In Somalia – No Water No Peace

A NWNL NextGen Blog by Ruby O’Connor, University College Dublin.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts only student essays; sponsors a forum for its student contributors; and invites student proposals to write on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Ruby O’Connor hails from San Francisco, California. Now a student at University College of Dublin in Ireland, she studies Liberal Arts and Sciences. Her academic interests lie in the current state of the environment, history, politics and philosophy. In her personal time, she enjoys traveling, reading, music and art.

INTRO Ruby O’Connor’s first NextGen Blog was on water management during the California Drought. As droughts and floods worsen due to climate change, her second blog below covers water-related conflict in Somalia. Although Somalia is not part of our three NWNL watersheds in Africa, transboundary issues, poor water management and the climate crisis continue to effect African watersheds on a continental scale. This look into Somalia’s rivers and groundwater presents the undeniable connections between water resources, livelihood and political strife.

Map of Somalia, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Due to the climate crisis, Somalia, like many countries whose central governments lack resources to pour into water infrastructure, is suffering dire consequences that include internal migration, starvation and armed conflict. As of January 2020, more than 800,000 people have been displaced to Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia, due to such conflicts, drought and flooding. Here they face poor living conditions in makeshift shelters where access to food and sanitation services is scarce.[mfn]Hujale[/mfn] The threat of famine is not new to Somalia. According to Hakim Abdi of Lund University, since 1991 “there have been at least seven periods of food insecurity that coincided with drought.” [mfn]Abdi[/mfn]

Somalia’s strong central government collapse in 1991 resulted in a complex civil war. Worsening water issues, partially due to weak central government, has greatly contributed to armed conflict in Somalia.[mfn]Abdi[/mfn]  So, where and what are their water resources? Two rivers – the Juba and the Shabelle Rivers – provide Somalia’s agricultural livelihood.[mfn]FAO[/mfn] The other key water resource is groundwater, found in aquifers and supplied by rainwater. [mfn]Michalscheck, Petersen & Gadain, p.1880[/mfn]

There are significant problems with water management in Somalia. Under the pre-1991 Somali government, water legislation regulated water rights by systemizing irrigation and flood management. The Jowhar Off-Stream Storage Reservoir was once a natural depression into which flooding was diverted. During times of drought, that stored water could be re-directed back into the river. The collapse of Somalia’s government also collapsed this sophisticated water system, allowing flooding to become a major problem. In addition, an estimated 90% of the Juba and Shabelle River flow originates in Ethiopian highlands, which poses a trans-boundary issue. Without co-operation between Somalia and Ethiopia, development and management of the river waters is difficult. The UN Food Agriculture Organization suggests that information-sharing would be beneficial in solving this issue.[mfn]FAO[/mfn]

Juba River, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Water quality worsens along the course of the river and is then used for consumption, hygiene, and livestock.[mfn]Michalscheck, Petersen & Gadain, p.1880[/mfn] Over-extraction of aquifers results in its own set of water quality issues.[mfn]Strategic Foresight Report, p.5[/mfn] Overall, poor water management threatens pastoralist and farming communities. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, 60% of Somalia’s population are within pastoralist communities. A pastoralist’s job is to raise and herd livestock.[mfn]Garcia[/mfn] To make money, pastoralists, as well as farmers, depend on rainfall in Somalia’s two rainy seasons: gu from April to June, and deyr from October to November.

Unusually low rainfall and greater drought are now putting pastoralists and farmers at economic risk. In 2016, the harvest fell by 70%, after low gu and deyr rains.[mfn]Abdi[/mfn] The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s ‘Drought Action Plan 2019’ for Somalia has addressed the consequences of drought on pastoralists and farmers. This plan is to increase food access; protect at risk pastoralists and farmers; protect livestock; provide veterinary aid; repair river embankments; and strengthen local preparedness against food-chain threats.[mfn]FAO[/mfn] Drought in Somalia threatens food security, but poses the greatest threat to rural and pastorals livelihoods.

Drought threatens famine in Somalia, courtesy of Creative Commons.

