'Without water, we die': Historic drought in Somalia leaves millions clinging to life

Nuurto Ali Issaq, a single mother of five, lives in the Ladan site for internally displaced people in the Doolow district in Somalia. The site is home to the newly drought-displaced families from neighboring regions like Bay and Bakool, epicenters of the deteriorating drought situation. (Giles Clarke)
Nuurto Ali Issaq, a single mother of five, lives in the Ladan site for internally displaced people in the Doolow district in Somalia. The site is home to the newly drought-displaced families from neighboring regions like Bay and Bakool, epicenters of the deteriorating drought situation. (Giles Clarke)

DOOLOW, Somalia — Before the start of the worst drought Somalia has experienced in four decades, 30-year-old Nuurto Ali Issaq tended to 40 goats and other livestock as a pastoralist, having just enough resources to make a living and feed herself and her five children. But less than three years later, with the East African country in the midst of its fifth consecutive failed rainy season, all of Issaq’s animals have died due to dehydration, leaving her family in the same predicament as nearly half of the country’s 16 million people — starving, poor and with nowhere to turn.

“When my last goat died a year ago, I lost hope,” Issaq said.

This summer, as violence plagued the region, Issaq traveled by foot more than 200 miles over 10 days with her children in a donkey cart from her rural village to the town of Baidoa and then to the Doolow district, seeking out an urban center in hopes of any kind of relief. Often, she said, she and her children would walk upwards of 12 hours a day without food or water, begging for sustenance in any village they came across.

“This journey to Doolow was our last hope,” she said.

The sprawling Ladan IDP settlement near Doolow in southeastern Somalia. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there were around 16,000 who moved to the area following a 2011 famine. As of October, over 180,000 people were living in displacement sites around Doolow. (Giles Clarke)
The sprawling Ladan IDP settlement near Doolow in southeastern Somalia. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there were around 16,000 who moved to the area following a 2011 famine. As of October, over 180,000 people were living in displacement sites around Doolow. (Giles Clarke)

As harrowing as Issaq’s story is, it has become almost commonplace in all parts of the country, as about 8 million people across Somalia experience high levels of acute food insecurity, which means they are in dire need of food assistance. Four consecutive failed rainy seasons have given way to barren harvests, depleting livestock and such thinning resources across the country that more than 1 million Somalis have been forced to leave their homes in search of safety, food and water.

Across the sub-Saharan region, most people rely on agriculture for survival as fishermen, herders and farmers. Without a harvest, neither people nor animals can survive unless outside assistance is provided. Resource scarcity has only been compounded by the economic impact of COVID-19 and the rising costs due to Russia’s war in Ukraine, a country known as “Europe’s breadbasket,” from which Somalia imports 90% of its wheat. If these conditions remain, 1 out of every 5 children in the country faces death from malnutrition. Experts say the current outlook of future failed rainy seasons is building up to be an unrivaled humanitarian crisis.

Goats in a spiky pen at a rural dwelling outside Doolow. As the two-and-a-half-year drought drags on, when the livestock are so weakened due to less food and water, the herders often keep the animals in these thorny pens to protect them from theft and against roaming hyenas at night. (Giles Clarke)
Goats in a spiky pen at a rural dwelling outside Doolow. As the two-and-a-half-year drought drags on, when the livestock are so weakened due to less food and water, the herders often keep the animals in these thorny pens to protect them from theft and against roaming hyenas at night. (Giles Clarke)

“Right now, it’s the livestock [at risk], and next it’s going to be our children,” Margret Mueller, regional coordinator for East and Central Africa of Oxfam International, a global organization that focuses on the alleviation of poverty, told Yahoo News in October.

Internally displaced persons, or IDPs, within Somalia like Issaq and her family have traveled through dangerous terrain and conflict-ridden communities in hopes of reaching a camp for some sort of refuge. But too often most camps are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Other Somalis have resorted to rationing their own food to feed children and livestock, some going days without anything at all.

