- As a Cultural Issue & a Source of Conflict

Abdullahi Elmi Mohamed


Water Crisis - A Global Picture

Water is a basic human necessity and a vital natural resource for all aspects of human life and health, environmental survival, economic development, good quality of life, social stability and most importantly in this context cultural preserve and cultural development. Lack of freshwater was identified as being one of the major challenges and problems facing humanity in this new century. 11 000 children die every day because they don't have what we take for granted - water. Globally, 1.4 billion people lack secure access of safe drinking water, causing 7 millions of death yearly. . Fast growing problems of water inevitably lead to disaster. Water is not however a source of life but also a source of conflict among and between different communities in many parts of the world, particularly in dry climate areas.

Somalia - the Case Study Area

Somalia is by means an exception in the above situation. There are substantial challenges in the country including water scarcity. Located in a very advantageous region bordering both the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, Somalia (see Figure 1) geographically lies in the Horn of Africa, adjacent to the Arabian Peninsula. Despite being politically disintegrated, Somalia has ethnically and culturally homogenous society. In 1992, severe consequent droughts combined with bloody civil war resulted the largest UN humanitarian efforts and peacekeeping operations in history.

The paper presents a brief about water in relation to culture and social conflict taking Somalia as a case study. Prior to that, very short overviews of country's water availability and religion are given as a base for further discussion and analysis. The paper may give some very brief understandings about the causes of country's ongoing crisis, particularly the role of water resources in the current civil unrest.

Water Availability in Somalia

In Somalia, water availability is naturally a climatic issue. Being a primary factor in much of Somali life for the large nomadic population, the climate forms the life system in the country. Having extremely low rainfall (250 mm per year on average) and much higher potential evaporation (over 2000 mm per year), the country is characterized as water-scarce. Much of the country has arid or semi-arid climate due to the extremely low and variable rainfall, which is often unreliable. In comparison with the north, the southern part of Somalia between the two rivers, the Juba and Shabelle, is relatively well watered (as shown in Figure 2) and constitutes the richest arable zone in the whole Somali populated areas in the Horn of Africa.

Figure 1. Map of Somalia

Figure 2. Rainfall in Somalia

Drought with scaring effects and major impacts on people's life is another feature of country's physical environment. Severe droughts interrupted by devastating floods occur frequently resulting large size starvation and killing thousands of people and animals. Any sign of drought are received with dread and worry. Praying and sacrificing to Allah (God) for rain is not therefore only common but also religious, and the onset of the rains is often viewed as the single most important event of the year. In Somalia, rain has therefore moral values, making water as precious as gold.

Islam - Country's Religion

Somalia is very rich in terms of cultural values inherited from Islam through forefathers. Islam, country's religion, was probably brought to Somalia by early followers of the Prophet Mohamed. Except some very minor elements, people's culture is largely influenced and dominated by Islam. The basic teaching of Islam is the Holy Quran.

Water in Islam

Being a profound importance in Islam, water is considered a blessing and gift from Allah that gives and sustains life, and more importantly in this context purifies humankind and the Earth. No life on the Earth can exist without water. In the Holy Quran, there are almost 500 verses, out of the 6666, discussing in one way or the other about the water and its role in the present world as well as the hereafter. Among other verses, water reached its highest level of importance when Allah say "We made from water every living things". According to the Holy Quran, water gives life to the Earth after its death, and Paradise is described as gardens beneath which rivers flow.

Water - A Resource with Cultural Value

The role of water in Islamic cultural performance is significant. In Islam, water has a very strong cultural value. Muslims enjoy special importance for use of water in ablution (wudu). To establish a prayer and to purify one's self, one should have to wash his or her body. Ablution needs water, and the benefit of daily prayers has been itself described by Prophet Mohamed (pbuh) as the cleansing action. As cleanness is part of the faith, within Islamic faith one has to use water to purify him or herself from human wastes as well as after having nightmare or sexual intercourse with his or her legitimate partner.

In the rural areas, where people suffer from water scarcity, it sometimes happen that sharing water among community members creates solidarity and unity, keeping in mind that this is what Islamic culture encourage. As limited available amount of water is often used for basic human purposes, water scarcity is a major obstacle to cultural development in many areas of Somalia.

In Somali's traditional culture, water is also used to cure diseases.

Water - A Source of Conflict

Despite of that, water is one of the main traditional sources of social conflict in Somali society because of its scarcity. In general, it has been observed that conflict, poverty, injustice and environmental disaster are four interrelated causes of civil unrest. Natural scarcity of water, regarded as environmental disaster, lead to competition and conflict within the community.

Neither clanism (tribalism) nor hostility within the Somali society is the cause of the current conflict. The major underlying driving force is the human survival and search for life, in other word escape from poverty. Using clanism as tool to achieve its ultimate objectives of getting resources necessary for sustaining life and human security, poverty together with injustice with the society, as a pure result of resource scarcity, is the major cause of the conflict. It is natural that the communities compete or even fight over scarce resources such as water, particularly during the period when the wells and rivers are running dry.

Traditionally, conflicts over water erupt in two different forms in Somalia. (1) When local supplies are diminishing particularly during dry periods of the year or droughts. During this period nomadic societies travel for water and grassland. (2) When new group of consumers comes to settle to a totally new area which is not their own original. In this case, the two communities, the original and the new, with their different perceptions of the life, conflict over the use of the water resources.

Water availability has to do with life and that is why people immigrate from their home origins to distant areas with more water resources. In view of the past and the present, this is evident in southern Somalia, where struggle for land with water resources could be seen as the major underlying driving force behind the current civil war. Because of searching for life rather than previous political hostility within this homogenous society, this struggle seems to lie at the heart of the ongoing crisis. The process of search for better life eventually forms the political ideology. This shows however that water is a political issue, which, like the religion and ideology, has the power to move millions of people from their original homelands. It also has a strong cultural power to mediate conflicting parties in the sense that sharing of scarce resources could lead to unity and more sympathy to each other.


The paper briefly presented water from cultural and conflict perspectives in Somalia. In any society, culture should have to have the ability to resolve existing and potential conflicts that jeopardize the existence and functionality of the society. Some cultures able to sort out social conflicts but not political ones. This is the case of the Horn of African societies.

Considered a blessing and gift from Allah, water has a significant cultural importance and value in Islam, and also plays a central role in Islamic culture. In the Holy Quran, Islam recognized water as the source of all life and a critical resource.

Being a source of life, water is scarce in Somalia and has major impacts on the life of the people as well as on the environment. Water plays a vital role in the existence and the fragile system of life of communities in Somali. Due to resource scarcity and unregulated resource use, communities in Somalia compete and fight over water resources. Water as an indispensable natural resource for nomadic communities in rural areas in Somalia forms not only the life system but also socio-political thinking in the society. For this reason, water has a powerful role in people's life and important position in the socio-economic and political spheres.

However, it is important to use water for making peace instead of being the cause of social conflict, and it can also be proper tool for development the local culture.