Impact of Record Floods on Food Insecurity in Somalia

FEWS Special Report 97-8

° Transition to Mitigation and Rehabilitation
° Immediate Impact on Food Security
° Medium-Term Impact on Food Security
° Toward a Rehabilitation Plan

Aerial Flood Survey

Difficulties Faced in Relief Efforts

Markets Disrupted

Impact of Record Floods on Food Insecurity in Somalia

Several weeks of continuous heavy rains in the highlands of eastern Ethiopia and in Somalia have produced the worst flooding in over 30 years in southern Somalia (figure 1). In late October, concentrated rainfall hammered the upper Juba River basin, which includes parts of Ethiopia and Kenya as well as Somalia’s Gedo Region. Rain gauges in the area registered as much as 400 mm in 10 days. This unusually high rainfall has not yet stopped, and because the soil is saturated, additional rainfall adds directly to runoff and flooding.

The Juba River flooded first, in late October. Flooding has now extended to the Shabelle River, which is prone to extensive flooding in its shallow stretches downstream. The two rivers have now merged in Middle and Lower Juba Regions for the first time since 1961.

The effects of flooding have been catastrophic in the river valleys and in area between them -- the Sorghum Belt -- which are the most densely populated and intensively farmed land in Somalia (figure 2). Countless villages are submerged. As of November 26, about 230,000 persons had been forced from their homes and villages and another 1 million had been indirectly affected. An estimated 1,400 persons have died as a result of the flooding, and more than 60,000 ha of farmland is under water. More than 20,000 head of livestock are reported killed. Many plantings have been washed away, and even where plants are still standing, major losses are likely unless the waters recede quickly. Floodwaters have also destroyed about 31,000 MT of grain from the recent gu (main) harvest that was stored in traditional underground granaries, including about 15,000 MT in the Juba Valley.

Transition to Mitigation and Rehabilitation

Flood victims will require time and outside assistance to resume their lives and livelihoods. The Somalia Flood Response Coordination Committee, consisting of donors and NGO’s active in Somalia, has developed a four-phase plan of action: (1) In the immediate term, rescue operations will continue, including delivery by air or water of food and supplies to stranded populations. (2) As airstrips become operational, they will serve as distribution hubs for relief assistance to the displaced and other vulnerable groups. (3) Once conditions allow, the road network will be used for less expensive delivery of bulk food, medical supplies, and other assistance. (4) A long-term rehabilitation effort -- involving investments in infrastructure, agriculture, water, sanitation, and health -- will be necessary to resettle people and help them recover from losses of crops, livestock, and other assets.

Immediate Impact on Food Security

Although the stricken deyr (secondary) crop normally contributes less than 30 percent of Somalia’s annual cereal harvest, the floods will have a significant effect on cereal availability for at least the next few months. Flooding has increased the land area that will be available for recession agriculture once the waters recede, but it is unlikely that increased recessional production will be sufficient to compensate for the recent crop losses. FAO estimates that at least one-half of current deyr crops are severely damaged. If these crops are lost, the cereal harvest in January will be lowered by about 50,000 MT, to 55 percent of the 5-year average. The next harvest, for the gu season, is 8 months away.

Prices of locally produced cereals are rising in the markets where they are available. Prices of imported items have also jumped because new supplies cannot be delivered. Where villages are completely cut off from the outside, food is unavailable at any price. For farming households, the effects of price increases are aggravated by the loss of purchasing power caused by the losses of stored commodities and of crops damaged in the field. Livestock-rearing households have lost animals and the income that they would have earned from the sale of milk near towns and villages. Nearly all households have lost productive assets -- seeds, tools, animals -- or businesses, without which recovery will be extremely difficult.

Aerial Flood Survey

During November, the Food Security Assessment Unit for Somalia, a multidonor project in which FEWS participates, conducted several aerial surveys of the flood-damaged farms in agriculturally significant areas. The unit observed a vast expanse of water -- as wide as 12 km in places -- formed by the merger of the Juba and Shabelle Rivers. The Juba River was barely distinguishable from this large lake. Very few dry spots were visible for tens of kilometers from the river. Some villages were completely submerged, and others could be identified only from distinctive landmarks, such as large mosques or bridges. Concentrations of people and small huts were lined up along the dikes and canal ridges that emerged from the waters. From the air, rainwater flooding in the Sorghum Belt (particularly in the Tieglow District of Bakool Region) appeared to be as widespread and damaging as river flooding in the valleys.