Water resources – or a lack thereof – have played a role in Somalia’s civil war in numerous ways. In Somalia, many parties are involved in the civil war, mainly between the Somali government and al-Shabaab, a large militant organization.[mfn]Strategic Foresight Group[/mfn] Al-Shabaab’s ultimate goal is to overthrow the Somali government and create a state which is governed by the strict interpretation of Shariah Law. Al-Shabaab’s tactics include kidnappings, vandalism, shootings, bombings, and suicide attacks, targeting both civilians and soldiers.[mfn]Stanford University[/mfn]

One study identified economic reasons as the main catalyst for individuals joining al-Shabaab. It’s clear that water resource problems can contribute to al-Shabaab recruitment. “When asked what finally ‘pushed’ them to join al-Shabaab, the majority of interviewees (39%) referred to economic reasons specifically or in combination with other circumstances […].”[mfn]Botha and Abdile, p.14[/mfn] So, economic troubles can encourage people to join militant groups in order to make money.

Additionally, the Al-Shabaab conducts water projects to gain recruits and cooperation.[mfn]Abdi[/mfn] One such project is the building of new canals in Bulo Mareer, which allow local communities to farm in the absence of rain.[mfn]Mohamed[/mfn] Here, successful water management benefits farming communities, prompting their cooperation with the militant groups. Yet, the al-Shabaab’s recruitment campaign is not limited to Somalia. Recruits from Kenya join the organization for similar economic reasons.[mfn]Lowen[/mfn]

Water has been used as a direct weapon of war by al-Shabaab for years. In 2012 and 2017, al-Shabaab reportedly poisoned wells. In 2017, that poisoning resulted in the death of 32 people. The al-Shabaab also destroyed wells in 2013 and 2016. Additionally, in 2014 the militant group restricted access to the Juba River to citizens in government-controlled areas. Such poisoning, destroying and restricting water resources primarily impacted civilians. In a more militant context, al-Shabaab also destroyed levees at this time along the Shabelle River to restrict road access to military forces. In 2019, they seized a waterpoint in Puntland from ISIS.[mfn]Strategic Foresight Group[/mfn]

The Shabelle River, coutesy of Wikipedia.

Water in relationship to livelihood and conflict in Somalia is an extremely complex geopolitical issue. Water resources are under-managed due to Somalia’s political climate and civil war. Somalia faces worsening flooding and droughts, which threatens pastoralists and farmers. Water resources can be used in war and  drive recruitment to militant organizations. However, these water-related conflicts are not limited to Somalia. All over the world, water resources continue to be a critical element of conflict, peace and survival.


Abdi, Hakim. Somalia conflict and famine: the causes are bad governance, not climate change,The Conversation, 2017

Botha, Anneli and Mahdi Abdile. Radicalisation and al-Shabaab recruitment in Somalia, Institute for Security Studies, Paper 266, pp. 1-18, 2014.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The Juba and Shabelle Rivers and their importance to Somalia, 2016.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Somalia: Drought Action Plan 2019 – an urgent call for humanitarian action in rural Somalia, 2019.

Garcia, Tria. 7 things you should know about the crisis in Somalia.’, Norwegian Refugee Council, 2019.

Hujale, Moulid. Mogadishu left reeling as conflict and climate shocks spark rush to capital, The Guardian, 2020.

Lowen, Mark. Kenya Al-Shabaab terror recruits ‘in it for the money’, BBC News Nairobi, 2014.

Mohamed, Hamza. Somali farmers benefit from al-Shabaab reforms, Al Jazeera English, 2014.

Mapping Militant Organizations. “Al Shabaab.” Stanford University. Last modified January 2019.

Michalscheck , Mirja, Georg Petersen & Hussein Gadain. Impacts of rising water demands in the Juba and Shabelle river basins on water availability in south Somalia’, Hydrological Sciences Journal, 61:10, pp. 1877-1889

Strategic Foresight Group. Water and Violence: Somalia, Blue Peace Bulletin vol. 5

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