Somalia: Displaced people hit hardest by flooding

A boy walks through receding flood waters in Cabuduwaaq, Galgaduud region in central Somalia where at least 2,500 people were affected by flash floods in March 2013. Credit: OCHA/R. Geekie
In central Somalia, flash-flooding has exacerbated the vulnerability of thousands of displaced people, an issue that aid agencies are working to address.

The home made of twigs and branches, cardboard boxes and plastic sheeting did not stand a chance against the heavy rain and winds. When their roof and walls were ripped away, 73-year-old Isack Dahir Hilowle and his eleven family members feared for their lives.

“We huddled together, one on top of the other, to survive,” he recalls, one month after the storm and flash flood forced about 2,500 people living in camps on the outskirts of the central Somali town of Cabudwaaq to flee their homes. Virtually everything the family owned, including food stores, was destroyed, as was the town’s central market that so many people relied on for work.

An estimated 12,000 displaced people live in seven camps near Cabudwaaq. More than two decades of conflict, drought and famine have displaced hundreds of thousands of people across Somalia. Hilowle and his family fled their home in Bakool six years ago when local authorities expelled aid groups that many depended on to supplement their livelihoods.

Health concerns amidst flood waters

The Gu (long) rains fall in Somalia between March and June, bringing relief to the parched southern and central regions. But they can also cause devastation. Torrential downpours like those experienced in Cabudwaaq can trigger floods that ruin crops and kill people and livestock. Stagnant waters then pose major health risks, including increased incidents of cholera, diarrhoea and malaria. Despite these risks, many people prefer to draw water from potentially polluted catchment sites, instead of from bore holes or water kiosks. Aid agencies are helping to educate people to use safe water sources as well as expanding their access to clean water.

At a new catchment site developed by the World Food Programme near the camps north of town, women fill their jerry cans with clean water. Ten metres away, a herder sets out a dish of water for his camels. One animal drinks at a time, while the others stay packed close together.

Humanitarian agencies provide relief

The floods were devastating for many. It took Hilowle’s family two weeks to rebuild their makeshift shelter (known as a buul in Somali) having found higher and safer ground on the other side of the camp. An NGO has provided them with rice, wheat flour and oil.

With the threat of further flooding still present in the weeks that followed, aid workers in Cabudwaaq distributed shelter and food supplies to families that had lost everything.

However for some families the storm had little impact. The reasons for this were varied, but they speak to the importance of helping vulnerable communities become more resilient.

Standing on high ground in one of the camps on the outskirts of Cabudwaaq, Sureer Shire Muhamed explains that the heavy rain caused only the slightest of damage to her buul and had no impact at all on her business. She sells firewood that she collects far from the camp using a cart and donkey. Sureer purchased the animal and cart two years ago, aided by a grant from a livelihood-building programme funded by the OCHA-managed Common Humanitarian Fund.

These types of efforts to help displaced families cope with disasters and develop sustainable livelihoods are central components of the humanitarian community’s three-year strategy for Somalia, which was launched in Mogadishu in December 2012.

Moving away from a cycle of recurring disasters

Hilowle wears a long chain of orange, white and gray-blue stone worry beads around his neck. His eyesight is failing, but his calloused hands show that he still finds work. “I can still collect firewood or dig small ditches,” he says.

It is unlikely that Hilowle will ever go back to planting maize, sorghum and tomatoes in Bakool. Nor is it clear if his children will ever learn to farm. They will need to build new lives, and they will need support to do this without being interrupted by regular disasters.

“Communities in Somalia will continue to be exposed to flooding and drought conditions,” said UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia Philippe Lazzarini. “Our goal is to help people and communities to become better prepared to cope with shocks and then quickly recover from the impact. Building such resilience is at the heart of our strategy to make a difference in people’s lives and move away from the cycle of recurring crises.”