“Drought used to come every ten years...Now it’s every two years” – Recurring drought and the future of pastoralist communities in Puntland, Somalia

Thursday 9 May 2019

“Drought used to come every ten years...Now it’s every two years” – Recurring drought and the future of pastoralist communities in Puntland, Somalia

By Laura Jepson-Lay, Deputy Country Director – Program Development & Quality, Save the Children in Somalia

During the six-hour-long drive to Galkayo, a town in southern Puntland State, I gaze out of the car window and it is hard not to be captivated by the expansive and rugged beauty of this land. Strewn with stunted trees and rocky outcrops, at first glance it appears like an inhospitable landscape. But scattered herds of sand-hued camels and small, white goats - the only livestock capable of thriving in this harsh environment – signal that families eke out a fragile existence here. We are all watching the gathering clouds and hoping that they will bring the desperately-needed Gu rains; but they don’t.   

We arrive in Khayrdoon camp - about 60km north of Galkayo town - a cluster of huts, known locally as buul with their patchwork coat of tattered fabrics, surrounded by acacia-thorn fences. This has been home to 350 families, around 2,200 people, since the beginning of 2017. Under the shade of a tree, men, women and children gather and share how they came to be here. “Drought used to come every ten years. Then it became every eight years. Now it’s every two years”, says an elderly man. In the last drought in 2017, he lost all of his livestock.

Around 70 percent of the Somali population are engaged in pastoral, agro-pastoral and subsistence agriculture as a livelihood. Livestock accounts for around 40 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 50 percent of export earnings. But the increasing uncertainty of seasonal and annual rainfall, and rising temperatures due to climate change calls into question the future viability of the traditional pastoralist way of life.

I speak with Istar Khalif (30), a single mother to three children. Inside her small buul, which offers no respite fromthe stifling heat outside, we sit on a mat on the floor, surrounded by her few simple possessions – a mosquito net, a jerry can, a small suitcase. Her seven-year-old son sat close by, weary-eyed  as she tells me that she used to own 40 sheep and goats, and whilst they have experienced droughts before, “it was particularly bad that time [2017]. Not only was there no water, but there was no grass for grazing, and diseases spread quickly among the herds; even the strong animals still died”.

Left with nothing, the families moved to Kharydoon camp –at the outskirts of Galkayo town - in search of assistance, which they receive from the surrounding host community due to the strong Somali clan system and culture of zakah (charity to the poor). But with no source of income or livelihood to support themselves, they are almost entirely reliant on these handouts and loans, and can just about make ends meet. “Sometimes we go several days without any food”, Istar tells me, which is evident from the tell-tale signs of malnutrition among many of the children. They have to walk 1km to reach the nearest water source, and none of the children go to school.

Sadly, the plight of Istar and other families at Kharydoon camp may not get better in the near future.   As I write this, Somalia is facing yet another severe drought. The latest rainfall reports indicate that the Gu (April-June) rainy season started late and has so far been characterized with low amounts of rainfall and poor distribution across the country. This follows a poor 2018 Deyr (October-December) rains, and harsh weather conditions during the dry Jilaal (January-March) season. It is undeniable that this will have a devastating impact on agro-pastoralist and pastoralist communities who have barely recovered from the last drought (2017). Severe water shortages, anticipated widespread crop failure and decline in livestock productivity are rapidly pushing communities in the worst-affected areas into acute food insecurity.

Currently at least 1.7 million people are food insecure across Somalia categorized as Crisis (IPC 3) and Emergency (IPC 4). This number is projected to further increase to 2.2 million between July and September. Children will continue to suffer the most. At least 1.2 million children under the age of five will be acutely malnourished throughout 2019, including 177,000 who are likely to be severely malnourished. There is an urgent need to scale up humanitarian efforts across Somalia and boost in resources are required to avert a major humanitarian crisis. 


As I leave Kharydoon camp, I ask the community about what the future holds for them, many of the men in the group tell me that they want to restock their herds and return to their land. In spite of the increasing frequency and intensity of droughts, the community leader says “it is the only way of life we know; what else can we do?” I sense that the men are longing to become the protectors and providers for their families that they once were. The women, however, feel there is no way to go back to their pastoralist life. “There is nothing for us there”, one woman speaks up from the crowd. “We want to stay here where we can have permanent homes and access services”, in hope that they can create a better future for their children.    

Save the Children Somalia will be supporting the families of Khayrdoon camp in the coming months with food vouchers and water trucking. But these are short-term, life-saving interventions. Like many displaced communities and others affected by recurring droughts in Somalia, longer term recovery support is needed to ultimately help families become resilient and self-reliant - the only way to ensure the next generation can break from the cycle of poverty and reach their full potential.  



Laura, 34, is the Deputy Country Director for the Somalia Country Office. Overseeing the Program Development & Quality (PDQ) Department, she and her team are responsible to ensuring the quality and impact of our programming for the children of Somalia and their families. Laura has worked for the Somalia Country Office for more than four years and has travelled extensively across the country. She recently visited our Area Office in Puntland to better understand the impact of the looming drought in order to advocate for more resources to scale up Save the Children’s humanitarian programming, enabling us to provide essential life-saving services to the most vulnerable families and communities.