So many died at once “it was like they were poisoned,” said Rahma Hassan Mahmoud, a herder in Somaliland, of the catastrophe that befell her 300 goats and sheep and 20 camels. After the last camel died, she and her family lived off milk from their neighbors, but with everyone else’s livestock dying, it wasn’t long before there wasn’t enough to go around.
The people of Rahma’s village pooled money to rent a truck. Fifty of them climbed in for an overnight drive to the city of Burao, in central Somaliland. Along the road, they passed clusters of domed huts made from gathered wood, plastic sheets, and draped cloths—makeshift settlements housing people who, like them, had lived off the land but now depend on food distributions from the government and humanitarian aid organizations.
Somaliland is an autonomous region of Somalia in the Horn of Africa that declared independence in 1991 at the start of a civil war that continues today. Many Somalis are seminomadic herders who for as long as anyone can remember have moved with their animals to find the greenest pastures. But with a series of droughts in recent years, those ways are disappearing fast.
Like many Somalis, Rahma doesn’t keep track of her year of birth but counts her age by the annual rains. She was born in the year they call biyobadan, which means “a lot of water,” and estimates that she’s about 36. With her husband and 12 children, she settled in a sprawling camp for displaced people outside Burao, into a life she could neither recognize nor escape.
For Somalis, Rahma said, wealth had always been measured by the size of your herd and how much you have to share. “We didn’t need anybody’s help. We used to help others because we had so much.”
About 30 years ago, the climate in the Horn of Africa began changing, slowly at first, then abruptly. A severe drought hit in 2016. Animals that survived succumbed the following year or in 2018—also drought years. The pastoral economy, Somaliland’s primary industry, shrank by 70 percent. Herders led thirsty animals to rumored waterholes, only to find them dry. The cavernous rib cages of rotting camels were a grim new landscape feature. Crops failed, and diseases such as cholera and acute diarrhea, broke out. Within three years, between half a million and 800,000 people—nearly a quarter of Somaliland’s population—had moved off this barren ground. (Related: Africans who fled to Europe traded one hardship for another.)
Jessica Tierney—a climate expert at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, who has studied ancient marine sediments off the coast of Somalia—found that the region is drying out faster now than at any time during the past 2,000 years.
“If anybody still doubts climate change,” said Sarah Khan, head of the Hargeysa sub-office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), “they just have to come here.”
Only six years ago, Somalia was second to Australia in the export of sheep and was a major source of camels. The vibrant livestock economy supported a connected chain of people: the herders; the truckers who took the camels to market in Hargeysa, Somaliland’s capital, and elsewhere; the young boys who lured the camels out of the trucks, lining them up for sale. It employed municipal workers who collected taxes and stamped the animals, and longshoremen who ushered the camels into the cargo ships at the port of Berbera, bound for markets throughout North Africa and the Middle East.
On any given day, the Hargeysa camel market had hundreds of the animals for sale. But today, the bustle and hubbub are gone—perhaps a dozen camels paw at the ground as idled men sip tea and chat under the broiling morning sun.
Millions on the move
The World Bank estimates that by 2050, 143 million people around the world will be forced to leave their homes to escape the effects of climate change. Some, such as Rahma and her family, will become IDPs, Internally Displaced People, with no clear alternative future. Others will become refugees, crossing an international border in the hope of securing a better life. For hundreds of thousands of Somalis who have fled war, drought, and famine in their country during recent decades, a better life remains elusive: Stranded in neighboring Kenya, in Dadaab—one of the world’s largest refugee camps, with nearly 220,000 people—all they can do is mark time.
International institutions, including NATO, the United States Department of Defense, and the UN describe climate change as a “threat multiplier,” meaning that it doesn’t play out in isolation but instead amplifies existing problems in societies, particularly in dry regions where the margin for human existence is already thin. In Somaliland and Somalia, climate pressures combine with poverty, weak governance, and internal conflict—a mix that weighs heavily on women.
