28 February 2006

Somalia: People, Animals in Fierce Contest for Water in Somalia

Nairobi — Reports of baboons and hyenas attacking communities in drought-stricken Somalia are becoming common. The wild creatures are said to be locked in competition with human beings in search of water as the merciless drought currently affecting the entire Horn of Africa region exhausts both food and water supplies.

In Tayeglow district in Bakol region, southern Somalia, a vicious attack by baboons led to the deaths of several animals and injury to some pastoralists when a war for water broke out.

Ravenous hyenas, capable of breaking a camel's neck with one snap of their strong jaws, often attack in broad daylight. It is a fight for survival as drought takes its toll on communities in various regions, especially in southern and central Somalia.

Desperation is even reported from riverine areas. Lorry drivers and conductors have begun complaining of herds of monkeys positioning themselves at strategic road intersections or on bridges to raid lorries with loads of fruits destined for markets in Mogadishu.

The sight of animals making off with bunches of bananas or 10kg watermelons is common, to the annoyance of horticultural traders whose profits are dwindling due to scarcity of commodities. "The road section between Shalambood and Afgoye towns in Lower Shabelle region, south of Mogadishu, is the worst," complained Ali Hashi Damal, a young conductor.

In rural areas, carcasses of dead animals are a common sight, while villagers complain of putrefying dead animals causing a health hazard to those who still keep some grains for survival.

The scorching sun, a dusty environment and heightened population mobility are already worsening the magnitude of the starvation.

The more physically fit are fleeing famine-hit areas for urban centres, adversely affecting those who remain behind - the sick, the elderly, children and mothers being the prime victims.

Most farmers who rely upon rainwater for farming have suffered badly. Even those engaged in commercial farming around the Juba and Shabelle rivers are not faring any better as water levels dwindle and salinity increases. The end result is a shrinking harvest and when the silos run empty, the villagers eat the seeds they were supposed to keep for the next planting season.

Religious leaders are now urging the people to gather at meeting grounds for special "rain seeking" prayers. Madrassa teachers lead their pupils, with Koranic slates on their heads, across the towns, chanting that the drought that has befallen the community is the outcome of the sins committed by some of its members over many years in the form of killings, rapes, kidnappings and piracy.

Meanwhile, the World Food Programme and Care International are leading a galaxy of organisations helping the victims.

Various good samaritans have also been trying their best to reach the needy. Their efforts are however hampered by internal hostilities between Somalis. Moreover, food supplies arriving at the harbours have to be transported inland by lorries over potholed and badly damaged roads; the vast country does not even have a railway system.

Trucks carrying relief items generally take days, if not weeks, to reach their destinations. The situation is worsened by armed groups along the route who often hold the trucks to ransom.

Until recently, the logistical problems were limited to inland areas, but recently sea pirates around Somalia's waters have begun attacking vessels. They don't care if the ships contain commercial goods or relief items. Once they get hold of the crew, they demand a ransom.

The hijacking of mv Samlow, its crew and the WFP relief staff around the Harardhere area in Somalia was the most dramatic such incident. The attackers refused to listen even to pleas by the Mogadishu-based Supreme Islamic Council, Al-Ulimaa, to let the boat go.

Quite understandably, many shipowners and truck drivers give in to such demands, but any payment received by the armed militia on the ground or the pirates at sea only increases their capacity to inflict more harm as they acquire additional offensive weapons. And the more powerful they grow, the more successful they become at intercepting relief food and other cargo.

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