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Somalia: Farmers and pastoralists fleeing drought need both short- and long-term solutions (VOA, BBC, Al-Jazeera, The Guardian)

Kaltun Nur is an elderly Somalian woman. She fled her home in western Somalia to seek help in Mogadishu. Mrs. Nur says, “We endured hunger and we waited for the rains. Our livestock died and we had a farm. We were forced to sell so we can travel to Mogadishu. By that time, we were eating grass.”

Mrs. Nur is not the only one to flee her home. Fardosa Farah says she walked for 25 days to get to the Dadaab refugee camp in neighbouring Kenya. She explains, “This drought wiped out everything we had. If there’s anybody willing to remain there [Somalia], then I think it is just attempted suicide.”

While some walked, others like 56-year-old Hussain Mohamed Ibrahim travelled on an overcrowded truck, along with his two wives and nine children. Mr. Ibrahim lost all 40 of his cows to the drought. He says he had no choice but to leave. He sold his only camel to fund the journey to the Kenyan border.

This is the situation faced by tens of thousands of Somalis who left everything behind to seek help in Mogadishu and in refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. The drought has been described by the United Nations as the worst to strike the Horn of Africa in six decades.

Relief is slowly trickling into a countrya wracked by war and drought. On July 13th, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Children’s Fund confirmed that a shipment including “medicines, nutrition and water-related supplies” was flown into the town of Baidoa. The aid is destined for severely malnourished Somali children, according to the Voice of America news agency.

Earlier this onth, the Islamist group al-Shabab stated that it welcomed the return of humanitarian groups to the areas it controls. In 2009, UNICEF had suspended air deliveries because of threats from the group. The World Food Program also withdrew in 2010, but is looking to return to al-Shabab-controlled southern Somalia.

While immediate relief is very much needed, more will need to be done. Nigel Harris is CEO of the NGO Farm-Africa. He says that short-term emergency relief has to be provided in conjunction with longer-term strategies that enable people to cope with drought and failed harvests.

Changes to weather patterns in recent years mean that farmers in East Africa are increasingly unable to predict when or if the rainy season will begin. Mr. Harris says farmers must be supported to adapt to a rapidly changing environment.

For example, Farm-Africa is currently working with communities in Kenya. They are advising them on which crops to plant, and encouraging farmers to move away from maize. Maize doesn’t grow well with too little or too much water. Instead, they advise farmers to grow millet, sorghum or pigeon peas, which are more resilient in dryer climates.

In Ethiopia, Farm Africa is introducing drip irrigation to avoid wasting water and ensure that water is better directed to the root of the crop.

Political solutions are also needed to improve farmers and pastoralists’ lives. Ongoing fighting has reduced Somalis’ ability to cope with disaster. Paul O’Brien has worked in Somalia for 25 years and is overseas director with Concern Worldwide. He says, “Where there’s conflict, you don’t have stable communities.”

Concern Worldwide transfers cash donations of 50 to 100 US dollars to those in need. According to Mr. O’Brien, it is not an absence of food that causes the problem, but rather lack of access to food. This is often the case during severe food shortages. Many in the arid regions hit by the drought watched their animals die from lack of water. The severe drought meant that pastoralists like Mr. Ibrahim and his family who fled to Kenya were unable to sell their animals when times got tough.

But it’s not just the combination of climate change, consecutive bad harvests, rising food prices and conflict that affects farmers and pastoralists so heavily. Claire Hancock is disaster management project officer for East and Central Africa with the NGO Tearfund. She says that, for real improvement to occur, longer-term issues such as access to markets, soil erosion, and land tenure must be addressed.