Women make up the majority in the IDP camps in Somalia and Somaliland. Some men stay behind in their villages, others join the fighting in the civil war, so it mostly falls to the women to feed and raise the children. In the camps, women also live with new risks and fears: increased violence, including rape. In Puntland, a region in Somalia east of Somaliland, gatekeepers at improvised displacement camps extort women for sexual favors in exchange for access to food and shelter. Desperation makes the camps recruiting grounds for human traffickers who persuade boys and girls to leave with them for Europe. Many of their young victims die en route.
“All I can think about is that we have nothing,” Rahma said about life in the camp outside Burao. “My children don’t have a future because this place doesn’t have a future.”
What caused this crisis?
Chris Funk, a geographer and climatologist at the University of Santa Barbara, in California, studies rainfall patterns in the Horn of Africa. The waters in the western Pacific off the coast of Indonesia are some of the warmest on the planet, he explained. When conditions are exceptionally warm and stormy, winds blow across the Indian Ocean toward Indonesia, drawing moisture away from East Africa, causing droughts there. Meanwhile, hotter, drier air evaporates more water from the land itself, exacerbating the effects. But when waters in the western Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa are exceptionally warm, that can lead to more intense winds blowing into Somalia. The result: flooding rains. These are the conditions that led to the unprecedented recent swarms of desert locusts in parts of East Africa. (Here's how the swarms are threatening millions with hunger.)
Somalia and Somaliland are “uniquely exposed climatically,” Funk said. Somaliland has no rivers, and people depend on ephemeral ponds that fill and recede with the rains or on boreholes that must be dug deeper and deeper to strike water. Unlike the bordering countries of Kenya and Ethiopia, the region doesn’t have mountainous highlands that stay wet and fertile even as the lowlands dry out. For months, there’s no rain. The plants wither, the ponds shrink to dirt. Sheep are the first to die, then goats, finally camels. Once the camels are gone, the humans have nothing left. They must move.
For Rahma, watching her animals die was to watch the life she knew ending. “We were like a soul living on top of another soul,” she said. “Our hearts were broken.”
Habibo and Nasteha
In 2010, Habibo Dakane Yussuf, who’s about 40 years old, walked from her village in southern Somalia to Dadaab refugee camp, 50 miles east of the Somalia border in Kenya. During her drought-driven, two-week trek, eight men raped her as her toddler son, Musab, wailed at her side. “They were really merciless,” Habibo said. The emotional trauma lingers, and she continues to have pain in her pelvis and chronic incontinence.
According to the International Rescue Committee—an NGO headquartered in New York City that runs a hospital for women in Dadaab—crowded conditions and the fractured society in refugee camps raise the risk of violence against women and girls. In October 2019, three men dragged Habibo’s nine-year-old daughter, Mandeck, from her school and sexually assaulted her, biting her and slicing her with razors. Habibo and her three children seldom leave their hundred-square-yard patch now.
Aid organizations, including the United Nations Children’s Fund, note that child marriages increase after droughts. In the Horn of Africa and most other climate-affected regions, hardship and impoverishment contribute to families’ decisions to sell their young daughters in marriage.
Nasteha Hassan Abdi, perhaps 16 years old, is quiet, with a bright, eager smile. The conflict in southern Somalia left her an orphan, and about four years ago, after the family’s goats died in the drought of 2016, her grandmother sold her to a man in their town. She was 12. Nasteha doesn’t know how old he was but described him as old like a father. “He used to beat me up. He used to sleep with me frequently, which I didn’t like,” she said. When she cried, he told her that he’d paid for her and could do what he wanted.
It was two months before Natesha could escape to Dadaab. When she arrived, she found out she was pregnant.
Halima Hassan Mohamed, a woman of about 50 who had known Nasteha as a child, took her in. “She was terribly young,” Halima said.
