for Peace and Prosperity in Somalia

- Constraints and Opportunities
A paper presented at the Somali conference held in University of Lund, Sweden, 20 October 2000.


, a self-destruction war-torn nation in the Horn of Africa, is currently suffering from substantial water scarcity problems. In one hand, the country is located in a dry climate area, where there is a natural water scarcity. On the other hand, during the last decade the country is in an unprecedented situation of civil unrest and political crisis. It also lacks human and financial resources to set up institutions and water
infrastructures that are desperately needed. Moreover, facilities that have previously been set up for water supply and irrigation were totally destroyed during the civil war and no data is available. Demand for water is increasing due to population (est. 9 million) and urban growth and further increase could be expected when the current civil unrest is ended.

In the country, water, despite of considering as a technical issue, has a social, environmental, socio-economical and political values. Water scarcity is also a serious threat to country's development and social stability. It also plays a central role in the performance of the cultural activities and values.

This paper presents and analyses water related issues in Somalia examining limitations to and potentials for future water development. As methodology, literature review and interview with relevant informants were carried out. Before analysing Water Resources Management systems, the paper will give brief description of country's water resources followed by presentation of different water uses with their infrastructure development. The paper will also analyse the salient features of the two international rivers, the Juba and Shabelle, which carry Somalia's most freshwater resources.

Country's Water Resources

Located in an arid and semi-arid climate with an extremely low, variable and often unreliable rainfall, on average, the country receives 250 mm of rainfall per year, while the potential evapotranspiration is above 2000 mm/y. Southern part receives relatively more rains.

Being prone to devastating droughts and destroying floods with severe effects on humans, animals and the environment, any sign of drought are received with dread and worry. Praying and sacrificing to Allah (God) for rain is not therefore only common in the country but also religious, and the onset of the rains is often viewed as the single most important event of the year. In Somali, rain has therefore moral values, making water as precious as gold. As predicted by FAO, Somalia has already joined water scarce countries, passing the point defined by Falkenmark to indicate severe water stress.

The total annual available water resources is estimated to about 10,000 million m3. Significant portion of country's water resources exist in the two international rivers, Juba & Shabelle, in southern part. Originating in the Ethiopian Highlands and draining into the Indian Ocean, the combined area of the river basins is estimated to 805 100 km2, occupying parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. The total mean annual runoff is 6,400 Mm3 for the Juba and 2,384 Mm3 for the Shabelle.

Sectoral Water Developments

Domestic Water Use - A Growing Sector

Water withdrawal for domestic purpose was estimated to only 3% of the total. Before the civil war started in 1991, almost 6 million of the population had no secure access to safe water, while more than 7 million lacked sanitation. Supplied currently from community wells by donkey carts due to lack of infrastructure developments and distribution systems, water supplies for domestic purposes are unreliable in Somalia. Being one of the things which the urban residents value most, urban water supply with centralised distribution system is a future dream.

The most notable urban water project ever implemented was Mogadishu Water Supply scheme during 1980s. Mogadishu, currently suffering from a lack of secure and safe source of water, is located near a reliable aquifer between the city and the Shabelle River. However, water supply services in urban areas including Mogadishu is currently run by unregulated private entities with no common vision and co-ordination. The uncontrolled water distribution in urban areas has benefited its residents in many ways responding to water needs and creating wealth, however, such process has its own dangers. Impacts on the environment is severely ignored and pollution is at its peak, because of no attention has been paid to what happens to water after use. Nowhere in the country sewage is ever collected and treated, and people dispose their human waste in pit latrines, which together with solid waste that is locally dumped or left pollute the groundwater resources that the cities rely.

Agriculture Water Use - A threatened Sector

In Somalia, the cultivable area mainly between the two rivers in the south was estimated to 8 million ha in 1985, 13% of the total area, while 980 000 ha were cultivated by annual crops, but only about 18 000 ha consisted of permanent crops. Main crops are maize, sorghum, sugar cane and rice, while bananas are the principal cash crop, accounting for 40% of export earnings in 1988. In 1985, total water withdrawal was estimated at 870 million m3, 97% of which was drawn to irrigated agriculture. Equivalent to 8% of the country's total annual available water resources, this indicates country's technical water scarcity due to the low level of infrastructure development.

Irrigation Development Projects that have been implemented or planned include:

(1) Juba Sugar Project (JSP), often known as Marerey, near Jilib.
(2) Mugambo Rice Irrigation Project, Jamame, using run-of-the-river via canal.
(3) Fanole Dam Project, multipurpose dam development, located near Jilib.
(4) Arare Banana Irrigation Project, around Jamame.
(5) Bardere Dam Project (BDP), the largest ever planned but unimplemented project.

All these water projects are based on the Juba River. The largest ever-planned water development project in Somalia was Bardere Dam Project (BDP) on the Juba River near the town of Bardere. Regarded as a vital step towards food self-sufficient and received priority in development planning, the BDP is intended to fulfil three functions: flood mitigation; irrigation development and hydropower generation. The BDP was economically and technically motivated but politically failed. Political factors that played important role include (i) domestic political problems, and (ii) opposition from upstream country of Ethiopia urging that the river lacks agreement on its water use and crosses disputed land. These together with lack of funds led therefore to abandon the giant project.

