The drought stricken Somali town on the river – where water is the problem and the solution
By Susannah Price, UNICEF Somalia Chief of Communication
Bardheere, Somalia, 28 March 2017 - Before we boarded the hour-long flight from Mogadishu directly west to Bardheere, named for the date palms that used to flourish there, my UNICEF colleague described how, decades ago, the town and the Juba River which it sits on, were the focus of a massive development project.
This could not have been further from the reality of the town which hasn’t seem rain for over a year. We landed in a dustbowl with only a limp red and white windsock suggesting an airstrip. A few tiny wisps of cloud in the endless blue sky mocked any thoughts of rain.
Yet as we drove along the bumpy track towards the town – it became clear from the mass of brightly coloured makeshift shelters that this desolate area was attracting those from the rural areas. We were told there were maybe 3000 families who moved here in the hope of finding assistance.
The families told us they had come 50 or even 100 kilometres – unable to stay put once their animals or crops had died. Hawa Adan, wrapped in a purple tie dye shawl and clutching her water container, gave a strained smile as she told me about her family’s journey from a village to the east.
“Many of us came together from that area – there was nothing there. Some children died on the way, it is the worst drought we have ever seen,” she said as the other women around her listened intently. ”We knew there was a river and water here even if there’s no food.”
The women recounted how they and their husbands were reduced to hunting desperately for any odd jobs in town or even begging in the streets. Their former lives relying on flocks of goats and sheep, or harvests of maize and sorgum seemed far away.
But I found, by a show of hands, that most of them had migrated here during the 2011 famine, staying for months or up to a year before returning to rebuild their lives.
And there were some water supplies. A short drive away we saw a fenced off area with queues of women with jerry cans outside - a UNICEF supported water point with taps run by a local NGO Hirda with funds from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), which provides rapid initial funding for life-saving assistance at the onset of humanitarian crises. The energetic young men from the NGO were responsible for registering 1000 families, giving them water vouchers and filling up the bright yellow jerry cans with water bought by by the truck load from a local distributor and chlorinated.
One old man who said after his 60 goats and 70 cows had died four months ago, he had walked the 90 kilometres with 12 children aged from 3 to 14 and they needed everything including a wheelbarrow to take the jerrycans of water safely back to their shelter.
The potentially deadly effects of drinking contaminated water were all too clear at the local Cholera Treatment Centre – the newly renovated district hospital which has been given over to fighting Acute Watery Diarrhoea and cholera which share the same life threatening symptoms. There have been over 17,000 cases mostly in southern Somalia and the outbreak is spreading fast particularly among vulnerable, malnourished children.
The hospital, which is run by the staff of the UNICEF supported NGO – Human Development Concern – with funding from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) only reopened at the beginning of March and since then they have seen over 400 patients in the basic but clean wards. Mothers sat wearily next to the beds describing how their children began vomiting and suffering from diarrhoea.
“She was running around playing with other children and then she became very sick with vomiting and diarrhoea,” said Ruun Ali mother of four year old Asma who lay listlessly on the bed in a pretty purple dress. “We don’t know what causes it but many people are getting sick.”
UNICEF is providing medical supplies and education on health and hygiene. In this town on Somalia’s second longest river, water is the source of the major challenges – the lack of it driving people from their homes towards the towns and the use of contaminated water spreading life threatening diseases. During the 2011 famine, children weakened by lack of food mainly died from diseases including cholera. UNICEF is already providing 400,000 people with vouchers for a daily water supply and plans to nearly quadruple that number as part of a massive scale up to save lives and make water part of the solution.