Baar Omar, a 42-year-old mother of 10 who lives in a small village 15 miles outside Doolow near Ethiopia, has had her livelihood as a herder ravaged in the last few years. In 2018, Omar had upwards of 250 goats and 20 cows. Today she has just a third of each left.

Baar Omar stands by one of her dead goats on scorched land in a small village 15 miles outside Doolow. (Giles Clarke)
Baar Omar stands by one of her dead goats on scorched land in a small village 15 miles outside Doolow. (Giles Clarke)

“The drought has taken most of our livestock, and the remaining ones are weak and cannot survive,” said Omar, who recently found out that a water truck delivery system her family depended on was ending because of a lack of funding.

“If the water trucking stops, we must go to the Jubba River, which is 13 kilometers [8 miles] away. The donkeys are now too weak to transport water that far, so without the deliveries we are finished,” she said. “All I know is life as a herder, where we look after our livestock to make our living. Without water, we die.”

Displaced women gather around a water distribution area in Doolow. (Giles Clarke)
Displaced women gather around a water distribution area in Doolow. (Giles Clarke)

Tales of despair continue to pile up. A severely malnourished child is admitted to a health facility every minute of every day in Somalia. Babies are so weak that they can no longer cry. Hunger is likely to lead to one death every 36 seconds. One woman was so debilitated from hunger that she could not bury her child.

But a famine has yet to be declared because the Somali government fears a domino effect would further hinder the region, according to a New York Times report.

A famine is a rare and specific declaration made by the United Nations and national governments, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), a tool for improving food security analysis and decision making. The designation is made when at least 20% of households are facing an extreme lack of food, about 30% of children are suffering from acute malnutrition and 2 people out of every 10,000 are dying each day due to outright starvation or the interaction of malnutrition and disease.

A child is measured for malnutrition in the Outpatient Therapeutic Program area of a UNICEF/USAID-supported health facility in Doolow. (Giles Clarke)
A child is measured for malnutrition in the Outpatient Therapeutic Program area of a UNICEF/USAID-supported health facility in Doolow. (Giles Clarke)

Such a declaration, officials worry, would mean that millions would flee affected areas into major cities and towns, only further exacerbating already low resources and possibly leading to a spike in crime. The government also fears that a declaration of famine would potentially deter future investors and instead shift the focus toward aid money instead of funding health care programs and education.

Regardless, humanitarian leaders say history has proved that any declaration will likely be too late. A 2011 famine in Somalia claimed the lives of 260,000 people, more than half of them children under the age of 6. By the time a famine was declared, more than 120,000 people had already died. Many critics fear a repeat a decade later.

At a UNHCR distribution site at an IDP settlement in Doolow, a U.N. aid worker organizes “living kits” of basic hygiene supplies and water containers, which are vital for new arrivals who have often walked for days, having fled severely drought-affected regions. (Giles Clarke)
At a UNHCR distribution site at an IDP settlement in Doolow, a U.N. aid worker organizes “living kits” of basic hygiene supplies and water containers, which are vital for new arrivals who have often walked for days, having fled severely drought-affected regions. (Giles Clarke)

“A famine designation will be too late — people are already dying,” David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement. “During the last famine in Somalia in 2011, half of all deaths occurred before famine was declared. … The international community pledged to ‘never again’ allow famine in Somalia or wait so long to act, but it is repeating the same mistake this year.”

Despite the despair, many people are unaware the crisis even exists. A poll from September of Americans ages 19 to 34 conducted by the IRC and YouGov found that 69% did not know there was a drought in East Africa until they took the survey. Another 57% said politicians are not doing enough to address climate change and related food shortages.

Goat carcasses strewn over the parched scrubland in the Gedo region of Somalia. According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network and other food security organizations monitoring the Horn of Africa region, some 7 million animals have been lost during the recent and unprecedented drought. When the animals die, they are often dragged away from the rest of the herd to distract wandering hyenas, particularly at night, and prevent the spread of disease. (Giles Clarke)
Goat carcasses strewn over the parched scrubland in the Gedo region of Somalia. According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network and other food security organizations monitoring the Horn of Africa region, some 7 million animals have been lost during the recent and unprecedented drought. When the animals die, they are often dragged away from the rest of the herd to distract wandering hyenas, particularly at night, and prevent the spread of disease. (Giles Clarke)

The U.S. has so far donated over $2 billion in critical humanitarian assistance across the Horn of Africa to affected regions, including Somalia, more than the rest of the world combined, according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). But a gap of $1 billion remains, according to the U.N.

