Tough choices for drought-affected families in rural Somalia

On the outskirts of Beletweyne town in southern Somalia, Maryam Muse Duale breaks up small sticks in her hands, stoking a fire in the dirt to keep her young children warm at night. Maryam has made a flimsy shelter of sticks and cloth; it doesn’t keep the cold night air out. Her children sit on a mat, waiting for food from humanitarian agencies. When it comes, she shares among the children first. Parents eat whatever is left.

Like many other rural Somalis, Maryam is facing a new reality; it is a far cry from her life as an agro-pastoralist just a few months before. The drought in Somalia, which began in late 2020, has only been spreading and deepening.

Not so long ago, Maryam’s family used to raise goats, collect firewood and do some rain-fed farming to support themselves. But after three failed rainy seasons, the land has dried up, her goats are dead, and her family has been left destitute.

“Before the drought, we had a cart and a donkey, and we used to harvest wood. We had no camels, but we did have goats. Now that is all gone,” she said. With no options left, her family made the tough choice to leave their home and head to the town of Beletweyne in search of help.

“We came to the town here in search of life.”

Maryam’s family has also had to separate as a survival mechanism. The women have taken the children to town for help, while the men search for odd jobs and stay in their village to protect what’s left of their belongings. They don’t know when they will be reunited.

In the Internally Displaced People (IDP) camp where Maryam and her children have found temporary shelter, everything must be provided for them – food, water, medicine. Living amongst strangers and away from the protection of their relatives, displaced women and children are also at a higher risk of gender-based violence and physical harm, not to mention disease outbreak. The decision to flee from home comes with a heavy economic and psycho-social toll.

“There is a big difference between our past and our present because in our past, we were living in our homes, and if we needed anything, we had a place to go,” said Maryam.

She is now entirely dependent on the goodwill of others for her survival and that of her family’s.

Like Maryam, over 900 000 people have already been displaced by the drought, and this number is predicted to rise exponentially as of the end of June 2022, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

With other agencies providing support to those in IDP camps, FAO is in the drought affected areas, providing cash transfers, livelihood assets and other support to people in their villages, giving them the option to stay and helping to decrease the massive displacement and pressure on already crowded IDP camps.

With funding from United States Agency for International Development (USAID), FAO’s Cash+ project provides families with emergency cash transfers and livelihood assistance. Seeds, tools and veterinary care for animals help families to continue their work, while emergency cash assistance helps them cover other basic needs such as food, water and medicine, reducing the need to move away for services and support.

Meanwhile, local pastoralist Ali Mohamed Wasuge has decided to stay in his village of Sariirale in central Somalia near the border of Ethiopia, though he says he has never seen the land this dry before. The earth, the trees, the bushes – all different variations of brown.

“The fields are dry and without water everything we planted last season has been wiped out by the drought. Our livestock are starving,” he said.

With nothing to eat, Ali’s weakened animals cannot fight off simple colds and infections and are now dying en-masse. He is watching his livelihood disappear before his eyes.

Despite the challenges, Ali has chosen to stay in his home with his family.

“I have seven children and live here with my wife. I’m a farmer, and I will still work here,” he said.

He knows the risks involved in abandoning their farm and livelihoods, but leaving is something he thinks about every day.

FAO is working to give people options. As of March 2022, Ali’s family, along with 1 874 other families in the district, had received cash transfers and livelihood assistance through FAO’s Cash+ project. Ali has so far received direct cash assistance, as well as seeds and tools for planting before the next rainy season.

While only a small amount, this has enabled Ali to pay off debts and keep his family together, and the seeds will help his family bounce back faster after the drought.

“What we are seeing are rural households facing destitution,” said FAO Representative, Etienne Peterschmitt. “They have exhausted their coping mechanisms and are moving to urban areas in search of assistance. This is what FAO is seeking to prevent,” he said.

FAO’s drought response plan calls for USD 131. 4 million to reach 882 000 people in 55 districts. Cash transfers and livelihood assistance helps protect rural livelihoods and prevent a larger humanitarian crisis.

Investments in livelihoods is much more efficient in the long run. For every USD 1 spent on supporting livelihoods for rural families through FAO’s programmes, USD 10 can be saved in food related assistance for a displaced family in an urban centre. And while it costs USD 40 to buy a new goat, saving a rural family’s goat from drought-related diseases costs as little as forty cents.

While the drought conditions continue to get worse, FAO is working hard to scale up its assistance to rural communities and also help farmers implement practices to be more resilient to droughts, extreme weather and climate change related impacts in the future.

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