Medium-Term Impact on Food Security

In the medium term, the flooding is likely to have a significant impact on production activities and household food security. In addition to cereal production, the residents of the Juba Valley depend on secondary staples, such as bananas, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and cassava -- crops that can grow year round -- to help bridge the hungry periods between cereal harvests. These crops, which are usually planted in low-lying areas, were largely swept away by the first floods. Bananas and cassava have little resistance to waterlogging and are unlikely to survive. Reintroducing this element of household food production will take some time. It takes 9 months to harvest the first bananas and 12 to 15 months to harvest the first tubers.

Income from cash crops, such as tomatoes and especially mangoes, also makes an important contribution to household food security in the Juba Valley. Mango orchards that line the riverbanks have been flooded, and the prevalence of crocodiles in the water has prevented people from crossing the water and harvesting mangoes from the trees. It is also possible that many mango trees will be lost as a result of the flooding (while mango trees are more resistant to waterlogging than bananas and cassavas, they cannot withstand it indefinitely.

Toward a Rehabilitation Plan

The full extent of the flood damage will not be clear until the floodwaters recede. However, rehabilitation plans must focus immediately on the public health hazards created by the flooding. Wells have been contaminated by overflowing latrines and dead animals. Stagnant water is providing breeding grounds for mosquitoes in an area already prone to malaria, dysentery, cholera, and typhoid outbreaks. Main roads and feeder roads must be rebuilt in order to reconnect markets. Drainage canals must be dug out, dikes must be patched, and other flood barriers must be built in river areas. It will be necessary to replant fruits trees along riverbanks to prevent soil erosion and to restore a significant source of food and income.

The logical mechanism for feeding large numbers of people and achieving public works objectives is a judicious mix of food-for-work projects and free food distribution for those unable to work. Employment-generating public works projects, such as digging of pit latrines and desilting wells, could address some needs. Other income and resource transfers, varying according to the target group, will also be necessary. Many farming households require seeds -- especially maize, sorghum, cowpea, and sesame -- and tools for replanting. Credit schemes may be needed to help replace larger equipment, such as donkey carts and irrigation pumps, and for small-business loans for the self-employed.

While expectations are rising among the flood victims about huge relief efforts, aid agencies are wary of setting up high-profile aid programs that might attract unwelcome attention from clan militias and their leaders. Continued close coordination among donors, agencies, and NGO’s is necessary in order to avoid duplication and to allow for effective supervision and monitoring.

Difficulties Faced in Relief Efforts

Flood victims first require basic shelter from the continuing rains (such as plastic sheeting) and ready-to-eat food (such as high-protein biscuits), because many have lost their kitchen utensils and dry fuelwood is scarce. With heightened vulnerability to upper-respiratory-tract infections, diarrheal diseases, and malaria, victims also require immediate health services.

The principal obstacle to relief response efforts is access. With road and air transport in many places virtually cut off, helicopters and boats are the only viable means of transport. Several donors have provided boats, and four helicopters rented from South Africa, at a cost of $1.7 million each per month, are expected to be available by the last week of November.

Other factors also add to the difficulty of providing assistance. Strong river currents, crocodiles, and snakes present real dangers both to flood victims and to rescuers. The lack of a central government has contributed to continuing civil insecurity and looting, which also hamper relief efforts. Local authorities in flood-affected communities have pledged their cooperation and guaranteed the security of aid workers and supplies, but their control over a hungry and desperate population is tenuous.

Markets Disrupted

Rains and flooding have disrupted market networks, causing food prices to escalate rapidly as supplies dwindle. At the same time, more and more people, having lost their own grain reserves, turn to the market for supplies.

The case of Hagar, a town of about 10,000 persons, located in Lower Juba Region about 60 km away from the river, is a good example. During the first 2 weeks of the floods, retail prices of basic staple foods increased several times (figure 3) before supplies completely ran out. Increased transport costs were an important part of the rise in prices. In the early stages of the flooding, before the roads became impassable, Hagar received trickles of food by donkey cart from Afmadow or Kismayo, which could take as long as several days. Delivery costs were high -- for instance, a 50-kg sack of sorghum cost So. Sh. 220,000 in Hagar on November 13, of which So. Sh. 50,000 was transport cost. As transportation became more difficult, the delivery cost per 50-kg sack from Kismayo reached So. Sh. 200,000 before trade stopped altogether.

Market Prices in Hagar, Lower Juba Region (So. Sh./kg)

Commodity Oct 27 Nov 4 Nov 10 Nov 11 Nov 13

Maize 1,600 1,600 4,000 6,000 6,000

Rice 5,000 5,000 7,500 8,000 8,500

Wheat Flour 3,000 3,000 NA NA 8,000

Sugar 8,000 8,000 10,000 12,000 12,500

Sorghum 1,550 1,550 4,200 8,000 5,000

Figure 3 Source: American Refugee Committee
FEWS, November 1997

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