And while Somalia is in trouble, the surrounding countries of Djibouti, Eritrea and Ethiopia, which together make up the Horn of Africa, show significant signs that the challenges are only just beginning.

The Somali-Ethiopian border bridge provides 24-hour access between the IDP and refugee settlements in the Doolow region of Somalia and Ethiopia. The bridge crosses the Jubba River, which snakes its way from the highlands of Ethiopia to the Somali coast into the Indian Ocean. (Giles Clarke)
The Somali-Ethiopian border bridge provides 24-hour access between the IDP and refugee settlements in the Doolow region of Somalia and Ethiopia. The bridge crosses the Jubba River, which snakes its way from the highlands of Ethiopia to the Somali coast into the Indian Ocean. (Giles Clarke)

“While there is an appropriately extreme concern for the Bay Region of Somalia, and the focus is on Somalia right now, the scale of need is significant across the Horn of Africa,” Vanessa Roy, deputy chief of party for analysis at the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, told Agrilinks, an online community for food security and agricultural development practitioners. “We don’t want to lose sight of the widespread need across the wider Horn of Africa because there are high levels of acute malnutrition and hunger-related mortality in Ethiopia and Kenya as well, and those needs also warrant a massive scale-up of assistance.”

Abby Maxman, president of Oxfam America, said that “in a world of plenty” it’s unacceptable for people to starve.

“It’s shameful that people are on the brink of famine anywhere,” she said. “It is shameful and unacceptable and preventable.”

New York City-based photojournalist Giles Clarke, who focuses on covering regions of conflict and humanitarian crisis by going places “nobody wants to go to,” spent nearly three weeks in Doolow and Baidoa in central Somalia to document two of the worst-hit drought regions of the country. His trip was made with support from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Here are more stories revealed by his reporting:

“The drought has taken all that we had.”

Khadijo holds out her hand, having just arrived by foot from the badly affected Bay region to a Doolow displacement site some 150 kilometers away. According to the latest International Organization of Migration figures, at least 60 families a day are arriving into the already overflowing displacement settlements. (Giles Clarke)
Khadijo holds out her hand, having just arrived by foot from the badly affected Bay region to a Doolow displacement site some 150 kilometers away. According to the latest International Organization of Migration figures, at least 60 families a day are arriving into the already overflowing displacement settlements. (Giles Clarke)

Khadijo, 85, is partially blind and was recently displaced from the rural areas of Qansahdhere in the Bay region. She arrived in Doolow two weeks ago, having been on the road and in the back of a truck for three days. Khadijo’s husband died a month ago, and shortly afterward, the rest of the family decided to flee. Like the majority of the rural dwellers, they have been rain-fed farmers who rely heavily on the twice-annual rains. After four dry “rainy seasons,” the family had been planning to leave for some time.

Khadijo said the reason they stayed in their area so long was that her husband, who was old and sick, was not allowing them to move. He believed it would rain and that they would then be able to cultivate their farm. However, the rains did not come, and after he died in early October, they immediately arranged the trip to Doolow with her son, two daughters and 10 of her grandchildren.

“The drought has taken all that we had,” Khadijo said, adding that at one point her family had 23 goats and six cows, which all died because of the drought.

“We have never seen a drought like this.”

At the Trocaire/UNICEF-supported malnutrition ward in the Referral Health Center in Doolow, Ambiyo holds her 2-year-old son, Bihar, who is suffering from severe respiratory issues and the debilitating effects of malnutrition. (Giles Clarke)
At the Trocaire/UNICEF-supported malnutrition ward in the Referral Health Center in Doolow, Ambiyo holds her 2-year-old son, Bihar, who is suffering from severe respiratory issues and the debilitating effects of malnutrition. (Giles Clarke)

Ambiyo, 22, and her family arrived in Doolow in June and lost one of her children to starvation within the first week. The family of Ambiyo’s sister, Aden, used to be pastoralists, farming crops and tending some 45 goats. Since the drought, they have lost all their livestock.

