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In search of water

Addressing drought and preventing famine in Somalia

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Mohamed Ismail Yasin, originally from Mayle village in northeast Somalia, fled the region’s prolonged and severe drought with his six-member family and most of his livestock.

They had to travel 600 km to the nearest dependable water source: a sand dam near Bandarbeyla in neighbouring Bari region.

Like Mohamed, 615,000 people are currently displaced by the drought in Somalia.

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Mohamed Ismail Yasin at the Biyo-Gadud sand dam
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Somalia is one of four countries facing the threat of famine, and the situation in is rapidly deteriorating. Parts of the country have not received any rain for three consecutive years. In some areas, crops have been completely wiped out and livestock has died; communities have been forced to sell assets and to borrow food and money to survive.

Half of the population – 6.2 million people out of the country’s 12.3 million - do not have access to nutritious food. Of these, nearly 3 million are in need of urgent life-saving assistance.

People fear a repeat of the 2011 famine that killed nearly 260,000 people, half of them children. The current situation could potentially end in a worse outcome - already more than five times as many people have been forced to leave their homes because of this year’s drought, compared to the peak of the 2011 famine.



To make matters worse, the price of water has risen dramatically. A family with an average-sized livestock herd now has to pay anywhere from US$200 to $400 per month for water. These costs can be catastrophic for farmers trying to earn a living..

A newly-built water dam may just deliver the badly-needed relief. For Mohamed and his family, it has been a life – and money – saver.

"Ever since we found out about the dam, we’re saving around $400 a month, which I can now put towards the basic needs of my family," he says.

The sand dam is one of the water harvesting structures built by UNDP in partnership with the Global Environment Facility. It aims to reduce the impacts of climate change-induced disasters like droughts and floods.

A sand dam is a reinforced rubble cement wall built across a seasonal sandy river.

Before the construction of the dam, people from the Dhudo community had no other option but to buy water from the berkades (traditional cemented water catchments). The placement of the berkades – far from villages – adds an additional challenge to an already costly solution.

The new dam has been strategically placed so that nomadic communities in the region can easily access it. In December 2016, the dam was able to conserve 95,000 m3 of surface water from short spells of rain, which provided enough water for eight months.

The current rainfall, especially when water is managed well, will allow farmers to plant crops and care for their livestock.

A bountiful harvest of tomatoes is the product of new adaptation technology introduced in the Qoyta village.
Creation of furrows in the plantations helps to maximize the irrigation of the village fields.


Deqa Ahmed Jama, a mother of seven and the sole breadwinner for her family, hails from Qoyta village in the Burao District. Qoyta Village has an estimated 1,500 households, and round 500 of these households are female-headed. For Deqa, dramatic changes in climate make it hard to get ahead and thrive.

“For a long time I used to farm crops like sorghum, tomatoes and watermelon. But the yield was minimal due to lack of reliable rainfall,” she reflects.

For small-scale farmers like Deqa, repeated and cyclical droughts erode the stability of households and families. 70 percent of Somalis depend almost exclusively on rain-fed agriculture and are worst affected by climate change.

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Women attend a training in Qoyta village.
Farmer Deqa Ahmed Jama with a relative


Deqa’s story started to change when she attended a training on integrative farming techniques organized by the Government of Somaliland in partnership with UNDP.

“The information I learned there changed my life,” she says. “They trained us on crop rotation, fodder production and small-scale business management. I abandoned growing tomatoes and sorghum, but now I plant high-yield fodder grass, which is in high demand. My income has tripled.”

The training that Deqa attended brought together the entire Qoyta community and united the three separately established cooperatives (Danwadaag, Nasiiye and Barwaaqo) under one umbrella: the Qoyta Women’s Cooperative. The cooperative is made up of 100 women, who work together on rearing livestock, producing fodder, and growing cereals, vegetables and fruits.

Training sessions are only the beginning. Other meaningful interventions in the region have included water harvesting schemes in the form of berkeds (sub-surface water tanks), distribution of solar lanterns to communities, and the creation of shallow wells and community water-storage ponds, which can be used for basic human and livestock needs.

Sand dams are the most cost-effective method of water conservation in dryland environments.
Sand dams are a simple, low cost, low maintenance technology that retains rainwater and recharges groundwater.


Although enhancing climate-resilient farming cannot by itself stop droughts, it can help prevent them from turning into famines. An intervention as simple as a dam can contribute to the country's stabilization after decades of conflict, paving the way for long-term development for its people.

Building systems that can withstand a changing climate helps move beyond short-term relief: it provides people with long-term access to nutritious food, restores their income, and promises communities a better quality of life.

Goat and camel raising form the basis of the economy in Somalia.

For more information on the project, please visit: Enhancing Climate Resilience of the Vulnerable Communities and Ecosystems in Somalia.

Footnote: Story by Awil Abdinor, Hassan Abdirizak Ahmed, Salah Dahir, Andrea Egan, Keelin Fitzgerald, Said Isse and UNDP Somalia; photos by Said Isse and UNDP Somalia