Water problems in Somalia: a photo-essay

Anna Husarska
9 October 2007

A thirsty child sucks futilely on a dry tap in Somalia's Mudug province


In 2007 the climate has been particularly harsh in Somalia: first, the heavy rains in neighboring Ethiopia caused flooding in central Somalia. But the rainy season itself was a disappointment, and water shortages made it impossible to replenish the reservoirs. Cereal production this year is at 30% of the average for the last decade.

Clashes between Islamist-led insurgents and Ethiopian-backed government forces forced many Somalis to flee their homes. Between February and early October 2007, 12,000 inhabitants of Mogadishu displaced by the violence arrived in the Galkayo area 480 kilometres to the north, putting an extra strain on water supplies.

In a radius of 17 kilometres these taps are the only source of water. Everyday residents and nomads come here with their livestock. They don't expect much - merely to fill the five-litre blue jerry-can, or if they have a larger family, a yellow jerry-can of 10 litres. This is roughly the equivalent of water needed to flush a toilet once or twice in an industrial nation.

This is the above-surface part of a borehole - a shaft 113 metres deep that was drilled by a Somali non-governmental organisation in 2001 and then rehabilitated in 2004 by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Now the water-table is much too low to assure steady supply, so the generator operates only for three minutes per hour - any longer and the pump would burn out.

To drill such a borehole costs some $70,000, so it is important to train a local team to maintain the generator and make all the necessary repairs.

This woman, having shown up at 6am, had not yet filled her blue five-litre jerry-can by midday. The borehole is owned collectively: the eight-member management committee imposes a charge for all water, whether it is used for humans or livestock.

The money pays for petrol to run the generator and the purchase or local fabrication of replacement parts. Now the water-table has dropped, and the output has fallen from 15,000 litres per hour to 400 litres per hour, barely enough for two grown-up camels.

The Mergaga camp for internally-displaced persons (IDPs), a few kilometres north of Galkayo in central Somalia, has several wells, but all of them are dry or almost dry. It takes many drops of the yellow jerry-can to pull up some water. Around 2,000 displaced people (from 400 families) live here, including those who fled recent unrest in Mogadishu and those displaced by conflicts many years ago.

Women walk to the neighbouring village of Bedwayen and wash clothes for local residents in what seems to be the only income-generating occupation, if a dollar for a day's work can be called "income".

Close to Washadda Geleyda, displaced persons camp on the border separating Galkayo north (home to the Darod clan) and Galkayo south (home to the Hawiye clan). A man is filling jerry-cans at a borehole; he will sell the water in Galkayo north at a charge of 10 cents for 20 litres. While the price may seem low, the average per-capita income in Somalia is $130 a year.

Although the administrative border is further south, it is really the clan border that determines most things in this town of 80,000. There are two administrations, two local councils and hardly any movement of population between the two zones.

In Lasanod, Puntland, the most reliable source of water, aside from supply- trucks sent by some international non-governmental organisations is a system of gutters and rain-pipes. Water is so precious that the reservoirs are often carefully locked.

Puntland is a relatively safe part of Somalia occupying roughly a quarter of the northeastern horn of the country. Puntland is to Mogadishu, the capital suffering from unprecedented levels of violence, what Kurdistan is to Baghdad; and while the death-toll in Somali is not comparable to Iraq's, the type of mayhem in the two countries is similar.

A water-pump is the social centre in the neighbourhood. Now word is out that it has been repaired and everyone is coming to fetch water. Because of the complicated maintenance that pumps require, it is sometimes thought preferable to have a simple bucket system that does not break down.

This pump in Lasanod, Puntland, is in fact a sign of a relatively good standard of living. In south-central Somalia, international humanitarian organisations have arranged water-trucking and chlorination, but the roadblocks where rogue elements extort money have seriously hampered humanitarian efforts, as has piracy offshore.

It is ironic that the main challenge for newly-arrived displaced persons is to obtain water, while the only source of income for displaced women is washing clothes and doing the dishes for permanent residents. Here a woman who recently escaped from Mogadishu is using and reusing filthy water; on this day she is unable to afford clean water.

Some displaced persons in her camp are victims of the December 2004 tsunami who lost their fishing boats-and came to towns inland hoping for help. Their villages and communities were almost 5,000 kilometres from the epicentre of the earthquake that caused the tsunami, and yet they were not spared.

The boy from the village of Gal Gorum in northern Somalia is hoping that the hose will contain some water. Mortality statistics for children are a telling indication of a problem: lack of food affects children over 2 years old. Younger ones usually die because of a lack of hygiene and clean water, which is made more dangerous when their breast-feeding mothers are malnourished.

After spending a whole day watching desperate people with empty jerry-cans, exhausted camels and goats trailing behind and children wondering why their cries of thirst are not answered - one cannot take showers in the same way as before. Even if there are no connecting pipelines between one's elegant plumbing amid white tiles and the dry taps in a dusty desert, one cannot help feeling a bit guilty.


Anna Husarska is senior policy adviser at the International Rescue Committee


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