Behind 72-year-old Haha Ahmed Buni, the Gulf of Aden glimmers underneath the soon-setting sun. Despite the seemingly picturesque setting, desperation has begun to settle on the village of Lughaya.
Like many women in the village, she helps care for dozens of children who live there with families in makeshift homes constructed from sticks, branches, old pieces of sheet metal and disregarded cardboard.
It hasn’t rained in months. And though clean drinking water is accessible from a deep well that’s about 10 kilometers away, an eight-year drought in the region has caused almost all of the plants to die. The ones that do grow are invasive, thorny and poisonous if animals eat them.
And with the village historically reliant on income that comes from herding goats and camels—most of those flocks are dead because of the drought—like most families in the Lughaya region, there’s little way for Buni to pay for food for the children she cares for.
Lughaya is a remote village surrounded by open desert on three sides, and the sea on the other. But like many villages in rural Somaliland, it has seen its population swell as people who have been migrating herdsmen for countless generations have been forced to find more permanent places to settle as their herds slowly starve to death and their way of life dies alongside the animals they care for.
Until December of last year, Buni received $85 a month from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), but cuts to foreign assistance ended that desperately needed income for countless Somaliland residents.
Since then, Buni has taken out an informal line of credit from the closest market so she can still feed her children and grandchildren (mostly with canned foods). She says her hope is that the USAID program will be reimplemented so she can pay off her quickly growing debt. But with the Trump administration announcing plans for deeper cuts to international aid (eliminating as much as a third of its budget), that’s looking increasingly unlikely.
Buni, like most people in Somaliland, is Muslim. When asked where she will turn if the USAID money does not return, with her back to the sea, she pauses and looks at the children sitting in the dirt around her feet. She points up, takes a deep breath and says, “Allah.”
A Country Within A Country
Somaliland occupies a unique place in world diplomacy. Though it’s located within the borders of Somalia, the country operates independently, with its own currency, government of elected officials, military and self-declared border. But despite its decades of independence and more than four million residents, Somaliland is not recognized by most the world—including the United States. It also doesn’t have enough representation within the United Nations for its crisis to be recognized.
Even though it is largely free from the terrorism and violence that plagues many parts of Somalia—during the reporting of this story, the radical Islamic group al-Shabab set off car bombs that killed 38 people in the Somali capital of Mogadishu—the international community subjects Somaliland to the same restrictions as its neighbor. And even though Somaliland is relatively stable politically, it is technically one of the seven nations singled out by President Donald Trump for a travel ban, meaning the U.S. won’t accept people from the region. Because it operates within the borders of Somalia, there is an extra layer of diplomatic complexity involved in the drought-starved region receiving international foreign aid.
Even though Somaliland isn’t formally recognized, there is a high degree of pride within its borders. The official travel documents instruct travelers and tourists to refer to it only as Somaliland—never Somalia. The government is actively courting investments from overseas businesses, particularly for the infrastructure within the capital city of Hargeisa.
But despite an underlying spirit of independence within some communities, there is also a feeling of profound dread, as Somaliland sits on the brink of catastrophe. Between 2010 and 2012, more than a quarter of a million people died during a famine that struck Somaliland
and Somalia. Now, experts say the conditions that sparked that disaster— drought, inadequate government resources, a lack of response from the international community—may soon be replicating themselves.
People there know things may soon get very, very bad.
In a village not far from Lughaya, there’s a man who experienced something most people in the community have never heard of happening. He was asleep when a jackal entered his hut and began to savagely attack him. With bandages still covering his face and head, he explains that he was able to fight off the attack, but he’s still shaken by it.
You see, jackals in this part of the world typically don’t do this sort of thing. Usually, they eat things like bugs, berries, small birds, grass and carcasses—they don’t attack full-grown humans. But the drought has killed many of the plants, grass, bugs, berries and small birds, and the carcasses of camels and goats claimed by the drought simply don’t have much meat on them. The jackals are desperate.
For the people in the village, the jackal attack is just one small sign that the worst may still be yet to come, that is, unless somebody does something to help them.
A Changing Climate
When Dr. Chris Funk first began his career, he never intended to study climate change. The official job title he was seeking back then was “Humanitarian Earth Scientist.” Essentially, he wanted to use satellite imagery and climate data to help people across Africa. However, the more he studied, the more he noticed something: The climate was changing rapidly, and the world’s poorest communities were suffering the worst.
In 1997, he became a founding member of the U.S. Geological Survey/UC Santa Barbara climate science team.
His research has focused on the region around Somalia, not only because of the impact climate change is having on the people there, but also, as he explains, because of its unique geographical position in relation to the trade winds—which already keep it much more dry than other areas on the equator. It makes the area a sort of canary in the coal mine for understanding the effects of climate change in other parts of the world down the road.
“They’re just so desperately exposed to these kinds of climate extremes,” he explains.
Now, he’s observing the worst drought the area has seen in 35 years. And the data is becoming even more concerning.