“We have never seen a drought like this,” Ambiyo said. “If it continues, many more children will die.”

She said that all the families in her village were displaced and collectively decided to walk to Doolow. About 40 other families walked around 180 miles in 20 days to make the grueling trip. Aden remembers that her children were asking for food and water during the journey, but she and her husband had nothing to give them.

They have now been in Doolow for four months and have yet to receive any food or cash assistance. She indicated that she has difficulties sleeping as her children are crying for food.

“I lost one child to starvation, and another is suffering from malnutrition because of lack of food and proper feeding in the home,” Aden said. She now has four children and says she does not have the food to feed them. Her husband is trying to find casual farm labor, but he is not getting regular work, making it difficult for them to buy food. The family is currently surviving off one meager meal a day.

“I have already lost one child, and I’m scared I will lose the other children,” she said.

“Their future is now better here.”

Zaynab sits on a hospital bed in the Doolow Referral Health Center with her 1-year-old, Omar, who is recovering from severe malnutrition. Zaynab, her husband, Hussein, and their four children were recently displaced from the rural area they roamed as nomadic herders in the Gedo region, about 20 miles outside Doolow. (Giles Clarke)
Zaynab sits on a hospital bed in the Doolow Referral Health Center with her 1-year-old, Omar, who is recovering from severe malnutrition. Zaynab, her husband, Hussein, and their four children were recently displaced from the rural area they roamed as nomadic herders in the Gedo region, about 20 miles outside Doolow. (Giles Clarke)

Zaynab, 25, her husband, Hussein, and their four children were displaced from the rural area they roamed as nomadic herders in the Gedo region about 20 miles outside Doolow. Before this latest drought, they had over 50 goats, but since 2021 almost all their livestock has died from dehydration. In the last few months they decided to seek humanitarian assistance and walked with their donkey and last few goats to Doolow, where they now live in an IDP settlement. They receive support there from nongovernmental organizations as Hussein looks for casual work in the town, though it’s hard to find.Their children receive education and lunch from a makeshift school in the area.

“We lost our livestock and arrived at Doolow with very little, but we are happy that our children are now getting an education,” Zaynab said. “Their future is now better here than our previous lives as nomads.”

The couple's youngest child, Omar, who is 12 months old, was admitted to the Doolow Referral Health Center last month when he contracted acute watery diarrhea after experiencing malnutrition-related symptoms. Following a week of intensive care at the health center’s stabilization ward, he was discharged with his mother a week later and they returned to their new shelter on the outskirts of Doolow.

“We have nowhere else to go.”

Sisters Hawa and Asha, who arrived by walking overland from a drought-stricken area the day before, tie together wooden branches as they build their new shelter at a Doolow IDP settlement. (Giles Clarke)
Sisters Hawa and Asha, who arrived by walking overland from a drought-stricken area the day before, tie together wooden branches as they build their new shelter at a Doolow IDP settlement. (Giles Clarke)

Sisters Hawa and Asha, 50, were displaced from the rural area of Ceel Barde district in the Bakool region as a result of the current drought. They were nomadic goat herders but recently lost the last of their livestock to dehydration, forcing them to leave immediately and seek help. “We had nothing left,” Hawa said.

After arriving at an IDP camp in Doolow last month, they are building a shelter known locally as a buul. Hawa said she collected 10 branches from a bush and bought another 10 from a man who sells the cut branches in the camp market for the U.S. equivalent of $2. It took the two women almost two full days to build the shelter structure before covering it with fabric and old clothes and then overlaying it with a sizable waterproof tarpaulin provided by UNHCR.

“Although it never rains enough here, when it does, for just a few minutes, it makes life very difficult,” Hawa said. “This will be our home now, as we have nowhere else to go.”