Nasteha carries her two-year-old son Musab on her hip and rarely leaves Halima’s side. They sleep in the same room in Halima’s tidy family compound. Halima is teaching Nasteha how to run her business, a tea shop in the camp, and glares at men whose eyes linger on the girl. She bought Nasteha a silver Casio watch, popular with the other teenagers in Dadaab, to ease the sting of peer pressure. Still, Halima worries that Nasteha might never be accepted. Other girls call her a slut for having a baby so young—and without a husband. Sometimes, when Nasteha is left alone for too long, Halima finds her crying.
“A father can die, and you can survive,” Halima said, but Nasteha didn’t have a mother, which is much worse. “Now she’s my child…I protect her the best I can.”
Radical new thinking needed
Climate change is forcing Somali pastoralist culture into an unprecedented transformation that calls for radical thinking and innovation, said Sarah Khan, of the UNHCR. But, she added, “I think our responses are largely reactive. There’s this need to completely think out of the box, and I’m not sure who’s doing it.”
Shukri Ismail, Somaliland’s environment minister, admits that Somalis have degraded their environment by cutting down trees for charcoal, but, she said, the droughts afflicting their region have little to do with them. “The bigger picture is that the international world, the other world, is also destroying what we have… We don't have industry. Industrial countries are taking their share of destroying.”
According to World Bank data, Somalia’s annual carbon emissions amount to 0.00001685 percent of what the world puts out annually.
Somalis derive few benefits from the modern industrial economy. Guude Aadan, for example, who’s about 50, said she’s ridden in a car five times in her life. She’s never flown on an airplane and doesn’t know anyone who has. She’s seen people use cell phones, but she’s never held one herself. She doesn’t own things that have been traded from China, the United States, or Saudi Arabia. “We’re nomads,” she said. “We don’t own anything.”
Countries have to work together to address climate change, Ismail said. “What affects us in here will affect other countries too… If it continues like this, many countries will be lost. Many people will die.”
“It’s extremely frustrating,” Khan said. International aid organizations tend to overlook Somaliland as a distant end of the Earth, and funds funneled into Somalia don’t get allocated to Somaliland. “Part of it is just neglect,” she said. “Part of it is being extremely poor and the sheer scale. How can you cope with over half a million people on the move in about four or five years?”
Somalis in IDP and refugee camps have no way to survive other than to accept government or humanitarian aid, and cities such as Hargeysa, with limited infrastructure and available jobs, can’t absorb tens of thousands of former pastoralists.
“I think it’s possible—it’s not impossible,” Khan said, to help the region’s people adapt to a new reality. Somaliland has a long, unused coastline, and with better management, investment, and training, former pastoralists could turn to fishing. Others could be taught skills to equip them for city life, such as becoming a mechanic or an electrician. Government and aid agencies could direct resources toward rainwater harvesting—reservoirs or cisterns in villages to collect any rain that falls. But these measures would require more funding from international institutions such as the World Bank, Khan said.
Guude’s home village, Topta, in northern Somaliland, was abandoned after the drought in 2016. She now lives a two-hour walk away in Hijiinle, near Lughaya, on the north coast, where she depends on humanitarian aid and the generosity of relatives. She moved there after her herd of 70 goats and sheep died.
Back when it rained reliably in Topta, Guude recalled, the trees grew, and the animals ate. She would wake up in the morning to green fields dotted with wildflowers and frolicking goats. The villagers plucked kulan, a bittersweet fruit, from the trees, and when their camels ate the kulan, their milk became sweeter. Families had milk and butter and enough meat for everyone. No one had to go to other towns begging for food.
They didn’t know it at the time, Guude said, but their life in Topta was happiness defined. “That is what I miss the most,” she said. “Everything.”
Aurora Almendral is a journalist based in Southeast Asia who has covered climate change and migration around the world. Follow her on Twitter @auroraalmendral and visit her website. Nichole Sobecki is a contributing photographer at National Geographic who focuses on humanity’s connection to the natural world. Born in New York, she has lived in Nairobi for the past eight years. Follow her on Instagram and visit her website.
Asma Dhama, Abdullahi Mire and Abdilahi Siciid Yusuf contributed reporting.