“I don’t see any good reason why it should get better,” Funk says. “And I think it’s quite likely that the frequencies of these droughts could increase.”
However, Funk, whose research with the Climate Hazards Group provides data to the government that’s used to determine which areas are in the greatest need of aid, is still determined to help the vulnerable communities there.
After two decades of studying climate change and sea surface temperature escalations, he and his team are able to more accurately predict when droughts will occur.
“I was doing this same job in 2011 when 258,000 Somalians died,” he says. “This time around, we did a much better job predicting the droughts and getting at least some humanitarian relief.”
His data can also be used to allow governments to proactively help people from suffering economic collapses, like in the cases of communities losing their entire herds. They are actively coming up with creative solutions to help.
“So you’d go in, and say we see trouble coming and are going to give you fair market value for your goats so you can go ahead and take this money and have it in the bank,” he explains. “That would increase, I think, a lot of resilience and those families wouldn’t lose everything.”
Funk isn’t alone in thinking about creative solutions to help the people of Somaliland.
World Vision, an international Christian humanitarian organization, has been working in the region for years. Recently, they shifted their strategy from focusing on disaster relief to long-term development projects.
“Relief focuses on serving those who are most vulnerable in the case of a rapid-onset disaster like a hurricane or a drought, but the goal with development is to help communities become self-sufficient,” Brian Duss, an aid worker with World Vision, explains. “In the case of Somaliland, this includes diversifying their income sources so they can be more resilient in terms of changing weather or even sudden shifts in market forces. Emergency humanitarian response is usually more intense and lasts for a shorter period of time, but with a place like Somaliland, what was thought to be a one-year drought is coming up on eight years.”
Now that it’s becoming ever more apparent to experts that these types of droughts are dramatically increasing in frequency, World Vision is shifting their strategy to helping the people.
“In a country where almost 90 percent of the population are traditional herdsmen, whose flocks have been decimated by years of drought, fishing might be the only means of survival,” Duss explains. “Thankfully Somaliland is on the coast of Africa. The Gulf of Aden’s fishing stocks are both vast and virtually untapped.”
It’s a project the people of Somaliland are desperately in need of. While visiting the village where Haha Ahmed Buni lives, the mayor of the region—who overseas 56 villages in the region—said fishing nets, boats and training for the seaside villages, which are growing in population every month, could provide much-needed relief and income for the people.
“A term for that in the climate world is ‘adaptive capacity,’” Funk explains. “They could do something to adapt, but don’t have the resources to do that.” However, World Vision’s project hopes to the change that.
The Need Is Now
You may not remember it, but back in 2012, a massive drought hit the United States. But, as Funk notes, not only did food prices remain unchanged; “it had no effect on the people in the United States.”
Climate change has a way of targeting the vulnerable. And it has a way of creating a disconnect between the areas that experience it and are not affected by it and the communities that already feel its devastating toll.
“The rate that we’re going, there’s really a good chance we’ll end up with 3-4 degrees of warming, maybe by the middle part, better end of the century,” Funk says. “You kind of get to some point that you just get really, really scary outcomes. For example, we’ve looked at the outcome of really warm temperatures on pregnant women and this is just a very direct thing.” In parts of the developing world, this kind of heat can be ruinous to young children and pregnant women.
And in rural Somaliland, where World Vision has constructed dozens of maternal and prenatal care centers to offer medical services to local communities, this need is becoming a daily reality. The centers—though stocked with basic medicine and run by trained medical experts—are quickly becoming overwhelmed, as more and more people flock to them to receive treatment as conditions around them become more extreme.
“If we wait 50 years and don’t do anything, you’re gonna find billions of people being really hurt,” Funk says.
In places like Somaliland, climate change is already a reality and the stakes couldn’t be higher. But despite knowing the data and understanding what the outcome could be, Funk has taken an interesting posture: hope.
“I think another thing to impress on people though, is all of the opportunities for hope; people are making a difference,” he says.
The average Western person could make a huge difference by tackling the issue on three fronts: understanding the reality of climate change, advocating for greater international aid and donating to NGOs doing work on the front lines.
But it starts with combating misconceptions.
“If you were to ask the average American, they think we spend 20 percent of our national budget on foreign assistance, and it’s actually less than 1 percent,” Funk explains. “We are the richest nation on Earth, and we really don’t do much.”
Even marginal increases to foreign aid—increased by electing officials who will make it a priority—could have life- changing effects on the lives of people like Haha Ahmed Buni.
There’s also combating ignorance about climate change. “When you put carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, you’re going to get global warming,” Funk says. “It just falls out of the basic physics.”
Further understanding of the problem can lead to people making decisions that reduce it, like wasting less and advocating for more environmental policies.
And, finally, supporting organizations like World Vision that are on the ground in the country, can help provide direct assistance to the people who truly need it most.
For the people of Somaliland, this is a crisis that must not be ignored.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.