No major dam development was built on the Shabelle River, but those agriculture activities along the river mainly rain-fed are many. Off-stream facility with storage capacity of 200 million m3 was build on the river near Jowhar. Another facility storing 130 - 200 million m3 was proposed upstream of Jowhar. Several agricultural schemes, both irrigated and rain-fed, exist near Mogadishu.

In country's northern regions, where there are no major water development implemented, there are some promising areas for water resources development and desperately need in groundwater development for livestock watering and rural communities supply.

Water Resources Management (WRM)

Before the civil war started in 1991, the main institution in charge of WRM and development in Somalia was the Ministry of Mineral and Water Resources (MMWR), and its National Water Centre. The Water Development Agency, under the MMWR, was responsible for operations exploiting groundwater resources for domestic water supply. In parallel, Ministry of Agriculture was mandated to plan and operate water for agricultural activities in the Shabelle River, while Ministry of National Planning and Juba Valley Development became responsible for development of the Juba River, particularly the Bardere Dam Project (BDP).

The country has never had a water act, and the system was regulated by ad and hoc type of legal framework and centralised system not reflecting or based on an existing policy. Lacking sectoral and coordination, functions of the national and local agencies in water affairs were not separated.

Current Conditions & Future Realities in Somali Water Issues

Water - An Important Factor in Social and Political Crisis

Being a determining factor in the fragile system of life in rural areas and one of the country's main traditional sources of social conflict because of its scarcity, water which was not available or developed to the required extent is one of the major causes contributed to the ongoing civil war. Water should be seen as a social, environmental and economic resource. The importance of drinking water supply in the society, the key role it plays in subsistence farming and livestock raising, and the significance for the different ecosystems are significant. As a result of drier climatic conditions, breakdown in traditional governance mechanism and increasing number of people, conflict over water resources now became a common occurrence in the rural areas. Migration by both people and animals in search of water is a common phenomena in Somalia. In order to address country's unprecedented water crisis, Somali desperately needs to find lasting solutions to the ongoing political conflict.

Constraints in WRM and Future Water Developments

In order to avoid any frustrations in the development and management of water resources and to address the sustainability concept, future WRM requires an integrated approach, not by relying on the one-thing-at-a-time approaches in the past. Technically, it would not be difficult to develop available water resources, but the major obstacles are today political, institutional, financial, social and environmental. These obstacles have already deeply led the country into a major unprecedented water crisis deepening the poverty & enforcing the Somali society to be unstable. Even during the period when these was a central government in Somalia, the WRM systems were very weak and fragmented.

However, current perceptions in Somalia suggest a decentralised system in WRM in order to address the growing challenges locally, but unfortunately this idea faces several constraints. The most notable obstacles are lack of financial and human resources, as the country is lacking not only political stability but also infrastructure facilities and data is not available at any level. These make the decentralisation system for WRM impractical and thus impossible.

Somalis are predominantly pastoral communities relying on wells, this requires development of groundwater resources, which the urban people also rely and this may minimize the risk of local resource conflict. The problem of unpredictability and wide variations in rainfall limits the opportunity for rainfed agriculture and puts the life of dependent population permanently in jeopardy. Thus, the need for irrigation development becomes extremely significant to resolve the frequent food crisis and to increase the required production. This will not be easy under the current conditions. A major factor, among others, is that the most cultivable areas where food and cash crops are to be produced are supplied by the two rivers originating in neighbouring country which contribute most runoff .

Legal Framework & Institutional Arrangements

As the country never had a water act, socially and political acceptable legal-based mechanism reflecting climatic conditions and cultural values of the people, is needed and should be developed in consultation with local communities. In an attempt of making the WRM system more effective, separation of functions of the national and local institutions in water business is absolutely necessary, while encouraging private-public partnership. At the time of peace, water institutions with centralised and decentralised elements will be necessary. Future development of the two rivers, which supply the most fertile regions and the rice bowl of the country, requires a national authority with an autonomous structure.

Constraints, Conflict and Cooperation in the Juba and Shabelle Rivers

Being international water-scarce river basins largely contributed by Ethiopia, the two rivers provide the largest water sources for downstream Somalia whose current and historical relations with Ethiopia were complicated in view of their long hostility, political conflict and border dispute. These tense relations resulted two military wars in 1964 and 1977. Even after the overthrow of the two countries' dictators in 1991, their relations have increasingly been deteriorating. These unfavourable political relations will definitely adversely affect required cooperation over these rivers. The two countries, who never discussed cooperation, face challenges in the utilisation of the shared waters. Unilateral dam developments, which Ethiopia carries out, will severely significantly impact on Somalia as it is located in downstream, the least favourable position in hydropolitical terms.


The paper gives a brief overview to Somali water affairs. As a result of the State collapse, Somalia has been outside of international debates and meetings on water issues in the world. Water scarcity now threatening the country is an alarming issue, severely impacting on its social, economic, political and environmental well-beings. As the traditional socio-economic activities that are based on livestock raisings and subsidence farming show, water plays a major role in the lives of the Somali people. It is thus contradictory that the country is naturally water scarce with low level of technical development and socio-economically water dependent. The two rivers, Somalia's source of water and perhaps its future source of conflict with Ethiopia, requires cooperation between basin countries.

























Abdullahi Elmi Mohamed