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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Somalia's Water Crisis

Air Date: Week of

Steve talks with William Jobin, a civil engineer and consultant on African water projects, about the role of outside development aid in setting the stage for the current famine in Somalia. Jobin says decades of superpower competition and inappropriate foreign aid have disrupted the precarious ecological balance between humans and the environment in Somalia.


CURWOOD: In California, the water question is mostly economic. But in places like Somalia, its scarcity has become a matter of life or death. We've heard much about the drought that's left millions of Somalis starving, but even in a good year, Somalia gets from only two to 20 inches of rain. So drought is nothing new to the nomadic folk who've roamed the edge of the desert for millennia.

JOBIN: The nomads can follow the rains. And the rains are patchy -- they go all over Africa and traditionally the nomads have always followed the rains to stay alive.

CURWOOD: William Jobin is a civil engineer who has consulted on water projects in Somalia. He says decades of superpower competition and inappropriate foreign aid have disrupted the traditional nomadic Somali society, and its precarious ecological balance between humans and livestock herds on the one hand, and the environment and its natural dry cycles on the other.

JOBIN: Ordinarily, the nomadic peoples have handled this by raising large herds in wet seasons that get them through the dry seasons -- that's their savings account. But during the Cold War, when US and also Soviet aid built up the cities, then the nomadic groups were gradually dwindling and migrating to the cities where the bright lights were. So they didn't have their savings accounts on the hoof and they couldn't survive the typical five to ten year drought which they're in now.

CURWOOD: So are you saying that it's aid from the West and aid from the former Soviet Union that has led to this cycle of drought and famine?

JOBIN: Not exactly. The cycle has always been there, but the aid has magnified the extent of the problem. All sorts of outside support was given to Somalia by the USSR and by the Western powers that helped to raise the Somali population and the livestock population way above the carrying capacity of the land, way above the carrying capacity of the rainfall.

CURWOOD: So, let's say in 1930, what was the population growth of the people and the livestock, and what is it today, or before the present political problems?

JOBIN: I would guess that in 1930 the population was two or three million people, and maybe an equal number of livestock. And now before this current crisis, the population of Somalia was between six and seven million. And I would guess that that's almost double the capacity that a nomadic society could maintain on that amount of rainfall.

CURWOOD: Is this breakdown in Somalia unique to Somalia?

JOBIN: Well, I think it's a pattern that's been going on for the last 20 years. And I've seen similar things in Chad, in Sudan, in Mali. And of course we all know about Ethiopia, the terrible -- it was really anarchy in Ethiopia. That wasn't an organized warfare. I think it's a pattern in the Sahel zone of Africa and it's primarily due to the ecological situation.

CURWOOD: What's the solution to this problem?

JOBIN: I wish I knew. I think -- there are two things that I think should be done. One is that we have to lower the birth rate, and my impression of the intelligent way to do that in Somalia, and probably in other countries in the Sahel, is to educate women. Presently most of those countries have very poor education of any kind, and usually none for women. And secondly, the nomadic culture and nomadic economy has to be rebuilt instead of the urban and sedentary economy.

CURWOOD: That seems almost anathematic, though, to the traditional aid agencies. If you give an aid dollar, you like to see the brick go right there, with the aid dollar. How could these agencies shift their focus to support nomads?

JOBIN: That's a very difficult part of it. The only reason I think it can work in Somalia is because there is no government in Somalia. And we should not try to create a central government in Mogadishu who runs everything. I think we should deal with the clans individually, and that has to on a diplomatic level. I think there are something like 14 clans now, negotiating. If you dealt with them as clans and build up the water holes and the other facilities that they needed, and provided education for the women, and mobile health services, not big hospitals in the city, I think there's a chance. But you're right, it has to reverse all of our previous patterns of giving aid to African countries.

CURWOOD: William Jobin heads Blue Nile Associates, a consulting firm specializing in African water projects.



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