PUNTLAND, Somalia – “Our world of plenty today faces an unprecedented four famines,” anti-poverty group Oxfam said in late May, as the leaders met for the G7 summit in Sicily, which is once again the gateway for most refugees to Europe.
Along with northeastern Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen, Somalia is faced with a particularly dire situation, which highlights the growing nexus between climate change and displacement.
Somalia has consistently produced one of the largest refugee and internally displaced populations in the world, due to a combination of conflict, environmental degradation, drought and famine.
With over half of the country’s population experiencing food and water shortages, the Somali president declared the ongoing humanitarian crisis a “national disaster” in February.
Displaced by Drought
In April this year, while traveling through the Dangoroyo district in Eastern Puntland, an autonomous region in Somalia, our research team at Samuel Hall met Ahmed*, a pastoralist, though this job description barely applies to him these days.
Having been a herdsman all his life, Ahmed, who knows no other means of making a living, lost 90 percent of his 150 animals as a consequence of the current drought in the Horn of Africa.
“The drought forced me to move from the place where I lived and herded my livestock … just look at the scale of devastation and deprivation,” said Ahmed, who is the head of his household. “We are up against one of the worst situations I have witnessed or even heard of.”
The result of three years of failed rains, the current drought, deemed the worst to hit the region in decades, forcibly displaced Ahmed to a nearby village where he is barely surviving.
The scenes of helplessness among pastoralist families as they watch their sources of sustenance waste away reveal extraordinary suffering. In a country where livestock is the largest contributor of livelihoods that engages at least 65 percent of the population, the perishing of 80 percent of animals in the country has brought devastation.
Some people have lost every single animal, and there are reports of suicide among hopeless herders. The rapidly deteriorating situation is reminiscent of the 2011 drought in Somalia, which resulted in a famine that claimed 260,000 lives.
Like Ahmed, at least 739,000 Somalis displaced by the drought since November 2016 have become quickly destitute, given their subsistence way of life and few opportunities to sustain themselves in their new environments.
Yet they lack sufficient international support and protection, due to a combination of lack of policies that can mitigate the impact of climate change and a dearth of aid assistance, including integration into new communities and support for voluntary returns.
The world’s wealthiest states met for the 43rd G7 Summit against a dramatic backdrop: climate change exacerbating displacement, new waves of drought-induced suffering in the Horn of Africa and more deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean.
While the G7 leaders agreed that migrants and refugees are an issue of critical global importance requiring “coordinated efforts,” security concerns took center stage at the May summit. Meanwhile, the convening leaders could not agree on climate change, with U.S. President Donald Trump seeking a withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.
The leaders’ statements about heeding “the humanitarian needs of refugees” ring hollow without tackling one of the root causes of displacement: climate impact. Amid increasing global displacement levels due to droughts, famines and other natural disasters, “climate refugees” as a group are avoided in international conventions and thereby remain on the fringes of humanitarian support.
The nexus between climate change and displacement has become a political quandary that few members of the G7, or even the G20, due to meet in July, are willing to address.
Such action lies at the intersection of two of our core pillars of research at Samuel Hall – migration and displacement, and resilience. Our research in these areas has proven that it is pivotal to explicitly recognize the environmental drivers of displacement that are creating forced migration within countries and across borders. Such recognition must go hand in hand with long-term humanitarian assistance that fosters communities resilient to future strife.
But the first steps of tackling environmental displacement will require understanding the impact on communities and addressing their specific needs.
Severing Social Fabric
One of the gradual consequences of environmental displacement in and around Somalia has been the unraveling of family and local community structures. Sahara, whom photojournalist Ashley Hamer met in a refugee/IDP camp outside Shaxade village in Somalia, is a stark example of the particular burden that women are shouldering as the primary caretakers of children.
Sahara did not lose all of her family’s livestock, but her family itself has been torn apart by the crisis. Sahara and her three children traveled to an IDP camp earlier this year. But her husband could not join them. He traveled to the coast in the hopes of finding pasture and water for the livestock that remained.
The indefinite wait has meant that Sahara is now the main provider and has to find food and shelter for her three children. Meanwhile there are no protection mechanisms that take into account her specific vulnerability, and even basic supplies are meager. Many families walk hundreds of kilometers to be able to access water for themselves and their cattle.
Sahara’s three children are all severely malnourished. Yet the facilities to treat malnutrition, such as the one at Garowe Hospital in Puntland, are strained, with admissions doubling between January and March of this year. Volunteer nutritionists here explain that those who made it to the centers were the ones who were strong enough. The staff has heard of many who perished along the way.
But Somalia is not the only country facing displacement challenges as a result of severe climatic events. With Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen also hit by drought and conflict, at least 20 million people are living in the worst-affected areas and at risk of mass starvation.
Therefore, it is key that we connect the drivers of displacement across different regions to harness both countries hosting refugees and those losing their economic backbone as people flee to cope with the escalating environmental strain. It is equally important to expand the term “refugee” and to assist those internally displaced before they are forced to flee across borders.
*Names have been changed.
The second part of this commentary will explore the links between the drivers of climate displacement to formulate long-term solutions, rooted in both laws and action.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.