More images from the crisis in Somalia

A displaced family in Baidoa. According to the UNHCR, over 450,000 internally displaced Somalis live in and around the once-sleepy rural town. Baidoa also lies in one of the country's most volatile regions, with al-Shabab militants roaming much of the surrounding area outside the town. (Giles Clarke)
A displaced family in Baidoa. According to the UNHCR, over 450,000 internally displaced Somalis live in and around the once-sleepy rural town. Baidoa also lies in one of the country's most volatile regions, with al-Shabab militants roaming much of the surrounding area outside the town. (Giles Clarke)
Despite the constant flow of water, the Jubba River in western Somalia is poorly managed for irrigation and drinking needs. (Giles Clarke)
Despite the constant flow of water, the Jubba River in western Somalia is poorly managed for irrigation and drinking needs. (Giles Clarke)
A group of blind Somalis sit in the shade of one of Baidoa's more cramped displacement sites. With over 450,000 displaced people living in and around Baidoa, the town now has the largest number of people in Somalia who have fled drought-stricken and militant-run areas to find safety. (Giles Clarke)
A group of blind Somalis sit in the shade of one of Baidoa's more cramped displacement sites. With over 450,000 displaced people living in and around Baidoa, the town now has the largest number of people in Somalia who have fled drought-stricken and militant-run areas to find safety. (Giles Clarke)
Jerricans, used for storing water, shortly before being disbursed to displaced families by the nongovernment organization World Vision International. Some 15,000 displaced Somali families live in the Kaxarey settlement, located less than a mile from the Ethiopian border. (Giles Clarke)
Jerricans, used for storing water, shortly before being disbursed to displaced families by the nongovernment organization World Vision International. Some 15,000 displaced Somali families live in the Kaxarey settlement, located less than a mile from the Ethiopian border. (Giles Clarke)
A group of displaced Somali men hold up their verification cards before receiving
A group of displaced Somali men hold up their verification cards before receiving "living kits" from UNHCR at the Kaxarey IDP settlement in Doolow. (Giles Clarke)
A doctor registers patients recently displaced from drought-affected regions at a Trocaire-supported hospital in Doolow. According to World Food Program figures, between August 2022 and July 2023, 1.8 million children face acute malnutrition, including 513,550 facing severe malnutrition. (Giles Clarke)
A doctor registers patients recently displaced from drought-affected regions at a Trocaire-supported hospital in Doolow. According to World Food Program figures, between August 2022 and July 2023, 1.8 million children face acute malnutrition, including 513,550 facing severe malnutrition. (Giles Clarke)
The severe acute malnutrition ward in the Baidoa regional hospital. (Giles Clarke)
The severe acute malnutrition ward in the Baidoa regional hospital. (Giles Clarke)
In the severe acute malnutrition ward of the Baidoa regional hospital, a mother lies with her sick child, who first contracted measles before lapsing into the critical stages of malnutrition. (Giles Clarke)
In the severe acute malnutrition ward of the Baidoa regional hospital, a mother lies with her sick child, who first contracted measles before lapsing into the critical stages of malnutrition. (Giles Clarke)
A mother with her malnourished child at the malnutrition ward of the hospital in Baidoa. The hospital is supported by ICRC and UNICEF, with medical staff working around the clock to save the growing number of children threatened by extreme hunger. (Giles Clarke)
A mother with her malnourished child at the malnutrition ward of the hospital in Baidoa. The hospital is supported by ICRC and UNICEF, with medical staff working around the clock to save the growing number of children threatened by extreme hunger. (Giles Clarke)

The U.S. government has been the primary source of foreign aid, donating some $2 billion toward preventing hunger and funding more durable long-term sustainable development projects. Other nations have cut back some 70% of foreign aid to the region this year, arguably the most critical time in Somalia’s history. With a raging war in Ukraine and the global financial markets spiraling into chaos and unlikely to improve anytime soon, the prospect of another failed rainy season beginning in March 2023 is an almost unbearable thought. For goat herders such as Baar Omar, it will almost certainly be the end of all they have ever known.

If you would like to help, please consider donating to U.N. Crisis Relief.