Humanitarian Action Report 2007 - Homepage


Liquid gold and a river of tears: the plight of drought-stricken villagers in southern Somalia

Like thousands of others in Somalia, 26-year-old Faduma Adow Bolis is dealing with the latest misfortune to beset her people. The country, challenged by years of CLAN conflict and limited access to basic social services, now faces the worst drought in a decade. At the barrel of an AK-47, everything has a price. In a bone-dry land, water is like liquid gold.

“There is a drought in the area, animals are dying and now we are hungry,” Faduma explains. “The whole situation is difficult; we are hungry; the whole area, the whole country is the same.” Localized conflicts further compound the situation as water catchments areas dried up. “Our biggest priority is water. When someone is bleeding, the first thing you do is stop the bleeding. So if there’s no water, there’s no life,” said Chief Malak Mohammed Mohlem after his village’s watering hole ran dry late last year. Now there are reports of increasing numbers of destitute pastoralists concentrating in towns in southern Somalia, depending on relief assistance. The last to arrive are often the last to get help.

“As soon as resources start dwindling, that’s when the conflict starts – especially when there is very little water and everybody wants to have priority,” says UNICEF Water and Sanitation Officer Abdulkadir Dalib in Wajid, Somalia. “Those who come first are the people from the area. So people who are not from the area or who move into the area are not considered a priority.”

Typical of this situation is the town of Wajid, which saw its population multiply during the first quarter of the year with the arrival of over 12,000 people from outlying areas seeking water and food. As the vulnerable and weak flocked to the town in search of water, it became quickly apparent that Wajid was not the oasis of promise that many had hoped.

Habiba Madker travelled for five days with her three children to reach Wajid. “We had a very difficult journey. We didn’t have proper transport. As we had lost our pack animals I carried the children on my back,” she says. “We didn’t get any support since we arrived; I cannot even go out for firewood as I can’t leave the children behind. The children are sick because they are hungry. I cannot go back to where I came from; there is nothing there.” Under this pressure, both the town’s resources and people’s patience became stretched to the limits of human fortitude. UNICEF and its community partners intervened rapidly by bringing tankers of safe water to support over 36,000 people in the region. Access to safe water was only one of a plethora of urgent needs these people faced, but it was one that meant the difference between life and death.

“UNICEF’s assistance is more than just the provision of water,” says Head of UNICEF Somalia’s Water and Sanitation team Chris Print. “Clean water is a basic human right, but in Somalia it limits the potential for conflict and so contributes to the safety of Habiba and her children. Our goal is not just to alleviate the immediate suffering and the threat of disease. It is to reinforce communities’ primary sense of ownership of water systems damaged by the conflict, and to provide sufficient water for their people and animals. We need to focus on how UNICEF’s support can contribute to ending this cycle of despair that robs people of their livelihoods.”

This rationale can be seen in the help UNICEF provides to communities such as Kulaan Jurrer in Wajid to build water tanks and repair pump systems that serve communities like Habiba’s. To date, over 200,000 people and their livestock in the area have benefited from innovative equipment approaches, including the supply of solar-powered pump sets. These interventions may not have resolved the conflict, but they have prevented the spread of killer diseases and alleviated the immediate suffering.

For Faduma and Habiba life will remain a precarious balance in the coming months. Yet when they return home after the rains come, UNICEF will continue to support them by repairing pumps and wells in their communities, thus breaking the cycle of despair and replacing their river of tears with clean water.

© UNICEF Somalia/2006/Keulen

Women and children in southern Somalia wait at a water point to access water trucked for storage in a UNICEF-donated 5,000-litre water bladder.