once-generous herd.

When a camel – the most resilient of a pastoralist’s livestock – dies, the fate of its owners take a turn for the worse.

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As Dirie surveys what is left of his community, he shuffles toward his last remaining lifeline: a subterranean well surrounded by a hedge of thorns to ward off animals.

“The water I have left here will last me only two more weeks,” Dirie said, removing a sheet of cloth and branches to reveal his last remaining reserve.

Too weak to move long distances, 70-year-old Dirie cannot make the long journeys that pastoralists rely on to keep themselves and their animals alive – nor can he sell his remaining camels.

Weak camel market

Outside the bustling city of Burao, in the middle of Somaliland, camels litter a marketplace, but far fewer in numbers than normal. Hamoud Ahmed, a livestock trader, estimates that only 20 percent of the market’s normal throng of animals are present.

He watches on while pastoralists, desperate to salvage their livestock, attempt to lift a collapsed camel back onto its feet with planks.

“The camels are not as strong as they used to be,” Ahmed said. “We used to sell them at $950 per camel before the drought. Eight months ago the animal business started to get worse. Now those prices have gone down to $620 today. And this is for a camel in good shape.”

“For this one over there,” Ahmed said, pointing toward an emaciated camel, “it will only sell for $200.”

Pastoralists come to traders like Ahmed to sell their livestock to help keep families alive, as long as the money lasts. But with livestock dying in large numbers, women and children remain vulnerable.

Number of malnourished children increasing

At a Save the Children-run stabilization center in Burao, nurses and doctors rush busily around the clinic, mothers cradle their malnourished children in their arms.

Cases have steadily grown month-on-month. Last month 43 severely malnourished children were admitted into the clinic, up from 32 in January.

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Sahra Haashi diligently watches over her 2-year-old son Mahamed, one of March’s new arrivals. The drought forced Sahra to flee hundreds of kilometres across the Ethiopian border – a three-day journey.

“When our livestock started getting weak, Mahamed caught cholera from the animals by drinking their milk and the same water.”

Young mother Sahra Haashi watches over her son, Mahamed, who is severely malnourished, at a Save the Children clinic in Burao, Somaliland. (Credit: Charlie Ensor)

Among the young mothers at the clinic is, Faadumo Ismaail, a grandmother in her 50s. Her daughter entrusted her to look after an 18-month-old son. After her husband left her for another woman, and the family’s livestock perished, Ismaail’s daughter felt that she was unable to look after her child.

“She left home and we took in Mustafe when he was just 2 months old. She didn’t think she could take care of him because the family doesn’t have enough food and water to feed everyone.”

But the vital lifeline that aid brings to mothers and their children is cut once they leave the clinic.

Elsewhere in Adow Yurura, a town near Burao is supported by cash transfers and water trucking from Save the Children. In recent months around 120 families have moved into the town, displaced by the drought.

Among them is Layla Jamac. Her husband’s livestock has died, save for nearly 10 goats. Unable to find pasture for their remaining animals, the goats are living off borrowed time.

“With the cash transfers we were able to buy pellets in Burao for the goats to feed on. It cost us $14. It will last our remaining goats for just two weeks,” Jamac said, her children sitting proudly on the 20 kilogram bag of fodder.

But with the cash-transfer project ending, Jamac fears that she will be unable to support her family.

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About Author

Charlie Ensor

Charlie Ensor is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist, focusing on refugee rights, development and humanitarian crises in East Africa. His work has also featured on the Guardian and WhyDev; he also writes his own blog on development and aid issues. Charlie tweets @charlieensor, and you can contact him at charlieensor1990@googlemail.com