Climate Change and Famine in Somalia
August 09, 2011
By Halae Fuller - The United Nations declared a famine in the Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions of southern Somalia on July 20, thrusting a humanitarian crisis that has been deteriorating for months into the spotlight. There are many causes exacerbating the impact of this famine: endemic poverty, decades of violence, the lack of a viable governance structure, and poor land use practices. While responses should take these elements into account, they must also consider another factor to ensure Somalia's long-term food security: the potential of climate change to exacerbate existing problems and aggravate future crises.
Climate change is notoriously unpredictable, and the extent to which it can be blamed for Somalia's current woes is uncertain. Internal violence has wreaked havoc on the livelihoods of Somalis by making land ownership tenuous, cutting off access to markets, and causing the country's feeble infrastructure to fall into disrepair. An increase in population growth by 3.2 percent each year also has placed additional strain on land, leading to more conflict and environmental degradation in a society heavily dependent on natural resources.
When considered separately these factors are already formidable. Evidence suggests that climate change could compound these existing vulnerabilities, making future crises like the current famine even more severe.
Projections of warming across Africa vary from 0.2°C per decade to more than 0.5°C per decade. In the short term, rainfall is predicted to increase by seven percent across Eastern Africa. The amount of rainfall is less important to farmers than how closely its timing correlates with the planting season and the geographic distribution of the rain, and both are expected to become more irregular with climate change. A study by the Centre for Environmental Economics and Policy in Africa predicts that a 2.5oC warming will reduce the incomes of cattle farmers in Africa by 26 percent. Agricultural production may also be impacted: the United Kingdom's Division for International Development projects that crop yields of rice, maize, and wheat will fall up to 10 percent in Somalia and across the Sahel region by 2030.
Experts agree that Africa is especially vulnerable to climate change due to its dependency on natural resources, poverty, and weak governance structure. Somalia, at the extreme of all of these problems, will have great difficulty adapting to the consequences of climate change when they appear. Even so, implementing micro-level changes in the interactions of Somalis with their environment can stave off some of the most damaging consequences of climate change.
Proposals to increase Somalia's agricultural productivity should consider promoting sturdier, climate-resistant crops, such as millet. Improved irrigation systems can make the most of unpredictable rainfall. According to USAID, livestock can be used somewhat paradoxically to rehabilitate land degraded by overgrazing and drought; "planned" and "bunched" grazing methods can fertilize and stir up the soil to enable plants to take root.
African farmers and herders have adapted to changing environmental conditions with remarkable resilience. But where individual ingenuity fails, Somalia lacks the institutions and government structure needed to protect its population against increased food insecurity. UN agencies such as WFP, UNHCR and FAO have stepped in to fill the vacuum, but their operations have been curtailed by the unwillingness of al-Shabab to allow western agencies into its territory. A shift towards non-western, localized NGOs like Horn Relief or the Pastoral and Environmental Network in the Horn of Africa could provide a more palatable option for extremist groups like al-Shabab. In addition, harnessing the energy and innovation of the private sector (including the flow of remittances that helps to keep Somalia afloat) could allow a self-sustaining food security infrastructure to emerge.
Little research has been done to examine the consequences of climate change for Somalia or how it can adapt to a harsh new environment. Awareness is growing among Somalis themselves about climate change: communities across the country have noticed marked changes in temperature and rainfall, although most attribute it to divine retribution for the failings of humankind. Education and training programs can broaden this awareness and give Somalis the tools to adapt to the consequences of climate change.
In order to ensure Somalia's future food security, a shift must take place to acknowledge the impact that climate change will have on agriculture and livestock. The exact impact that climate change will have is uncertain given the available information. But the fundamental question is not if climate change will impact Somalia, but when. Under these circumstances, the sooner Somalis begin to adapt to an environment altered by climate change the better.
Photo Credit: Cate Turton, Department for International Development, July 2011. Liben, Somalia. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/dfid/5978139242/)