Every year in August, Somaliland hosts the world’s biggest cattle market. Millions of livestock are traded each year.
Livestock remains the mainstay of Somaliland’s economy with approximately 65% of the population depending either directly or indirectly on goats, sheep and camels for their livelihood. Pastoralism is also an important part of our culture. However, this lifestyle and economy is under increased threat thanks to the combined impact of climate change and deforestation.
For the last decade, Somaliland has experienced constant drought. We used to give each drought a name, but nowadays they occur so frequently that there is no longer any point. In 2011, the Horn of Africa experienced its worst drought in 60 years, which caused a severe food shortage. Thanks to Somaliland’s stability, an organized, democratic central government and the assistance of international aid organizations, we were largely able to avoid the crisis that occurred in Somalia.
However, the underlying causes of such droughts have not yet been addressed. The soil is becoming increasingly eroded as trees are chopped for firewood and pastoralists overgraze, moving every few weeks looking for fresh pasture.
When it does rain the water is unable to infiltrate the ground. In many places the ground has become so hard that it can only be dug with a pickaxe. In the summers, when we have a lot of rain, it just runs across the ground along dry river beds and straight to the sea.
If you drive over a bridge in our capital city Hargeisa, after a storm the river will be completely swollen, the surrounding areas at severe risk of flooding. But the very next day the riverbed will be dry.
The drought affects women most of all. It is often the women’s responsibility to look after the goats and the sheep. You see them and the future they are facing, walking and walking, coming from miles away, settling their things for a week or so and then leaving again trying to look for pasture. It didn’t used to be like this.
Crucial to changing these women’s future is just making people aware of these problems, and the repercussion of their actions. Many young people living in rural communities – with little other employment opportunities – cut down trees to sell the charcoal.
But they don’t understand the real value of the tree. This tree is literally supporting our health, our environment, our future. As a government minister, I am constantly trying to make people aware of the importance of our environment.
But we are also focusing on practical projects, regenerating the earth, de-silting water reservoirs, building stone terracing where it is needed and training agro-pastoral farmers in soil and conservation systems. We promote water harvesting through rehabilitating the berkads, traditional underground cisterns, and ballehs, traditional surface dams; harvesting water from roofs and building wells.
With the help of local communities and charities, we have created communal grazing areas, which are closed for part of the year to allow for the land to fully recover. Thousands of animals now come for many months of the year, supporting many hundreds of families.
It is often these very simple and traditional techniques that can have the greatest impact.
However, while Somaliland’s economy continues to grow, the number of jobs has not kept pace with the number of young people finishing school or graduating from our universities.
It is increasingly evident that there is a strong connection between the environment and livelihoods. It is urgent that we find job opportunities for our young rural people to prevent them burning our trees for charcoal, and impacting the entire country’s future.
Somaliland is a stable democracy, an island of peace in a difficult region, but as an unrecognised country, we are unable to access international loans or aid.
We have witnessed a great deal of progress since declaring independence 20 years ago. The foundations are in place to attract foreign investment to promote sustainable employment stimulating Somaliland’s economy and helping tackle poverty and environmental degradation in the region.
Read more blogs on World Water Day.
Shukri Haji Ismail is the Minister of Environment of Somaliland.
Image: Women in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, an autonomous enclave which is unrecognised internationally. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti RSS/AA