Residents walk through flooded waters in the main street of Beletweyne, Somalia. Photo by: AMISOM

NAIROBI — The weather is out of whack in the Horn of Africa. The rains don’t come when they should, and when they do, they pour. Some farming knowledge passed down from generation to generation has become obsolete. Farmers don’t know when to plant because the seasons have shifted. It’s a different climate, and there are new rules.

The ground was parched for more than a year as a drought crippled the region, causing massive human displacement. In 2017, more than 1.3 million people were displaced in the region by weather-related disasters. Then, finally, the rains came. But they were heavy, and with the parched earth unable to absorb the water, turned into floods that broke dams and washed away homes. This month, the biggest storm to hit the region in years, Cyclone Sagar, brought strong winds and torrential rains.

“The problems we have in the Horn of Africa circle around water. Either we have too much of it, or too little of it,” said Davies Okoko, regional emergency response manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council. “We are always playing ball with the two extremes.”

People struggle to recover from one calamity, only to face another. This has left the humanitarian sector scrambling to respond to crisis after crisis, with no end in sight. And this could well be the region’s new normal.

“The frequency and severity of floods, storms, droughts, as a result of climate change are expected to increase over the coming decades,” said Dr. Nathanial Matthews, program director at the Global Resilience Partnership. “It’s also this general shift into uncertainty.”

Crisis after crisis

A dry spell, which started in some areas of the region as early as 2015, left millions vulnerable to severe hunger. The rains, which started in April of this year, were expected to bring some relief, but then they wouldn’t stop. Dams broke in Kenya, riverbanks overflowed in Somalia, and refugee camps were submerged.

“In East Africa right now, we have seen an unprecedented amount of rain,” said Christopher Hoffman, the disaster management director for East Africa for World Vision. He added that the most recent similar weather event was the flooding of 1998.

The floods have stymied farmers’ attempts to grow food, as planting becomes impossible in some areas, or crops have simply washed away. Roads, schools, and clinics have been damaged and homes have collapsed. As the water stagnates, there is growing concern that it could enable diseases such as cholera, malaria, dengue fever, and leptospirosis to flourish. The floods have also prompted a new round of displacement as people seek drier ground, as well as support.

“The numbers of displaced were more than what we were expecting,” said Hoffman. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced across the region.

The Adwal region of Somaliland, on the border with Djibouti, was one of the areas hit by the effects of the cyclone. There are estimates that some of the farmers lost up to 80 percent of their livestock. Even with assistance, it could take several years for these people to rebuild up their livestock through breeding and other efforts, said Lijana Jovceva, head of programme of the World Food Programme Somalia office.

“Through two long years of drought, pastoral communities in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia struggled to keep their livestock alive and feed their families,” said Amjad Abbashar, the head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction Regional Office for Africa. “When the rains finally arrived in April, far from bringing relief, they added more hardship.”

“Going from one season to another and constantly needing to mobilize for humanitarian resources is draining.”

— Lijana Jovceva, head of programme for WFP Somalia office

The humanitarian sector has rushed in to provide food aid, unrestricted cash transfers, health services, clean water, food storage, and has also worked to clear roads and conducted search and rescue, among other efforts. But the burden of responding to crisis after crisis puts a strain on everyone involved.

“Going from one season to another and constantly needing to mobilize for humanitarian resources is draining,” said Jovceva. “It’s draining on resources. Draining on decision-makers. Draining on mobilizers at the local level. Draining on us, because we need to respond and always be on high adrenaline to be able to act fast.”

“This is while we are also convincing the rest of the world that we are not out of the woods and probably won’t be for the next few years, at least,” she added.

There is currently a $1.1 billion funding gap in the humanitarian response plan for Somalia.

The ongoing crises also stand in the way of a transition to resilience programming. In places such as Somalia, the humanitarian sector had been looking for opportunities to pivot from a life-saving approach to resilience programming just a few months ago.

“We were really in a mode of identifying opportunities where we could transition some of the drought-affected populations that we assisted with [into] more recovery type of activities,” said Jovceva. “But somehow, we are always thrown back to square one.”

A changing climate

While droughts are a common occurrence in this region, they are increasing and temperatures across East Africa are rising. Average global temperatures have risen 1 degree Celsius from pre-industrial levels. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture.

“It is almost as if climate change has put the typical lives of people in East Africa in disarray,” said Hoffman. “They are still trying to recover from a disaster that happened the year before. The ability to get that one leg up and reach that level of resilience to address needs is literally impossible. They are always three steps behind.”

It is a region that is particularly vulnerable to climate change, but also unprepared to handle its impacts. Somalia is listed as the second most vulnerable country in the world to climate change, yet the least ready to adapt to its implications, according to the University of Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index.

“Events in the Horn of Africa in recent months illustrate the scale of the challenge for countries which contribute least to greenhouse gas emissions, but yet often bear the brunt of the impact from climate change,” said Abbashar.

“We are looking at a humanitarian landscape where the needs are increasing and the prioritization among donors is decreasing.”

— Davies Okoko, regional emergency response manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council

The region is also vulnerable to the impacts of El Niño and La Niña, which exacerbate extreme weather.

In order to ease the burden on the humanitarian sector, governments and local communities will need to increase their ownership over the response to disasters like these, humanitarian actors say.

“We are looking at a humanitarian landscape where the needs are increasing and the prioritization among donors is decreasing,” said Okoko. “The responsibility will come back to the government and the citizens to finds ways of financing initiatives by themselves.”

There were positive signals that this could be happening during the cyclone response. In Djibouti, the government was quick to mobilize and local communities largely evacuated independently in the lead up to the cyclone, sheltering in community development centers and with relatives, he said. This greatly reduced the potential casualties, as well as the cost of having to move these populations.

The government of Somaliland also worked with Djibouti to use a helicopter to assess damage, said Jovceva.

Beyond lessening the negative impacts that these disasters will have, government and community-level ownership will also make responding to these crises an easier sell.  

“There is a forming sense of ownership. And I think that is significant,” said Jovceva. “That increases, to a certain level, credibility. That way, funders will have a little bit more confidence to provide funding.”

About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is Devex's East Africa Correspondent based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master's degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.