Bilcil, July 13, 2022 – “He was killed while looking for firewood,” said Abdi, a resident of the drought-stricken town of Bilcil, Somalia. “People fight for trees.”
The young man from the village of Abdi was a schoolteacher whose livestock died due to the country’s current drought – the most severe in recent history. He is just one of many victims of the fundamentally destabilizing phenomenon of climate change.
Water scarcity, soil erosion and depleted pasture are negatively impacting the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Somalis who, like Abdi, rely heavily on these natural resources to thrive.
“With large parts of Somalia ravaged by deforestation and overgrazing, tensions over water and land are increasing,” said Rikka Tupaz, Community Stabilization Officer at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Somalia. “Deforestation, droughts, floods and other economic shocks have exhausted the coping mechanisms of many agro-pastoral communities.
Massive livestock deaths due to drought have been reported across the country this year. Herds of cattle – often the only source of income and food for many Somali families – have perished and farmers are being forced to turn to illicit practices as an alternative source of livelihood. One of them collects firewood to market in the charcoal trade.
Charcoal has become a vital livelihood opportunity for some Somali populations affected by environmental hardship, displacement and conflict. Charcoal demand remains high in the Gulf States and exports from Somalia continue despite a ban imposed by the government in 2012.
But sourcing firewood for charcoal production can be costly to both communities and the environment. The charcoal industry – largely controlled by violent extremist groups – increases tensions between communities and fuels communal conflict. Those looking for firewood often find themselves in conflict with other locals, and sometimes this can even lead to death.
“This young man was a teacher. He used to pay for his education by selling firewood because his family could not afford to support him,” Abdi said, recounting the murder of a young man from the community. “One Friday morning he went into the bush to collect firewood as he usually did, and then his body was found with an ax over his head.”
According to villagers in Bilcil, deforestation is causing more soil erosion and drought, and some people will go so far as to kill others to preserve their land.
“Deteriorating living conditions forced us to collect firewood from nearby areas and sometimes from Ethiopia,” said Karar, another herder from Bilcil. “They prevent us from cutting down the trees.”
As climate change alters traditional seasonal migration patterns of herders, they develop new herding and agricultural strategies and often cross unchartered territories in search of pasture and water for their livestock, contributing to land disputes .
Intercommunal conflicts in Somalia represent between 35 and 40% of all violence. Most disputes relate to access to land and water for grazing and cultivation.
In a vicious cycle, clan militias and extremist organizations are using the climate crisis to their advantage – mobilizing and recruiting young people for the violent pursuit of land claims. Simultaneously, they are taking advantage of climate pressures to challenge weak government institutions and consolidate their power by imposing taxes on charcoal and other natural resources.
“It is becoming clear that climate change is exacerbating conflict and displacement in Somalia as farmers compete for limited natural resources to survive,” said IOM Somalia Chief of Mission Frantz Celestin. “The short-term consequences are violent clashes, but the long-term prospects are a threat to peace in a country that has already suffered from three decades of protracted conflict.”
Climate change and environmental degradation are also reducing scarce water resources, forcing communities to migrate and compete to control dwindling ecological returns.
According to a climate risk profile by consultancy Weathering Risk, temperatures in Somalia will rise between 1.4 and 1.9°C by 2030 compared to pre-industrial levels. The annual number of very hot days – with a daily maximum temperature above 35°C – is also expected to increase, with central Somalia being the most affected. Additionally, global water availability per capita could halve by 2080, highlighting the acute need for long-term climate and conflict mitigation strategies.
The worsening situation has prompted a €6 million deal between IOM and the European Union that will aim to tackle the effects of climate change on rural communities in Galmudug State – the one of the driest places in Somalia – while settling conflict over scarce resources.
Over a period of 18 months, IOM will support communities to create management tools and mechanisms for resolving conflicts related to a lack of resources to curb the escalation of climate-induced violence. The Organization will also restore or construct water catchment systems in conflict-prone rural areas and, importantly, empower women to lead inter-clan dialogue and natural resource management.
Throughout the project, IOM will also collect data on transhumance movements to map pastoral routes and identify future solutions to natural resource conflicts.
The climate conflict mitigation program is the first of its kind in the Horn of Africa region and its objective is to reduce violence and instability by increasing communities’ access to natural resources. The project will involve the Somali Ministries of Energy and Water, Interior, Women, Environment and Livestock, with the United Nations Environment Program in an advisory role.
It also includes a partnership with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) to conduct research aimed at advancing knowledge and policy on sustainable ecosystems and climate-adaptive behavior.
As recurrent droughts continue to lead to crop failure, food insecurity and loss of livelihoods, record numbers of people continue to be internally displaced within Somalia. There are an estimated 2.9 million internally displaced people (IDPs), which has only increased pressure on urban centres, such as in the capital Mogadishu, where migrants arrive to live in poor conditions and find it difficult to integrate and find a job.
Further displacement to major cities can create tension with host communities who already face limited access to water or health services. In some cases, minor incidents turned into major clan conflicts. In December 2019, a violent clash erupted between two clans over resources in the water-scarce region of Mudug in north-central Somalia. The fighting has killed more than 100 people and left many injured, causing the displacement of hundreds of families.
“The project aims to equip Somali communities with the best tools to mitigate climate shocks,” Tupaz said. “That way it will also have side effects of bringing peace together in an area where communities have historically fought over natural resources.”
If successful, IOM hopes to replicate the model in other parts of Somalia and the world, where vulnerable rural communities face the worst consequences of climate change.
Ministers at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow last year agreed on a $350 million adaptation fund and a $600 million fund for least developed countries to help vulnerable people build their resilience to the worsening effects of climate change. But this funding is not enough compared to the billions needed to close the climate adaptation gap.
“This is why climate change mitigation and adaptive solutions are fundamental. With good planning and strong community support, we hope to see results,” added Célestin.